Enterprises get the Instant Message

Instant Messaging is the application that never grew up. IMLogic's Francis deSouza explains how his company is turning IM into a tool for the enterprise, and why standards are vital

Instant Messaging is one of the great undeveloped applications of the Net. In use by millions of people at work and at home, it remains much the same as its anarchistic antecedent, Internet Relay Chat. Yet American company IMLogic, headed up by ex-Microsoft real-time collaboration honcho Francis deSouza, is betting its future on the idea that IM can be turned into a buttoned-down, spiffed-up enterprise service. Last year, the company announced a major deal with Reuters Messaging, an enterprise-class IM system, and the collusion continues to grow.

We talked to deSouza about what IMLogic is up to, what's going on in the world of IM and what's going to happen next.

Why has IM remained such a minority interest in the market, when so many people use it so often?
All the growth has been in different silos; products unable to connect to each other. There were technical reasons -- everyone using different protocols -- and security concerns. Everyone's worried that someone from outside their user base could connect and bring down a server. And the business models don't mesh. Compared to email, where servers connect and disconnect rapidly, an IM connection is closer to a phone model, where it needs permanent resources at both ends for the duration of the connection. How do different companies get compensated for users coming in from other networks?

But this is something the phone companies sorted out a while ago...
Yes, the solution we have is very similar in concept to SS7 [Signalling System 7, the protocol that connects phone companies' networks together for signalling and billing]. So we're starting to come up with a solution for the business model. IMLogic provides the background logic to interconnect -- this is the first time we have connectivity to all the players.

So what difference will that make to users?
The single biggest difference will be connection across networks. You sign on with Reuters and we register you across all the networks. They all have their own domain systems, all separate from each other, and we handle all that.

Doesn't Trillian [a multi-system chat client] connect across multiple networks?
It works until they change the systems, so it goes for a week or so and then you have to download another patch. IMLogic is a certified partner of the IM networks and we keep our connections.

What's in it for the enterprise, then?
Lots of things you can't do with the ordinary systems. We do name management, so you can make IM names conform to the company IT naming standards when someone joins, and remove them efficiently when they leave. You can give users selective access to the different networks, control spam and scan for viruses. And you can watch who uses what, how much and what they're saying. We can archive messages, so you get to extend your records policy into IM.

Is there really a problem with security and IM? It seems inherently harmless. Should smaller companies really need to worry about it?
Any company that's bought a firewall should think about this -- it's just as important as managing your Web or email use. More than half of IM users have accepted a file transfer without knowing what it was. Discovering IM use, securing it and recording it -- it's very valuble.

Do you handle encryption for the messages themselves?
Sometimes, sometimes not. We support 12 networks, and they have many different ways to do things.

When you archive messages, do you store the encrypted version or do you store the clear version: if the latter, does the clear version ever travel over the network?
The clear version never leaves the company but yes, in some cases it can travel over the internal network to the archive. The different systems have different ways of doing this.

What's happening to standardisation on protocols?
We expect the various networks to quickly see feature parity, so they'll all offer similar tools.

But that's not the same as speaking the same protocols. Is there movement towards this?
The protocols and the underlying technology -- there's some movement towards standardisation, and some movement away. Some people are going towards SIP and Simple, but they're not defined in enough detail to be complete yet. How do you handle subscriptions under SIP? That's not clear. But like email, where you had many different standards on all the different networks before SMTP came along, there'll be a coalescing into one standard at some point

Since your business is translating between incompatible networks, presumably you're not looking forward to that point.
Our market is tied to the IM market. With email, the market exploded when there was a standard. We'll see the same thing with IM – not only pockets of use in companies. The moment there's clarity about standards, there'll be a skyrocketing.

When will that be?
Ah, that's a question. In 1997, in the fall, we formed an IETF group. Can't be that long until we're there, I thought. Six years later, we're still waiting. But I'm actively agitating for standards