Exploiting IM for Back-End Systems Communications

Proponents say IM can function as XML message brokers between systems at a fraction of the cost of traditional messaging middleware; putting an IM interface on a back-end application can bring big benefits.

It looks as if 2004 could finally be the year in which enterprise instant messaging (IM) goes mainstream.

Enterprise IM proponents point to a confluence of indicators, including market research data, user surveys, and commitment from Microsoft Corp. (an almost certain sign that any nascent market is on the verge of exploding) as compelling evidence that this will be the year for IM technology.

IM isn’t just a technology that facilitates collaboration between coworkers, but – some proponents argue – between machines as well. In this model, they say, enterprises can implement IM solutions that function as inexpensive message brokers between systems or which replace green screen and other dumb terminal applications.

At the very least, enterprise IM is picking up momentum. For example, a recent survey from market research firm Forrester Research found that 27 percent of North American companies plan to evaluate or launch enterprise IM pilots in 2004. Forrester analyst Nate Root says enterprise IM adoption largely varies by vertical industry, such that the tech and telecom, utility, retail, and chemical and petroleum industries typically have the most aggressive enterprise IM adoption rates, with at least 60 percent of companies in each sector either piloting or rolling out enterprise IM solutions or supporting and/or upgrading existing solutions.

Much enterprise IM-related activity in 2004 will be driven by manageability concerns. The problem, enterprise IM proponents says, is that public IM clients from America Online Inc., Yahoo, and Microsoft (among others) are already in use on an unmanaged basis in many IT organizations. “There's generally an issue around the visibility of knowing who's using IM, what networks are being used, what's the traffic associated with IM within a network, and how does that traffic break down by time of day, by sender, by department, and so on,” says Francis deSouza, CEO and founder of IM specialist ImLogic and former chief of Microsoft’s Real-Time Collaboration Group.

Because of the information retention, security, and privacy requirements of Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA, and other regulatory compliance efforts—including SEC, New York Stock Exchange, and NASDAQ requirements that apply to publicly traded companies—analysts believe IT organizations will increasingly tap enterprise IM solutions that offer value-added services (such as logging, auditing, and enhanced encryption) on top of vanilla IM capabilities. “Unchecked public IM usage within the enterprise, coupled with regulations like HIPAA and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, puts many firms in the uncomfortable position of needing to fast-track an [enterprise IM] purchase,” Root writes.

There’s another reason IT organizations will think more seriously about enterprise IM in 2004, analysts say. Until now, IM has infiltrated IT organizations by flying beneath the radar of IT managers. Its adoption in enterprise environments has paralleled, to some extent, the early infiltration of personal computers, which, during the days of Big Iron mainframes and minicomputers, were often deployed without IT’s knowledge by department managers and executives. Just as grizzled Big Iron managers were forced to grudgingly accommodate new-fangled PCs when executives embraced them as productivity-boosting machines, so, too, IM proponents say that the technology will win the battle for mindshare among today’s corporate decision-makers.

This isn’t to say that the acceptance of enterprise IM is a fait accompli, however. Nancy Flynn, author of Instant Messaging Rules—a primer on the legal, regulatory, productivity and security challenges associated with enterprise IM—and executive director of The ePolicy Institute, says many corporate decision-makers still aren’t persuaded by the business case for enterprise IM. “[T]here's a real disconnect between CEOs and business owners and employees who are actually using instant messaging. To CEOs and senior managers, IM is still considered an emerging technology,” she comments. “Because of this technology disconnect, the senior executives still think IM is something that only teenagers use at home.”

This will change, however, Flynn and other industry watchers speculate, as enterprises are forced to confront the reality of IM’s unsanctioned, and unmanaged usage. “[I]f the employee leaves the company or if there's ever a dispute, they want to be able to go back to the tape and see what actually happened,” deSouza says. “They're saying, 'We need records of instant messaging traffic,' just as part of sound business practices.”

Most discussions of enterprise IM focus on collaboration between persons, such as employees, business partners, or customers. IM proponents say that the technology is already being used in a more impersonal way—to facilitate messaging between systems.

Exploiting IM

Take open source enterprise messaging player Jabber Inc., which markets Jabber XCP. According to Joe Hildebrand, Jabber’s chief architect, companies are already licensing Jabber XCP for use as a message broker between applications. Because Jabber XCP supports the XML-based Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), Hildebrand says, it’s an ideal transport for XML messages. “This is for doing messaging that’s not necessarily instant messaging. Think of the sort of things that you might use messaging middleware for, that sort of thing, where I just want to send a chunk of information across the network very quickly, but at a fraction of the cost [of traditional messaging middleware],” he argues.

Potential use cases include applications that also require minimal chat interaction, Hildebrand says. “People with trading applications or emergency service applications that, although there’s some component of user-based chat, there’s also quite a big component of applications exchanging XML with one another, too,” he concludes.

Officials from IBM Corp.’s Lotus Software Group describe a scenario that exploits the IM concept of presence—i.e., presence awareness—whereby a user can monitor application availability from the context of his or her buddy list: If there’s a failure or other problem with an application such that it goes off-line, they can be alerted.

Lotus and Microsoft have incorporated presence awareness into non-IM applications—such as Microsoft’s Office 2003 productivity suite—and Lotus says organizations can build presence awareness into applications that they’ve written to exploit Domino. Because of this, Amy Reuss Caton, marketing manager for IBM Lotus Workplace Team Collaboration, calls presence awareness a “killer app” for enterprise IM. “It’s a killer app because you can bring it to all of these different solutions, it doesn’t have to be within standalone instant messaging, it can also be built into your other applications,” he says. “An application can even poll me and see if I’m able to react to something to send me an instant message if there’s a problem.”

IM proponents point to other next-generation usages, as well, such as building IM interfaces onto existing green screen and other dumb terminal applications, such that users can query these applications for information. Indeed, suggests Michael Osterman, president and founder of IM think tank Osterman Research Inc., as users grow more and more comfortable with IM as an interface, many applications could be retrofitted in such a fashion. “If you can put an IM interface on a back-end application, essentially what you’re doing is putting that on your Buddy List, so if you want to control an inventory management system, you can find out how many widgets are in stock just by querying it,” he explains. “The training costs are a lot lower, people are familiar with the IM interface, and people will be a lot more comfortable communicating with those back-end systems.”

Enabling Knowledge Sharing as the Next Killer App

If you’re still skeptical of the promise of IM, there’s another killer app that may be of interest to you: knowledge sharing. In fact, many systems operators, programmers, and IT administrators are using an IBM-sponsored IM service to collaborate and share knowledge in real-time.

Last year, IBM unveiled an unusual IM service called IBM Community Tools (ICT). ICT wasn’t positioned as an IM tool of the classic variety, such as Buddy Lists for presence awareness and the ability to exchange messages on a one-to-one basis with other users. Instead, ICT was designed to provide a broadcast facility for knowledge sharing. In addition, it supported features such as polling and conferencing capabilities designed to enhance knowledge sharing. IBM had used ICT internally with several thousand users, says Judy Warren, a senior software engineer with IBM, and decided to roll it out to external constituencies, starting first with iSeries users. Since then, she says, ICT has grown to support WebSphere, pSeries, Linux, and IBM’s own AlphaWorks development community.

Warren says iSeries managers who are perhaps more comfortable in front of 5250 terminals appear to have made the adjustment to IBM’s Windows- or Linux-based ICT client with aplomb. “Even though a lot of the iSeries folks have historically been more green screen types, they’re not used to the toolsets that most of us in Windows environments are a little bit too familiar with. But even though it’s a new concept, not only do they jump in and ask questions, there’s also more of them waiting to answer questions,” she comments.

Warren says that ICT has been so popular that IBM is considering packaging it for sale so companies can deploy it internally. Although there isn’t at present a zSeries community for ICT, Warren says that if there’s enough demand from users, and if the zSeries product team inside IBM gets on board, it’s not out of the question. “We haven’t gone into the [zSeries] folks yet. Our paths don’t cross with them a lot at this point. We haven’t gone there yet, but the iSeries folks are just kind of a step down from the mainframe, and they are definitely all over this,” she says.