SAN FRANCISCO (10/03/2003) - The rapid uptake of IM among technology workers presents a conundrum for management. On the one hand, productivity rises when team members can engage in user friendly, real-time communication. IM is also more versatile than other real-time alternatives. It's not merely a text-based substitute for the telephone; once a channel between users is established, those users can share text, voice, video, files, whiteboards, presentations, and remote terminal sessions. On the other hand, companies are so fearful of security threats, and of the potential dip in productivity due to personal IM on work time, that they have resorted to blocking IM traffic on their routers.
In-house hosting of IM services is an obvious solution, and Microsoft Corp. has thrown its hat in the ring with the release of LCS 2003 (Live Communications Server 2003). Formerly known by its code name Greenwich and its initial commercial name Office Real-Time Communications Server, LCS is so easy to install and manage that you might wonder what your $929 has bought you. It buys the peace of mind that users and data are secure, and the ability to deploy IM in controlled inside-the-firewall and VPN environments. LCS' use of the standardized SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and SIMPLE (SIP Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) aids troubleshooting and facilitates connections to non-Microsoft IM clients. All considered, LCS earned a score of Very Good.
I installed LCS on an Intel Corp.-built dual Xeon reference server with 2GB of RAM. The server ran the retail release of Windows Server 2003. Three clients were employed: A Gateway Inc. 450sx notebook running Windows XP; an Athlon XP-51 reference desktop from AMD, also running Windows XP; and a Power Mac G5 desktop.
Refreshingly, LCS has only one prerequisite: It must be installed on a Windows 2000 or Windows Server 2003 server that is joined to an AD (Active Directory) domain. That's not much to ask. However, this requirement does highlight LCS's primary limitation. If you want your IM system to include partners and other users who aren't registered in the same domain as LCS, you must add them to your AD host. That requires effort and some care, especially for users who need IM access but must be barred from other domain services.
A welcome feature for businesses, if not for IM users, is LCS's ability to quietly archive IM traffic in a database. LCS installs MSDE (Microsoft SQL Server, Desktop Edition) for this purpose, so you can search, back up, and transfer the archives using simple tools. You don't add users to LCS. Rather, you enable IM access by giving a user an IM log-in name, or nickname, through AD's user properties manager. LCS adds a tabbed page to this interface specifically for IM properties. Microsoft recommends using fully qualified URIs (uniform resource identifiers) in the form to unambiguously identify IM users.
What Users See
At present, Windows Messenger 5.0 (which is distinctly different from MSN Messenger) is the only compatible client. Messenger shuttles most conceivable types of data between users. I found Messenger's interface to screen-sharing easier to use than Windows XP's remote access or Windows 2000/2003's Terminal Services. Similarly, file exchange through Messenger is easier than connecting to Windows shares or WebDAV hosts. And unlike e-mail, the recipient can check the received file, make changes, and return the file without delay. I found that making changes using a shared whiteboard or screen made collaborative effort much smoother. Of course, Messenger handles text and audio, and Webcam-equipped users can add video to their conferences.
LCS not only makes connections and directs IM traffic between users, but it provides presence services as well. Messenger's equivalent of the AOL Buddy List provides a universally familiar presence display. Office 2003 applications are also linked to Messenger; for example, Outlook users are treated to message header icons that light up when a message's sender is logged into IM.
Although LCS has the potential to embrace other IM clients, it currently does not. Microsoft explains that other popular clients (AOL's Instant Messenger and Apple's iChat, for example) don't yet implement SIMPLE and "several extensions made by Microsoft." Commercial IM clients also lack the necessary configurability because they are built to be front ends for commercial chat services. For example, iChat is hard-wired to connect either to AOL's AIM service or Apple's mac.com; iChat AV is more configurable, but I couldn't get it to connect to LCS.
For all its versatility, IM cannot replace other forms of electronic communication. IM subjects users to a uniquely frustrating and unavoidable pitfall: When users drift in and out of Wi-Fi range, drain the battery on their notebooks, or connect over a slow or noisy dial-up line, you could talk or whiteboard for a long time with someone who can't hear or see you. In many situations, there isn't an IM equivalent to "let me switch phones." LCS doesn't erase all of IM's inherent limitations, but it does address the most important one: keeping IM in the hands of authorized users.