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Feature Article
September 2004

Is Instant Messaging the Solution?

While it’s hard to get a good estimate, there may be over a hundred million enterprise users who are using public instant messaging (IM) services. The problem is that public IM services represent a significant corporate liability by not being secure and not providing archiving. These are both requirements for good corporate governance as stipulated by the Sarbanes-Oxley bill. They are also required in the healthcare and finance sectors as a result of HIPAA and SEC rules respectively.

So what’s enterprise IT to do? They can try to stop employees from using public/consumer IM services, arguing that they provide little business value and hoping the problem will go away. But it won’t, because IM serves a need to reduce phone tag and short message e-mail chains, while enabling rudimentary presence awareness. Moving users to enterprise-grade IM services is a short-term fix. However, the number of options is decreasing: Yahoo! is no longer offering its business IM client and AOL has dropped its enterprise gateway solution. Another alternative is to implement an enterprise IM point solution with built-in security and archiving capabilities. This too, can deliver a short-term fix, but is it a foundation for a collaboration solution that meets user demands?

The Gartner Group takes a broader view of how the users’ needs can be met, by defining what it calls ‘always-on integrated communications.’ Always-on integrated communications is made up of asynchronous communications (e-mail, voicemail, short message services), synchronous communications (IM, voice, video, and application sharing), and presence. In this view, IM is but one feature in an integrated solution for collaboration. Going beyond Gartner’s definition, these always-on integrated communication systems should also include interfacing into a broad range of enterprise business applications, such as document handling, project management, work flow systems, customer service and supply chain management. For example, a business application such as supply chain management could be made aware of user presence and be able to initiate IM, voice or multimedia sessions on behalf of users, e.g., to initiate exception handling.

Always-on integrated communications requires convergence across a broad range of synchronous and asynchronous modes and end-user devices. SIP is pivotal to this open standards-based system and the protocol glue across these environments. Technically, SIP is a text-based signaling and control protocol for initiating interactive communications sessions between and among users. SIP sessions can include voice, data, video, chat, interactive games and virtual reality. While each of these modalities can be deployed on a one-of basis, ‘integrated’ implies a seamless user experience across all these media. From a broader perspective, SIP-driven communications connect users over any device, anytime, anywhere, to eliminate boundaries and to provide real-time network and application awareness that improves productivity and streamlines business processes.

SIMPLE, SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions, is used to convey presence information associated with a user’s activities, whether these are associated with being on a voice call, participating in a multimedia session, actively using a desktop or business application, or being in a particular location. For example, a physician could examine a patient record on a PDA and have radiology information displayed on a nearby high-resolution display, established from location-based presence information. Inherent in presence is the premise of personalization and control, providing users with control over their communication accessibility. The user can define treatment of incoming session requests based on initiator (e.g., esteemed colleague or unknown caller), time of day (e.g., office hours or weekend), and device preferences (e.g., ring all my devices or initiate an IM). ‘Always-on’ implies a level of reliability not generally associated with platforms supporting general-purpose business applications: telephony-grade reliability is a more appropriate reference point.

Vendors are taking different approaches to addressing the intrinsic needs of increasingly distributed and mobile users for secure and reliable real-time collaborative tools, at least partially. For example, enterprise productivity tool vendors are enhancing their document handling and work flow applications with real-time capabilities such as chat and real-time file transfers. Video conferencing and data Web portal vendors are expanding into data and Web conferencing, respectively. While IM and presence are often a common element of these systems, telephony, if offered at all, is very basic. In contrast, telecommunications vendors have had a long history of offering always-on, inter-person communications solutions in the form of business telephony (both desktop and mobile). They are now adding presence and rich media capabilities in the form of video, IM, and application sharing. SIP is being embraced by many of these vendors, including Microsoft, sometimes as a gateway function and sometimes at the heart of their architectures. Some telecommunications vendors are SIP-enabling their PBX and customer contact centers to enrich these environments and provide converged desktop functionality.

So if IM is your problem, look beyond IM to respond to your users’ inherent needs for productivity tools in the form of always-on integrated communications. These should be SIP-based from the ground up, and be open, reliable, scalable, and secure. Always-on communications follow you, wherever you may be, and adapt to the device and network you’re using, and finally give you control over who and how people communicate with you. You have some choices, in the form of in-house, managed, or hosted systems. Look for a solution that integrates communication applications to deliver productivity, mobility, personalization and collaborative services to your users. Mike Gotta of Meta Group summarized it well: “Emerging convergence trends should trigger closer examination of real-time collaboration strategies by IT groups to ensure that reliance on external and internal IM tools are aligned with Web conferencing options and communication infrastructure efforts around IP telephony.”

What’s the bottom-line value to the enterprise of always-on integrated communications? According to a recent Nemertes Research study, increased employee productivity, quick communication, speeding time-to-market, cost savings and increased sales are the major business drivers behind the movement to these new types of collaboration solutions.

Tony Rybczynski is Director of Strategic Enterprise Technologies at Nortel Networks. He has over 30 years experience in the application of packet network technology. For more information, please visit

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