Suite dilemmas

Suite dilemmas

Messaging software has become so critical that it's hard to imagine businesses functioning without it. Online collaboration products have also become vital. The question is, should you buy a messaging/collaboration suite from one vendor or purchase individual products for e-mail and collaboration from several?

There are pros and cons to both strategies, industry analysts and IT managers say. But more organizations seem to be choosing the suite option. For most software implementations, there's typically a 50-50 split between companies that buy best-of-breed applications and those that purchase all-in-one suites. But for messaging and collaboration applications, it's more like 70 percent to 80 percent favoring suites, says Nate Root, an analyst at Forrester Research.

The suite preference can be largely attributed to the market's growth. The biggest players, IBM and Microsoft, now account for about two-thirds of product sales, and customers feel comfortable enough with the vendors and their products to fork over what can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Another big selling point is that everything is already integrated. Individual products might not work well together and often need custom coding for integration. "Some of the most important features today are identity management, corporate directories and security policies," Root says. "It's becoming increasingly important that you get those services from a central platform, where everything is woven for you." Such a platform can help ensure that only authorized users have access to applications such as e-mail and instant messaging.

Minnesota Life Insurance had been operating a dual environment of Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange until about four years ago, when the company decided to standardize on Notes for e-mail and collaboration, says Jean Delaney Nelson, vice president and CIO.

But the transition from Exchange wasn't without hardships, she says. Many employees had grown accustomed to using one system or the other, and some Exchange users were hesitant to make the switch, says Nelson.

"We couldn't build a consensus (among end users) on which way to go, so we had some resistance," she says.

A way to simplify

One of the biggest deciding factors for Minnesota Life was the need to make e-mail records retention easier, a concern related to compliance with regulations. There are just three major vendors that work well with more than one e-mail system, but a company standardizing on one platform has many more vendor choices. And archiving from two platforms also has the potential to drive up overall costs, says Nelson.

Minnesota Life also needed a standardized messaging system that could improve the quality of communications. Prior to the switch, different divisions used different e-mail systems. "There wasn't always a clean exchange of messages," she says. "Now we're all on the same platform, and we can ensure that messages are going through in an understandable format."

It's now easier to collaborate on business projects by sharing information on databases, Nelson adds. "We use (the software) extensively for projects and collaborative purchases," she says. Before the switch, the insurer couldn't use its e-mail systems to share information in cross-division projects such as product development and product-line acquisitions from other companies.

Minnesota Life has also found the single-platform approach to be more cost-effective. It now relies on just one group for support, rather than a different support staff for each environment. The company, which has 2,600 Notes users, is saving about US$1 million a year by standardizing on one e-mail system, Nelson says. Cost reductions stem from support staff savings, decreased downtime and other factors, she says.

Single point of contact

About a year and a half ago, Temple University in Philadelphia consolidated all of its e-mail messaging hardware and software, says Timothy O'Rourke, vice president for computer and information services. The university had been operating 11 e-mail systems, including a Unix-based application, Exchange and Novell's GroupWise. E-mail systems varied among the schools within the university system and administrative offices.

When O'Rourke took his current position at Temple in September 2002, the university was looking for yet another e-mail system. He says he wanted to invest in a single system that would provide central management of all e-mail, spam filtering, shared calendaring and collaboration for the entire organization.

Temple opted for a messaging platform from Mirapoint Inc. that included all of those components. Among the major benefits is improved reliability, O'Rourke says. "In the past, the biggest complaint was that e-mail was always down or messages were not going through," he says. The new platform has addressed those problems.

Like Minnesota Life, Temple has realized cost savings from more efficient support, including reallocating three full-time support people. Whenever a problem crops up with e-mail or other components, the university now deals with one vendor rather than several.

But there are drawbacks to the suite approach, O'Rourke acknowledges. Some of the functions, such as collaboration and shared calendaring, aren't as robust as they might be with products devoted to those functions. But the vast majority of Temple's 45,000 users need only messaging and simple calendar capabilities, O'Rourke says. The suite "doesn't meet all the needs of everyone," he adds. "It's an outstanding messaging system but needs (work) on the groupware side."

Suites provide adequate components, but not the best ones available, agrees Root. "As with any all-encompassing suite, you pay a lot of money upfront for a lot of very good but not best-of-breed services," he says.

For example, Root says, some of the instant messaging features built into suites don't match stand-alone IM products in performance, especially for messaging outside the enterprise firewall that involves multiple IM clients. "Big suites tend to be very loyal to their own brand and ignore the fact that other companies have different IM software," he says.

Eric Goldfarb, CIO at financial services firm PRG-Schultz International, has used both approaches and sees the advantages of each. At the Atlanta-based financial services firm, which has 3,200 employees, a suite makes more sense because it's more scalable and cost-effective for large organizations. PRG uses Lotus Notes as its standard for messaging and collaboration.

But the multivendor strategy can make more sense for smaller and midsize companies, Goldfarb says. When he was CIO at Global Knowledge Inc., an IT education and training firm with 1,500 employees, the company used a combination of Exchange for e-mail and products from multiple vendors for functions such as calendaring and document sharing.

"We cobbled together a set of packages to achieve this overall collaborative workspace, and it worked well," Goldfarb says. Because the components were focused on specific tasks, they provided greater functionality than was available from suite products, he says. For example, a document management product from an independent vendor can provide a finer degree of detail for records management than a suite can.

However, Goldfarb adds, the multivendor approach would be more costly for a larger organization.

Root agrees that buying individual applications might be the best option for small and midsize companies. "Smaller companies don't need most of the whiz-bang features of the big platforms," he says. "Many don't use online group scheduling and calendaring, and they're perfectly happy using public instant messaging services and e-mail that's built into Linux or another open-source platform."

Product roundup

Here's a look at the messaging/collaboration software packages from leading vendors, based on product evaluations by Forrester Research in March 2004:

-- IBM Lotus Notes and Domino 6.5.1. The latest Lotus collaboration platform provides integrated groupware, Web conferencing, instant messaging and document management. The software also includes IBM Lotus Team Workplace, which provides both Web and Notes interfaces to specialized team collaboration databases that support document sharing, threaded discussions and workflow. IBM Lotus Domino Document Management supports more advanced features such as check-in/checkout and version control.

-- Microsoft's Windows Server System and Office System 2003. Major components include Exchange Server 2003 for enterprise e-mail, scheduling and task management; Live Communications Server 2003 and Windows Messenger for enterprise instant messaging; Microsoft Office Live Meeting for Web conferencing, application sharing and chat; and Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003 for community-based collaboration, document management and sharing, and threaded discussions. Client Outlook provides an online and off-line interface to e-mail, scheduling and tasks.

-- Novell's GroupWise 6.5. Provides e-mail and scheduling capabilities, including sophisticated message filtering and online access and an instant messaging component called Novell GroupWise Messenger. Other components include basic document management from within the e-mail and scheduling client; community collaboration capabilities; and Novell Virtual Office, which provides browser-based collaboration tools such as document sharing, threaded discussions and delegated administration. A client notification program called GroupWise Notify monitors incoming e-mail and calendar events.

-- Oracle's Collaboration Suite Release 2. Provides basic enterprise e-mail features through a built-in Web interface, Web conferencing, voice and fax integration, and basic groupware features, but not instant messaging. The product lacks an e-mail client, so most customers use Microsoft Outlook as a front end. OCS runs on the Oracle 9i Application Server, which includes the Oracle 9iAS Portal. The portal includes features such as document sharing, delegated administration and polling. Oracle Web Conferencing integrates with Collaboration Suite to provide Web conferencing capabilities, including application sharing, whiteboarding, presentation multicasting, polling and integrated chat.

All in one

Some companies opt for suites because of the new functionality they provide. John I. Haas, a Washington-based producer of hops used in beer manufacturing, moved from multivendor systems to Oracle's Oracle Collaboration Suite in 2003 because the company wanted to cost-effectively add Web conferencing and wireless e-mail access.

"It's easier to do Web conferencing because it's built into the suite, and we can schedule meetings and have (the meeting information) shown on calendars," says Kyle Lambert, vice president of information solutions. Lambert says the tool is proving to be vital as John I. Haas relies more on Web conferencing to make product presentations to customers and for employee collaboration, training and document sharing.

The suite also makes it easier for employees to locate shared files, Lambert says, because they're accessible from a single Oracle database used with the messaging product. "We don't have to hunt in multiple locations and servers to find information," he says. This is especially useful for employees who spend a lot of time on the road and need easy access to files, says Lambert.

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