Q&A: Making the Case for Enterprise IM
A conversation with Lotus Sametime's manager, and the importance of enterprise IM
Knowledge workers have been using public instant messaging clients—such as AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, and Yahoo Messenger, along with good old IRC—to communicate for years. Recently, major vendors, including IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp., have led the charge in support of so-called “enterprise” IM, touting the enhanced security, manageability, and configurability of their solutions.
We spoke with Jeremy Dies, worldwide brand manager for Sametime, the IM platform developed and marketed by Big Blue’s Lotus software group.
Q. Let’s open by talking about IBM’s background in instant messaging (IM). Big Blue isn’t necessarily a newcomer to IM, is it?
A. That’s right. In the mid-90’s, we at IBM saw people using IM mostly for consumer purposes, and we thought that it would be really interesting to have a business tool. We were the first product on the market focused on business messaging, and to date, our product has been adopted by over two-thirds of the global fortune 500. In companies that have standardized IM solutions, they standardize on Sametime over 70 percent of the time.
Q. You’re drawing a distinction between consumer IM and business messaging. What do you think are some of the most salient differences?
A. The biggest issue is the fact that IM is a strategic communications tool, just like e-mail, just like telephony, and it needs to follow the same rules. Things that seem trivial on a public network, like going in and registering whatever name you want, can’t happen, obviously, on an enterprise network.
Q. Consumer or public IM networks are inherently insecure?
A. Right. Very few administrators would not acknowledge the security risk of using public IM. Because of this, the public networks have generated a lot of demand for us, because people are using these [public IM networks] to collaborate and they realize that it makes them more productive. But administrators see that while users are more productive, a whole different can of worms has been opened. Things like Spim.
Q. Let me guess—spam sent to IM users?
A. Right. It’s a small problem now, but it’s going to become a much bigger issue going forward. But that’s the least of [administrators’] concerns. The public networks go out of their ways to figure out ways to get through corporate firewalls, and one of the problems historically with enterprise messaging is that it was traditionally pretty difficult to communicate with people outside of their company. It was just like e-mail 15 years ago when you couldn’t send e-mail to anyone outside your company. The good news for the industry is that there are standards that will address this.
Q. Such as?
A. Well, SIMPLE [Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions] is one, that lets people use instant messaging to communicate across the Internet and through corporate firewalls. That’s really good news for the industry, because that means that If IBM’s instant messaging environment wants to have access to GM’s instant messaging environment, and GM supports SIMPLE, we can do that.
Q. You released Sametime 3.0 in conjunction with Domino R6 last October. It includes new SIMPLE support. Where do you take your enterprise IM product from here?
A. What we need to do is do a better job of integrating our IM into other products. We’ve done a lot of work to integrate IM in other applications, and PeopleSoft recently announced that they integrated Sametime into their applications. Also, in iSeries, the new version of OS/400, when it finds a problem, actually locates an administrator and alerts them (http://info.101com.com/default.asp?id=375.
Q. You mentioned PeopleSoft—what about integrating IM into other applications, from IBM and from other third-party vendors?
A. We’re really focusing on our client story, where you want to have access to IM from any application. Eventually, we plan to leverage the billions of dollars that are being funneled into products like WebSphere and products like DB2. We want to go toward standards, towards J2EE from a development perspective. You can’t look at IM as an island—it’s part of many communications tools.
For example, our Sametime infrastructure and Quickplace are completely independent of Notes/Domino, so some of our biggest customers actually use [Microsoft’s] Exchange. It’s ironic, because Microsoft shipped one of the first SIMPLE-enabled clients on the market [with Windows XP], and Exchange  doesn’t support SIMPLE. So if [IT organizations] want to use SIMPLE to create chat communities, they can run Sametime alongside Exchange.
Q. It occurs to me that we’ve been talking about IM for some time now, and that we’ve taken the value of this technology for granted. Why should IT organizations care about IM as a strategic technology?
A. The real value of IM is that it obviously helps people collaborate better. This is obvious because where you don’t have enterprise IM, people have used consumer IM technologies and public network to collaborate. They will continue to use these technologies as long as they feel that they’re valuable.
The second is cost. IBM has noticed a four percent reduction in TCO that we attribute to Sametime. Just with the conferencing tech that we use with Sametime internally, we have saved over $50 million in reduced travel expenses.
Finally, there’s necessity. If you’re in healthcare or financial services, you’re subject to HIPAA and some of the new SEC regulations. And even if you don’t have enterprise IM, chances are that your employees could be using a public IM network to collaborate. IM messages are written communications just like e-mail, so they need to be saved and stored off-site. You can’t do that using consumer IM. Not to mention the complete and total lack of security on the public networks. Do you really want business information leaving your enterprise, going over the Internet, and then coming back into your enterprise?
Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.