As IT professionals, we’re constantly looking for ways to utilize technology to enhance and support the companies we work for. Unfortunately, our current economic slump can make it difficult to find funds and get budget approval for large technology projects. However, one cost-effective way to make technology improvements is to take advantage of unused features in existing software packages. For example, Exchange’s Chat Service can add collaborative value to your company. Let’s take a look at how you can implement this service.

Four different forms of collaboration
Technologies such as e-mail, instant messaging, chat, and conferencing are aimed at improving communication channels among groups. Although all these technologies are focused on increasing communication, there are distinct differences between them. Before going further, let’s clarify these differences.

E-mail, e-mail, and more e-mail! We’re all too familiar with e-mail. E-mail is a thread of text and possibly voice correspondence between two or more people. E-mail is not considered real-time communication since e-mail servers transmit and deliver data at an unpredictable future time. However, e-mail threads can be created in an e-mail discussion. More importantly, e-mail allows for a record of communication to be kept.

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Instant messaging (IM) is real-time text communication between two people. The communication is usually private and typically no record of the conversation is kept. IM can provide presence information, which lets users know when a correspondent is available. With IM, users send and see data immediately. Proper use of IM can drastically reduce the amount of e-mail clutter created during a discussion. Exchange 2000 introduces IM as an optional component.

Online conferencing is a new communication medium. An online conference allows real-time communication of data, voice, and possibly video. Conferencing sessions can be recorded for later viewing but typically are not. Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server offers online conferencing.

Chat is one of the oldest and most widely used applications on the Internet. Chat provides a low-bandwidth, lightweight method of real-time communication between two or more people. Chat is commonly used to build online communities of users interested in discussing similar topics or issues. This includes one-on-one conversations between two users, group discussions, and auditorium-style, broadcast chats.

In a typical chat session, users meet in chat rooms (sometimes called chat channels) where they type text-based messages back and forth; other users can read the messages and respond in real-time. Live conferences, or chats, take place in a client-server environment where members running chat client software connect to a server and send text and data to the chat server. The server then passes the information on to the other members of the conversation.

Chat features in Exchange
The Exchange Chat Service can allow your Exchange Server to function as a full-fledged chat server for Internet and intranet networks. The Service is based on Internet Relay Chat (IRC), one of the Internet’s most common protocols for text-based chat systems.

Chat Service can be configured to run in a single-server or stand-alone mode, and you can add more servers as user traffic increases. Also included in Chat Service is an Auditorium mode to support special event chats, such as an online chat with an executive, celebrity, or expert. This allows only the moderators and speakers to send messages to all the chat participants. Questions from the audience can be sent directly to the moderators without interrupting the primary discussion.

Exchange Server 5.5 Chat Service supports up to 10,000 simultaneous connections, while Exchange 2000 boasts a 20,000-connection limit. Exchange 2000 also offers integration with Windows 2000 Active Directory to provide a single directory for persistent configuration data, including channels, classes, and network configuration. Communities of interest, where registered users can dynamically create chat rooms and system administrators can manage user activity, is a new feature of Exchange 2000.

Consider network and server capacity
Exchange Chat Service is simply a component of Exchange and thus has the same hardware and software requirements. Additional requirements of the Chat Server will be determined by the number of members connected to it. However, remember the connection limits listed above. If you anticipate exceeding this limit, you’ll have to add more Exchange chat servers to a network.

Connecting several servers on a local area network allows you to increase the number of users beyond the capacity of a single server. Theoretically, you can connect up to 255 servers in a chat network. But the practical limit is the number you can keep track of, which may be closer to five or six, depending on your experience.

A major consideration when setting up a chat network is the memory capacity of the servers. For each object (members, classes, and channels) assigned to a particular chat server, a block of memory is allocated to store information about it. The objects are replicated to each computer on the chat network. For example, if you have a server network with 1,500; 2,000; 1,000; and 500 members, respectively, each of the four servers has a copy of the information for all members on all servers. So each server has 5,000 user objects in memory. Because each chat server can have up to 10,000 members, each server could be required to store up to 40,000 user objects, plus one object for each channel and member class up to 48,000 objects per chat network.

Sample implementations
Companies can use Microsoft Exchange Chat Service to disseminate information quickly and offer employees the opportunity to ask questions directly of the company’s managers or top executives. For example, a company could invite employees to participate in a chat session with the company president and then offer a session to discuss the president’s presentation later (perhaps anonymously, if company policy allows).

One of the most common implementations of the Chat Service in large organizations is its use in technical support. Some enterprises have help desk technicians available during certain hours to respond to users’ problems and questions. This is often much faster and more efficient than phone calls and e-mail.

Chat Service also enables you to conduct meetings with people who are geographically dispersed, which can save money on long-distance phone charges. For example, a company might use Exchange Chat Service to host weekly customer support chats that answer questions about their products or services. Because the Microsoft Chat client supports transmission of URLs, the members of the chat can share links to Web pages, FAQs, technical support manuals, or customer support newsgroups. A weekly customer support chat could be presented as a moderated chat, allowing the chat host to filter questions and choose the ones that are transmitted to all clients and answered by the experts. A chat transcript can be generated and displayed on a Web page for users who missed the chat while it was in progress.

Many companies are looking at ways to leverage technologies to help their employees communicate better. Exchange Server Chat Service can offer some solutions. Chat Service provides a scalable environment where users can build online communities with other users interested in discussing similar topics and issues. Take a look at Exchange’s Chat Service to add value to your organization without requiring a large capital investment.
We look forward to your input and would like to hear about your experiences with chat services. Join the discussion below or send the editor an e-mail.