Decision Support: Selecting an IM solution: Internal servers or public services?

Read this article to help you decide whether to set up an internal server or use a public service for IM.

If you consider the implications that instant messaging (IM) has for your business, you’ll find that it offers great potential for improving communication between employees and customers alike. IM software has advanced beyond text messaging to offer a suite of communications and conferencing applications.

However, once you’ve decided that IM has a place in your business, you face the difficult decision of choosing which IM solution to use. They are not all created equal, and many of the systems don’t play well with each other—at least for now.

One option is to set up your own internal IM solution using Exchange Server, Lotus Notes/SameTime, or another third-party application. Of course, this isn't always feasible, particularly for smaller businesses with a limited budget. A second option is to use a public IM provider, which offers the advantage of being inexpensive to implement and gives you the opportunity to begin taking advantage of IM without investing in new hardware or server software.

The current market
As I mentioned in my previous article, the public IM provider market is dominated by the big three: AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Microsoft MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger. These three applications essentially support the same set of features but they're not compatible with each other. If you use just one of these services, you won't be able to communicate with people using the other two. So the key factor in choosing between them is making sure you'll be able to communicate with clients and partners. You need to look at the list of people (external to your organization) you would like to communicate with via IM and ask them which IM system they use. This will help you adopt a system that is compatible with important partners, vendors, and/or clients.

Of course, AOL has been mandated by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to open its AIM system to communicate with rival systems as a condition of approving its merger with Time Warner, Inc. AOL has continued to complain about the difficulties of making IM transparent but has nevertheless knuckled down and made some progress, initially working with IBM to test interconnectivity with IBM’s Lotus SameTime IM application, a leader in the corporate IM market.

Although other IM vendors are under less pressure to provide compatibility with competing applications, the market is nevertheless moving ponderously closer toward an interoperability standard. Both Microsoft and AOL have thrown their support behind a developing standard called SIMPLE, which stands for SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions.

This IETF standard is based on the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), a signaling protocol that is used to establish Internet telephone calls, multimedia conferences, and chat sessions. There are competing standards, but they have fewer supporters and certainly none with the influence of Microsoft and AOL. Thus, SIMPLE will most likely be the winner in the standards war for IM interoperability, which should really propel the corporate use of IM. However, that doesn’t mean you need to wait a year until victory is declared in the standards war. You just need to enter the fray with your eyes open.

First, take a look at your current messaging systems with an eye on IM. If you’re using Lotus Notes, SameTime is an obvious choice. Exchange Server users might consider MSN Messenger because of the support for IM built into Exchange 2000. You can create private IM servers with Exchange 2000, enabling you to set up a secure and reliable IM infrastructure for your company.

Of course, you don’t need to set up your own IM servers to use MSN Messenger. Instead, you can let Microsoft do the serving with its existing MSN service, although doing so requires that all participants have a .NET Passport. This option is free, but some people chafe at being forced to provide any contact information to an outside entity, and Microsoft seems to be a particularly choice target for this ire.

If you decide that you can’t decide on a system, you can do what an increasing number of IM user are doing: Use multiple clients. More than 33 percent of AOL users, more than 70 percent of Yahoo users, and more than 63 percent of MSN users also use another IM client. There’s nothing to prevent you from signing up for several IM services and keeping them all open at one time. That certainly isn’t as convenient as having all of the IM applications supporting the same standard and interoperating, but it can get you by until they do.

One solution that might help you manage multiple systems is Eyeball Chat, which will let you interact with AIM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger users. Although Eyeball Chat requires you to set up an Eyeball identity with Eyeball’s servers (which is not really any different from setting up a .NET Passport with Microsoft), the program lets you see when your MSN, AIM, and Yahoo contacts are online, send and receive text messages with them, and be notified when you receive new e-mail to your MSN or Yahoo e-mail account. (AIM doesn't support the notification feature.) Naturally, you can also use Eyeball Chat to communicate with other Eyeball users. Eyeball Chat also offers excellent audio and video performance, outperforming NetMeeting by a wide margin in some performance testing I did a few months ago.

Also, while you’re searching for the perfect IM solution, don’t forget the wireless side of IM. There is a new flurry of cell phones, PDAs, and other wireless devices hitting the market or soon to be out that support IM.

Final word
If you already have Exchange 2000 or Lotus Notes in place and you primarily want to enable IM for internal employees, your best bet will be to set up an internal IM infrastructure. This is also the most secure solution. If your employees will be exchanging highly sensitive information via IM, you definitely want an internal solution.

However, if you have a small company with a limited budget and your employees will not be sending highly confidential data, you can benefit from one of the publicly available IM services.

Remember that with either of these two options, if you want to communicate with a number of individuals and organizations, you will probably need to get set up on several different IM services—at least until a cross-platform standard becomes a reality.

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