Will 2004 be the year of IM management?

Interoperability and enterprise management were the hot issues at last week's IM Planet conference. While many believe that 2004 will be the year that IM management takes hold in the enterprise, the task itself is far from easy.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Despite the popularity of the buzzword "interoperability" during the Instant Messaging Planet

Conference and Expo, according to vendors, experts and administrators, enterprises are preparing to take an active role in IM management.

Steve Boom, the senior vice president of Yahoo's enterprise solutions group, said that in 2003, enterprises have simply noted and observed the proliferation of IM usage on their networks. Next year, they will be ready to do something about it.

Shutting down IM? Think again
When confronted by the risks inherent with enterprise IM, many network admins choose to shut it down all together, only to find out that the president of the company is using it to keep in touch with his biggest customers.

"One of the biggest mistakes that admins make is not realizing that IM is a communications device," said Brian Curry, senior director of product management for enterprise AIM products with America Online. "Every new technology comes with some level of criticism," added Curry.

"It is a case of fear of the unknown," said Dr. Sanjiv Gossain, CTO of IMlogic. "They don't understand it, so they shut it down."

"We are often contacted by companies that want technology to block IM traffic," said Francis Costello, Chief Marketing Officer of Akonix Systems, "but when it really comes down to it, they realize that they can't turn it off."

Whether IT admins planned for it or not, IM is a communication tool that has become part of many professionals' day-to-day experiences. Avoiding the issue by simply turning IM off could be detrimental to business.

"The longer you put it off, the further behind you will be," said Ken Hickman, director of product strategy at Yahoo.

The list of components that make up a successful strategy is not a short one. IM management requires enterprise authentication, identity management, encryption, message archiving, non-repudiation, message filtering and namespace control, to name a few.

Boom is not alone in his belief that 2004 will bring a number of IM policy changes in the enterprise. He said analysts at the Yankee Group are calling IM policy a "top three priority" for 2004.

Why aren't more companies managing their IM usage today? Ken Hickman, Yahoo's director of product strategy, said most companies are content to allow their employees to use free software, rather than pay for enterprise offerings, since so many workers now use IM.

User adoption may have outpaced network administrators' ability to manage IM so far, but that ability is catching up quickly. When a disgruntled ex-employee used IM to impersonate an executive at Woburn, Mass.'s Netspoke, CTO Vic Spence realized that they needed a way to protect the company from IM risks. "We realized that off-the-shelf IM was not going to cut the mustard from a management point of view," Spence said.

While IT managers can often see the importance of managing instant messaging, convincing the decision makers can be a more difficult task. Some admins are taking extraordinary steps to prove their cases.

"I was willing to monitor IM traffic to convince executives that it was something we needed to address," said Randall Torres, senior IT consultant at Entergy Services Inc., the IT branch of the New Orleans-based utility firm, Entergy Corp.

"I knew we had to mitigate the risk of unmanaged IM, so I wrote a 45-page budgetary proposal," Torres added. He said he managed to convince his company to implement a long-term IM management strategy starting in Q1 of 2004. But even if a company isn't concerned with the risks that come with unregulated IM usage, there are other factors that could drive management policies, like the law.

Financial services and healthcare are two industries that are leading the IM management revolution, because the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission now requires many financial companies to keep track of client conversations, including those that take place over IM. "Compliance with SEC messaging requirements is something we take very seriously," said Nicholas Rose, vice president of information security at Bank of America Corp.

One mitigating factor that could impede IM management adoption is that admins just don't know that tools to effectively monitor and manage IM usage are already out there. "I spent nearly a year gathering information and sorting through all the [vendor] offers," Torres said.

Once enterprises decide that IM management is imperative, the next decision involves choosing a vendor and a product. There are complete enterprise IM software packages like IBM Lotus Sametime, gateway management solutions from companies like FaceTime Communications Inc., IMlogic Inc. and Akonix Systems Inc., and even enterprise offerings from the "Big Three": Yahoo, America Online Inc. and MSN.

Meanwhile, another topic that received a lot of attention at IM Planet was interoperability. While it didn't spark the urgency of IM management, there was no shortage of opinions.

"As far as IM goes, interoperability is really [number] seven or eight on the list of issues for enterprises," said Don Dodge, vice president of product management at Groove Networks Inc. in Beverly, Mass. But representatives of Yahoo, MSN and AOL weren't as eager to address interoperability questions.

AOL and Yahoo agreed that interoperability is a business issue and not merely a technical consideration. Since IM's "Big Three" have spent a lot of money providing free networks to their users, opening up those exclusive, proprietary communities could be a big risk to their business models.

"I wouldn't expect any sort of interoperability for at least the next two years," Dodge said.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Read why companies are at a crossroads on IM.

Browse our Topics on instant messaging.

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