RealTime IT News

Microsoft Readies Next Enterprise IM Server

Beta tests begin next month on Microsoft's next iteration of enterprise instant messaging (IM) software, Live Communication Server 2005 (LCS 2005), in the hopes the final product will be ready in time for Christmas.

"We want customers to be confident in the fact that our business unit at Microsoft is going to be putting out server software in this space at a very aggressive pace," Dennis Karlinsky, Microsoft's real-time collaboration lead project manager, told internetnews.com.

It's part of the Redmond, Wash., software giant's pledge -- Software Assurance (SA) -- to roll out timely updates to its software. SA grants, depending on the length of term bought by the customer, allow them to upgrade to new versions of the software for free. He added that it doesn't help customers when new software comes out with features that are already obsolete, or are spaced too far apart to take advantage of the SA grants, which range anywhere from one to three years.

LCS sits behind the front-end Microsoft Office applications used in many businesses today, integrating IM functionality and Office applications for easy-to-manage collaboration efforts. For example, a workgroup located around the country is formed to craft a Word document. Users can look at the latest draft, check within the file menu to see who on the team is online, and contact them for an impromptu meeting via online chat -- all within the Word application.

Instant messaging was once considered a consumer item, letting people talk to friends and family around the world as an alternative to e-mail. In recent years, however, the communications medium has gained traction with companies looking for better ways to collaborate on projects when team members are scattered throughout the world.

Projections on enterprise IM use in coming years range from promising to enthusiastic. The Radicati Group is the most optimistic. The research firm expects the numbers of consumer IM account to dwindle as corporate IM accounts explode from 60 million users in 2003 to 350 million in 2007.

Officials predict two new functions (though they will publicize other features down the road) will keep LCS 2005 ahead of the software curve: federated ID and outside access.

Federated ID is an umbrella authentication scheme that allows not just company employees but customers, suppliers and partners to IM each other. Logged in and authenticated through the company's database, which also archives the chat session, LCS 2005 supports encrypted messaging. The feature is broken down into two areas: direct federation (between two or more companies) and clearinghouse federation (a more general, domain-specified authentication schema).

The other feature, outside access, allows traveling employees to log in to the corporate network without having to establish a virtual private network connection. Officials expect the combination of authenticated enterprise IM account and standard firewall ports to provide enough security for the connection.

What isn't featured in this latest version of enterprise IM from Microsoft is compatibility with other IM platforms, notably AIM and Yahoo! IM. In a perfect Microsoft world, everyone is connected via it's own MSN Messenger service, yet the company doesn't have plans on incorporating the other two services into its own server until enough of its customers call for the feature.

"It's going to be driven 100 percent by the business needs," he said. "I don't think its so much a technical issue as it is a business issue because we can find ways to solve technical issues but you have to have a lot of people on the same page in terms of ensuring they're ready for pure interoperability."

Karlinsky said companies that need the IM inclusion now can hire out third-party vendors to act as a gateway between the other services and Microsoft, though that adds another server to the mix, another variable for network administrators to worry about.

Pricing hasn't been determined on LCS 2005 yet. It will follow the same licensing model as LCS 2003, which runs $929 per server and $34.95 per client access license (CAL). The final price of 2005 servers, however, will be determined by how many features make the final cut when beta tests end in the fourth quarter of 2004.