By Cynthia Morgan, Reviews Editor, Software
Lotus defined groupware with Notes and still dominates the market, but the company can't rest on its technological laurels just yet. Lotus Notes is now facing a serious challenge from groupware rivals Microsoft Exchange and Novell GroupWise.
The success of these groupware programs depends not only on how well they work within individual group settings, but on how well they fit into the biggest collaborative environment yet: the Web. As a result, Notes, Exchange and GroupWise are steadily gaining more Web-awareness.
And all three are facing serious pressure from a contender that was virtually unknown just a year ago: the corporate intranet. Inexpensive, easy to administer and already familiar to Internet users, an intranet disseminates information and permits collaborative editing. While it lacks some of traditional groupware's collaborative toolsets-workflow is virtually nonexistent, for example-the rapid expansion of corporate intranets makes them the dark horse in the groupware race. (See Build an Intranet Workgroup)
Most LAN users already practice some form of collaborative computing without using groupware. Simple e-mail routing is an example: You can send a completed expense report first to a supervisor for approval, then route it to the travel department for verification and finally to accounting for processing. MAPI client applications, such as Microsoft Office, Novell PerfectOffice and Lotus SmartSuite, use menu commands to route documents to e-mail. These commands are incorporated into the conventional menus, allowing users easy, intuitive access. Some e-mail packages, such as Microsoft Exchange, also track versions of routed files.
But if you send a file to an in-box, you must still open it within an application and process it before handing it off to the next user. More sophisticated workflow software performs some of these intermediate steps automatically. An expense report that exceeded acceptable amounts, for example, might be returned to the employee for additional information, with courtesy copies to management. Macro languages and application programming tools, such as Microsoft's Visual Basic for Applications, can handle these tasks easily. Workflow applications, such as Symantec's FormFlow, can build autoprocessing smarts into existing electronic forms.
A groupware environment does even more-scheduling, project management, document management, file synchronization, search engines, collaborative editing and conferencing. Although nearly any networked application, with enough customization, can perform these tasks, a groupware environment provides many of these components along with "'hooks" for others. In a nutshell, groupware applications handle the management aspects of multiple-user computing, freeing you to concentrate on content rather than process.
With about 15 million users and a developer/integrator base of about 12,000, IBM's Lotus Notes unquestionably rules the groupware world. Now in its fourth major revision, Notes has thousands of add-in applications and has reached a level of maturity that rivals won't achieve for some time.
Although Exchange's latest version may not be a Notes-killer yet, its vast Windows user base, ties to familiar applications and numerous third-party developers will make it a tough contender. Meanwhile, Novell is pushing hard to develop its GroupWise 5, a former mail/schedule package, into a true client/server platform with collaborative capabilities. Its universal inbox, which holds documents, messages, schedules and tasks interchangeably, gives users a comfortable interface. But its smaller user base may prevent the rapid deployment needed to give GroupWise a substantial market share.
Web mania caught Microsoft off guard, and many of its server-side intranet tools are still under development. But the company is moving toward a single intranet-style environment, and its groupware products are beginning to reflect that. Microsoft will bundle its Internet Information Server (IIS) with Windows NT 4.0, due to ship later this year. IIS can use NT's user authentication to guard against intruders, and it supports the secure sockets layer (SSL) protocol. SSL offers server authentication and data encryption at the session level. Microsoft's PageView is a hypertext interface set to debut this fall. It lets users browse their hard drives as seamlessly as they search the Web.
Lotus has its own Web tools well in hand. It is in the process of transforming Notes into an intranet management system. Notes 4 clients offer Web browsing out of the box. You can include URLs in Notes mail messages, in much the same way you can with Exchange. Notes agents can also serve as Web crawlers. And new third-party applications, such as Oberon's Prospero 1.1, can pull data from a Web page into a Notes document automatically. Notes allows "'hot spots" in its documents, similar to a Web browser's hypertext links.
This spring, Lotus began beta-testing Domino, an integrated HTTP/Notes server that turns standard Notes 4 servers into Web servers. With Domino, you can render Notes files to HTML on the fly. It also adapts Notes' access control for the Web server, adding authorized users to its directory services. Domino can password-protect individual pages or files, and it supports SSL. The company's InterNotes Web Publisher translates Notes databases into HTML code and assists users in site management. You can download the beta from http://domino.lotus.com.
Notes, Exchange, GroupWise and intranets all offer some workgroup elements, but each takes a different approach to the same end. The one best suited to your environment will support your legacy applications with minimal conversion. To minimize costs, select a system that already possesses as many of your basic requirements as possible. You can add third-party applications and expensive custom programming later.
Here's a look at how each of these programs approaches some key areas.
A good collaborative environment builds on existing network structure. So, Microsoft Exchange Server
becomes an obvious choice for Windows NT networks, since both server and clients include Exchange. But Exchange Server is limited to an NT base, and although Microsoft offers gateways to other mail systems, groupware extensions will likely be lost in the translation. Exchange's mail filtering rules reside on the server-which means filters may not affect messages from other sources.
Lotus and GroupWise store rules on client and server, ensuring that filters apply to off-line data traffic as well as the more common server-based traffic.
GroupWise still has strong roots in the NetWare environment, but offers an extensive list of optional gateways. It can also operate on multiple platforms. If you need advanced messaging, task management and document management using NetWare Directory Services, this package merits consideration.
In Notes 4, Lotus finally broke its vow to ignore MAPI. Its Service Provider interface lets MAPI clients, including Exchange and GroupWise, run a Notes server's message store. Notes' support of several OSes-all current flavors of Windows, OS/2, Macintosh and UNIX-makes it the better choice for heterogeneous networks, but Notes' cross-
compatibility is open to question. Finding UNIX counterparts for third-party applications that use proprietary code, such as OLE, can be a headache.
Notes offers discussion groups-essentially threaded mail messages themed around a single topic. Exchange's system of public and private folders establishes a similar sort of threading. In addition, Exchange offers a Favorites folder, where users can gather Shortcuts to message groups, Usenet threads and other files. GroupWise 5 also establishes a public folder system, with threaded, collapsible message groups similar to those of Notes.
Data replication is particularly important in collaborative environments. Enterprise users may work simultaneously on the same document, or a remote user may make changes offline and return the file to the server. If you don't automatically replicate changes workgroup-wide, you can lose valuable work. Replication also plays an important part in software version control; application updates can be automatically distributed as users log in.
Exchange supports file-level replication, meaning that when you make changes, you must transmit the entire file (or folder). GroupWise offers shared folder replication, but it also maintains a file "'checkout" system that tracks and stores changes in separate versions.
Notes supports changes at the field level-only changes in a file are passed back to the server. This can reduce transmission times for mobile users.
Exchange can duplicate a mobile user's public and private folders on a portable computer, so that users can work off-line and synchronize updates when they reconnect.
The Web's replication tools alone are largely limited to the pages cached in a proxy server. You can release Web-crawling bots-automated retrieval programs-to gather data and use it to update a page.
GroupWise and Exchange start as e-mail systems-and this orientation shows. Although each offers remote or off-line work options, they are clearly intended for the network-connected user.
Although off-line browsers such as Frontier Technologies' CyberSearch are available for Internet connections, a Web intranet offers few off-line work tools. In addition, because off-line browsers are designed for fast LAN connections, intranet information may require higher speeds than the usual 28.8Kbps of dial-up lines. Unless high-speed server connections are set up for each remote user, they may be further isolated from an organization's information mainstream.
Mobile management under GroupWise is particularly friendly. You can selectively transfer data from the inbox or folders-folders can hold documents as well as mail messages-to a laptop. The program will even compress and save to floppy disk for easy transport between home and office.
Notes was written as a database product for those who are only occasionally connected. Its rich data-handling features are ideal for mobile and remote users, and for those who routinely manipulate large amounts of data. Notes agents can check files before transmission, and choose to send the entire document, the first few lines or only the title. Lotus Notes offers mobile users the ability to build separate configurations for multiple locations-something Exchange lacks.
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Lotus Notes 4.0
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While the optional Notes Pump ODBC interface has little trouble exporting information, Notes has limited native ability to directly access those databases. Exchange's strong integration with Microsoft SQL Server via BackOffice gives it an advantage, but Lotus offers additional data access tools. In addition, Notes has manual or event-driven connectivity to dozens of different databases on more than 30 platforms. This is accomplished via several third-party applications, such as Information Builders' EDA/SQL Copy Manager.
NetMeeting, Microsoft's new Web conferencing tool, allows for application sharing, data transfer and whiteboarding between Internet users. Microsoft currently offers this software on its Web site at http://www.microsoft.com. NetMeeting's support of the proposed H.323 standard-which includes videoconferencing provisions-signals that this feature will eventually be added. Notes supports both data and videoconferencing-but only through third-party applications such as Lotus Real/Time Notes.
Numerous shareware and public domain tools for Web conferencing, whiteboarding and voice communications are also available, and can be used on an intranet.
Notes' database orientation shows in its powerful search engine, which offers Boolean filtering and relevancy ranking in cross-server searches. Exchange and an intranet will need third-party programs to match it. Fulcrum Find for Exchange and topicSearch from Verity are two possibilities. Both can search multiple folders and attached documents, rank findings for relevancy and view files. GroupWise's search engine can include anything that can be stored in the inbox.
Exchange's tight integration with Windows NT and the BackOffice suite offers a major advantage over Lotus Notes: easy administration. Exchange includes performance-tuning wizards, system monitors and migration utilities.
Notes' extreme customizability makes it tough on administrators of small, rapidly changing networks. It has limited backup and restore options, forcing you, for example, to back up only when the databases are not open. Several third-party backup options are available. Notes administrators usually rely on other server tools for maintenance as well. NotesView, a powerful Lotus add-on, links Notes to the very capable HP OpenView network management system.
So far, intranet management tools are limited. One of the best, Adobe's SiteMill, has barely crossed over from the Mac platform. Webmasters must still cobble together site-management utilities. Expect rapid growth in this category in the next year.
Notes lacks a counterpart to Exchange's well-integrated Schedule+ calendar and scheduling program. Although Lotus will release an Organizer-like scheduling tool later this year, third-party applications currently fill that gap. Symantec's Act for Notes is one of the most "'note"-worthy. GroupWise's single-box metaphor offers even better mail and scheduling integration, so you can schedule tasks and resources easily.
Application development is one of Exchange's biggest strengths. It uses the popular Visual Basic programming tools and can dovetail easily with Microsoft Office software. The next VB edition will be able to create ActiveX controls, too.
Notes 4 offers robust tools on several fronts. It supports OLE 2.0 as both container and client, which simplifies information exchange between Notes and other Windows applications. Notes has adopted SmartSuite's Property Boxes, which offer easy access to the attributes of objects.
The Notes macro language has now been replaced by LotusScript, which resembles Visual Basic so closely that simple code can be ported between them with little modification. Notes' new API abstraction layer accepts some C++ and VB calls. Third-party tools-like VB/Link, OfficeLink and DataLink (all from Brainstorm Technologies)-enable you to build a Notes application in Visual Basic, integrate it with Microsoft Office software and connect it to any ODBC database.
GroupWise approaches development from several angles, the most elementary being user-customized rules. The product's Object API supports development and data retrieval by third-party applications written in Visual Basic, C++, Delphi and other popular programming tools. New applications can be plugged into the GroupWise Desktop.
The HTML code used in building an intranet offers basic display and navigation control with limited data collection. Web sites typically rely on CGI and Perl coding to perform tasks not supported under HTML. In the coming year, Java applets and ActiveX controls will assume many of those functions.
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Microsoft Exchange Server
Notes Agents can generate e-mail, create files and perform other system functions. These Agents are better developed than those in Exchange. Many system events can activate Notes Agents, but Exchange's Assistants are generally restricted to event-driven mail triggers. The Web offers a plethora of add-on agenting tools, from the bots that seek out and return information to Java and ActiveX applets.
For many, a simple intranet will fulfill the basic requirements
of a workgroup solution, allowing administrators to add new features
as needed. GroupWise builds in many of the collaborative features-such
as workflow and document management-that are only available as
third-party apps in rival products. Exchange, with its widespread
user base, familiar interface and large menu of collaborative
add-ons, offers easy migration paths for Windows NT shops. But
Lotus Notes remains the hands-down leader in advanced groupware
development on nearly every front, including Web integration and
support for remote sites and mobile users.