AOL Looks to Help Control Instant Messaging in the Enterprise

Gateway offering lets companies keep an eye on AIM activity on their network

Targeting the enterprise, America Online introduced several new services around its popular AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) which give administrators the ability to monitor, control and authenticate messages to and from corporate networks. The move, industry experts believe, puts AOL in a good position to become a leading provider of business-class instant messaging technology.

The most significant element of the services AOL announced last week is the AIM Enterprise Gateway. Deployed onsite behind a company’s firewall, the gateway serves as a buffer for all messages going to and from AIM users within an organization. Network administrators can monitor and block AIM transactions that contain inappropriate material or pose security threats.

As an add-on to the Gateway, AOL is also offering a tool for managing private domains. Called Private Domain Service with Federated Authentication, the solution gives companies the option to employ common user identities for all communication applications and provides features for managing those identities from a corporate directory.

In an effort to spur vendor interest for AIM, AOL has launched developer and certification programs designed to encourage third-party providers to build applications that support the instant messaging technology.

Encryption, AOL says, will be added to future releases of both the AIM gateway and client. On the client side, the encryption features will enable “AIM-to-AIM” messages to be exchanged in coded format. On the gateway side, AIM will be able to decode and encode incoming and outgoing messages. The encryption-ready releases of the AIM gateway and client are slated for March of next year.

Widespread Use in Enterprises

According to James Kobielus, a senior analyst with Burton Group, AOL will have no problem establishing itself as a key player in the enterprise IM space. He says that although AOL is perceived to be a consumer-oriented organization, AIM has a presence in most enterprises.

A recent survey by Osterman Research found AIM is used by at least one person in nearly 60 percent of companies. (To see highlights of this survey, visit http://www.ostermanresearch.com/results/surveyresults_im0902.htm.)

So, Kobielus says, AIM is already getting play in corporate environments on a widespread scale, adding, “Now [with the release of the AIM gateway] enterprises can use it in a way that can be monitored and controlled for the desktop.” The gateway does not, however, provide control over remote users of AIM who exchange messages outside the network.

Nevertheless, Kobielus says more control, even if it is just over network-attached users of IM devices, is something enterprises will likely be willing to pay for. “Most enterprises are saying, ‘Yeah we like the stuff AIM allows you to do for free, but AOL manages all that—we want to manage it.’”

Counse Broders, an analyst with Current Analysis, also believes the gateway has appeal for the enterprise. “The key benefit here will be corporate control,” he says. “AOL's service offers the ability to log, track, and limit IM capabilities. Given the increase in litigation issues today, companies are looking to control corporate communications better.”

The Competition

From a competitive perspective, both Broders and Kobielus believe AOL’s new services for the enterprise make AIM a very attractive solution for corporate environments.

“AOL, because of its brand recognition, will be able to get a good foot in the door to present itself to clients,” says Broders. “Further, with its large user base, it can pitch that enterprises are more likely to have business partners accessible via the service.”

According to Broders, Yahoo, which recently launched its own enterprise-class messaging service (for more, visit http://enterprise.yahoo.com/messenger/), and Microsoft will be AOL’s primary competition in the enterprise IM space.

Broders says AOL could have difficulty establishing itself against its competitors if they’re able to portray AIM as a consumer-class offering.

In Yahoo’s case, this is unlikely, as it, too, lacks an existing reputation in the enterprise. Microsoft, on the other hand, does not.

In regard to IM gateway technology, Kobielus feels AIM will face stiff competition from FaceTime Communications—a company that helped AOL build its gateway technology for AIM—as well as Akonix Systems and IMlogic. He cites AOL’s reluctance to commit to SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions)—an emerging standard for exchanging messages between disparate IM clients—as the biggest obstacle facing the company in its effort sell into the enterprise. AOL has, in the past, expressed some concern about the security ramifications of integrating AIM with other IM clients.

“If I was an enterprise implementing a SIMPLE instant messaging infrastructure, I would want to know that my IM vendor was definitely going to support the standard,” says Kobielus.

About the Author

Matt Migliore is regular contributor to ENTmag.com. He focuses particularly on Microsoft .NET and other Web services technologies. Matt was the editor of several technology-related Web publications and electronic newsletters, including Web Services Report, ASP insights and MIDRANGE Systems.