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Companies at a crossroads on instant messaging

Instant messaging has gone over so well at home, it's bound to make its way into the office. But corporate IM still has some maturing to do before it's ready to get down to business.

BOSTON - Although experts say that more than 5 billion instant messages are transmitted each day -- many of which traverse an enterprise -- corporate IT involvement in the management and monitoring of IM has barely begun.

Some industries, such as finance and health care, are further ahead in terms of dealing with IM, according to attendees of this week's Instant Messaging Planet Spring 2003. Many of them said that they are just now thinking about developing corporate policies, even though their employees use IM with gusto inside and outside the company.

"We have no philosophy on IM," said one IT administrator for a large financial and insurance company, which ran an Exchange 2000 IM pilot last year. "We just don't have a good idea what to do with it yet."

This admin, who declined to be identified, said that his company does have a policy against the use of a public IM system because of various regulations requiring that all communication must be archived. The Exchange IM still lacks logging and archiving features, all of which are promised in the upcoming release of Microsoft's real-time communication server, due mid-year.

Some Windows admins and network managers say that closing off access to IM entirely is one possible corporate strategy, but others believe that IM is inevitable and that it makes more sense to manage IM than prevent it.

"When it comes to IM, companies are at a crossroads," said another IT manager at a Boston-based nonprofit company. "You can block it if you like, but it's so much a part of the mainstream that people want to extend it into the corporate world."

Microsoft, in fact, has already said it will make "presence information" part of its applications. Ed Simnett, lead product manager for Windows Server 2003 at Microsoft, said that today's young people, who will enter the workforce within five years or so, are accustomed to communicating on IM and will expect to keep IMing.

Simnett said that as more and more information bombards users, it's the people themselves who become a cog, or "stopping factor." The ability to form ad hoc groups is essential to making the real-time enterprise work, he said.

The appearance of corporate IM is mainly due to grass roots adoption by end users. Now, IT executives will soon face huge IM manageability challenges, not to mention the fact that they will be forced to justify the expense of buying manageability products for a technology that they did not initiate.

Vendors have big plans for IM that extend presence across a wide range of applications. It won't be long before IM will be used to link people to applications, which is one idea that some customers are still mulling.

"The idea is interesting," said the IT administrator who works for the finance and insurance company. "I'm not sure I see the usefulness of it, but maybe I will next year."

Despite the grandiose expectations for IM, it is unlikely customers will see much before the end of the year, said Dana Gardner, research director at Aberdeen Group, a Boston consulting firm. There are also some speed bumps in the way.

First, there are no standards for the various IM platforms. Vendors are still fighting over Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), Simple and Jabber, for example, so customers on different IM platforms still cannot chat with one another. But some experts think that problem will take care of itself in the market.

"In the long term, we know the networks will interoperate," said Francis deSouza, CEO and founder of IMLogic Inc., a Boston company that makes IM manageability tools. "I think we need to go to the next level of maturation before we see standards."

Admins also want control of the name-space connectivity, so they can monitor who is using the system. "You need to take back your network," deSouza said. "You need to know who is using the system and why they are there."

Accountability is necessary in order to charge back IM usage, he said. Business units must decide if IM usage is important.


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