Collaboration tools keep projects on track

Many companies would like to replace cumbersome paper trails - as for a purchase order or an ECO (engineering change order) - with electronic ones

Many companies would like to replace cumbersome paper trails — as for a purchase order or an ECO (engineering change order) — with electronic ones. Collaboration software allows the creation of these types of electronic workflows while simplifying communication among team members working on mutual projects.

Although many products offer features such as shared calendars to support collaboration, suites specifically oriented toward collaboration are less common. Some, such as Groove Networks 's Groove, are peer-to-peer applications, offering easy setup but more difficult administration and control. Documentum 's eRoom 7 and SiteScape 's Enterprise Forum 7.0 are server-based products that provide scalable, secure collaboration environments aimed at large enterprises or multiple companies.

Both can set up multiple servers, each running a web server, a SQL server, or the collaboration server, making them scalable up to thousands of users. Both products install rapidly, at least in the base configuration with the default database server, though administrators should expect to invest considerable time in setting up the groups, users, and desired functions. Fortunately, templates provide a starting point for setting up workflow, chat rooms, message boards, file sharing, and other tools.

Each of these products provides a powerful toolset for aiding collaboration; which one fits your organisation will depend on your needs.

The two products' capabilities are evenly matched. So SiteScape's advantage is its support of multiple servers, including Windows, Linux and Solaris; eRoom 7 is limited to Windows. On the other hand, a simple US$200 per seat pricing model distinguishes eRoom 7, which will make it more palatable to smaller organisations that may balk at SiteScape's $5,000 per-server-plus-$99-per-user fees.

DocumentumeRoom 7

eRoom 7 is the latest version in a long line of collaboration products, and its maturity shows in many small ways, including improved search, security, and user management and a single console for administration. Further, eRoom offers excellent integration with other Documentum products such as ECM (Enterprise Content Management).

Installation is straightforward, especially for the standard version, which includes its own SQL Anywhere database. The advanced version uses Microsoft SQL Server and is necessarily more complex to install, although not enormously so.

eRoom 7 installs on Windows 2000 Server or Advanced Server only. You must restart the server after installation, then restart the IIS server. This is no problem if the server is a dedicated collaboration server, but adding collaboration functionality to a corporate portal server would require some planning.

The advanced version integrates well with ECM but requires two separate SQL server instances, one for the Content Server and one for the eRoom server.

Once installed, eRoom 7 uses the MMC (Microsoft Management Console) for server administration, although administrative tasks can also be accomplished using a browser.

To test the product, I created a dozen users and three processes, or eRooms as Documentum calls them. Each process had a different set of user permissions and different requirements for document flow. I created all the test environments easily, starting with the predefined templates provided.

Documentum provides five predefined eRooms, which provide a wide variety of applicable preprogrammed functions, from types of users and roles to workflows and other processes. Calendars, task lists, and knowledge management tools are also provided, as are chat rooms and discussion forums.

An admin can also create an empty eRoom and add desired features. Modifying or removing these features is so easy that I imagine nearly everyone will start with one of the templates.

eRooms can have users, groups and roles associated with them. Roles (such as coordinator, design team, and project lead) are pre-defined differently, depending on the eRoom, and additional roles can be easily added. Roles are especially useful in a workflow where the approval process depends on the type of document, rather than all documents going to a certain individual.

eRoom 7 provides the ability to select users from a variety of different directory sources, including Active Directory, NT Domains, or LDAP directories. Access permissions are granular enough to provide good security and enough options to suit most administrators.

Users, groups, or roles can be given read, read/edit or full control rights, among others. Areas can be designated private or public, so some documents or information can be published as read-only for the entire company, but only authorised users may view other private documents.

eRoom 7 integrates well with any POP3 email application. Messages can be sent to an entire eRoom or to specific users. Many events, such as the addition of new documents to an eRoom, can automatically generate email notifications to users.

Microsoft Office poses no challenge for eRoom 7. Files can be opened in an eRoom and saved directly; users don't have to save a file, exit the application, and then move the file into an eRoom. Links to an eRoom can be included in Outlook (or other) emails, and Outlook can be used as a front end for an eRoom to access mail, tasks, contacts, and calendar information.

On the client side, eRoom includes a small and unobtrusive browser plug-in for additional functionality, enabling synchronization of eRoom files with those on the user's computer. The plug-in also adds functionality to Outlook, adding tasks and calendar items automatically. Using the browser plug-in automatically creates a local folder in My Documents, called "eRoom Files for Off-Line Editing."

The default installation includes comprehensive documentation and tutorials for both users and administrators. eRoom also ships with source code and APIs for XML and SOAP, enabling customization to any degree required.

SiteScapeEnterprise Forum 7.0

SiteScape Enterprise Forum 7.0 is a versatile collaboration environment that supports a variety of server platforms, in the operating systems, the databases, and Web and portal servers supported. Like eRoom, SiteScape offers collaboration features and excellent integration with Office.

SiteScape Enterprise Forum's simple installation procedure supports Linux, Windows 2000/2003 server, or Solaris. It includes a basic database, but it also supports the SQL server of your choice, as well as a wide variety of Web servers and portal servers.

The eMeeting module requires Windows 2000 Server. Other optional Solution Modules include Proposal Collaboration, Partner Collaboration, HR Collaboration, and Program Management. SiteScape's modules provide preconfigured templates to meet specific business needs.

After installing the server, you must create a zone, either companywide or departmental. Zones are containers for any number of workspaces. SiteScape includes a very nice set of wizards that simplify workspace creation and maintenance. Each workspace can contain calendars, task lists, chat rooms, work flows, databases, and a variety of forums (a standard discussion forum, filtered discussion , a help desk, a moderated discussion, and more).

SiteScape also can add some noteworthy capabilities to some forums, including a CAD file viewer and an instant polling facility that allows surveys of all users accessing the workspace.

As with eRoom, I created a small department with 12 users involved in several types of activities, including an engineering change-management process and a purchase-order approval process. Creating the users and workflows was fairly simple, and the permission structure was sufficiently granular for me to create a flexible collaboration environment. SiteScape can add users from an NT Domain, Active Directory, or any LDAP directory.

SiteScape is completely browser-based and includes utilities to optimise access via PDAs or cell phones. Each workspace includes a user dashboard with a master calendar, status information, and links to the forums in the workspace. Custom workflows, commands, attributes and filters may be added to the dashboard so that users can choose default views of all the data, depending on their roles. Users can host discussions; share, review, or revise documents; create and enter chat sessions in real time; schedule meetings using shared calendars; and create task lists. SiteScape supports the iCal standard for sending calendar requests via email, has a power indexing and search engine, includes an online survey function, and has a nice version control setup.

An optional eMeeting Web Conferencing Module provides instant messaging, audio and video conferencing, handy in a help desk, demo or classroom environment. Source code is included, along with APIs for custom development. A nice reporting tool in SiteScape captures usage metrics, and both forum administrators and users will appreciate the utility library tutorials and forums.

eRoom and SiteScape provide all the functionality most companies will need to create collaborative environments. The purchase decision probably will come down to issues other than functionality, including the desired platform, pricing, and aesthetics.

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