Flexible groupware packages let you decide who gets what

Until recently, groupware was like a baseball cap: one size fits all. Now that profile is giving way to more specialized packages that are closely tailored to users’ needs. The reality is that there is a tremendous range in how workers in an enterprise wa
Written by Carl Weinschenk, Contributor
Until recently, groupware was like a baseball cap: one size fits all. Now that profile is giving way to more specialized packages that are closely tailored to users’ needs. The reality is that there is a tremendous range in how workers in an enterprise want to use these tools. Let’s look at a tiered approach to deciding who gets what in terms of groupware and find out what vendors are offering.

Different tools for different employees
Consider the profile of an airline: One tier of workers performs the intense information work for which fully featured platforms such as Microsoft’s Exchange, IBM’s Lotus Notes, and Novell’s GroupWise are designed. This group needs an intense groupware feature like group scheduling, in which the electronically kept schedules of executives can be scanned to determine a time when most or all can attend a meeting. These packages also typically feature advanced archiving capabilities.

A second tier of workers, which could include baggage handlers, maintenance workers, and counter employees, need e-mail and personal calendaring, but don’t require all the bells and whistles. These employees need electronic tools for tasks such as access to training, reading e-newsletters, checking work schedules, and managing their interactions with Human Resources. A third tier, pilots and flight attendants, have needs similar to the second tier, but have the extra requirement of being in a different city almost every day.

This tiered scenario is repeated, with some variety, in other industries. For instance, a university IT department may serve 10,000 people—3,000 faculty and administrators with more robust groupware needs and 7,000 students who need little more than Internet access and e-mail. In addition, students are expected to keep up with their work while they are away from campus.

As you can see, enfranchising road warriors in the enterprise’s platform is particularly important, said Philip Slater, a sales engineer for Stalker Software. People who travel a lot tend to use personal, Web-based e-mail services such as AOL or Hotmail to keep in touch. “At some point, people stopped and said, 'Hey, wait a second. We are sending company information (which could in some cases be confidential information) on other people’s servers.’” Often, he added, these servers are insecure.

Flexibility is the key
The dichotomy between office-bound, heavy-system users and lighter, more mobile users is leading software vendors to roll out two types of groupware systems. One is a “fat” system with all the functionality required for the office-bound executive. The second is a slimmed-down version for the second- and third-tier employee. Workers can access these via a browser or any one of several standard programs. “I think it’s an overall trend in the industry,” said Patrick Dorsey, the group manager for Sun’s Sun One communications products. He said that there are two approaches. One is implementing completely different packages, while the other focuses on modular construction of groupware services that can be targeted to different parts of the enterprise.

This trend has been building for a while and is accelerating, experts say, as the groupware industry shifts gears. For example, late last year, IBM introduced Lotus Notes version 6.5. Microsoft will take the wraps off its updated product, now code named Titanium, this summer. Concurrently, analysts say, the companies (along with Novell) are quietly offering slimmed-down versions of their full-featured offerings. Ironically, analysts say, these look like the e-mail platforms they moved away from several years ago.

Niche opportunity
The smaller players who collectively represent about 40 percent of the market, according to industry watcher The Radicati Group, are trying to use this trimmed-down class of service as a way to carve out a niche without going after Microsoft and IBM head-to-head. These companies include Critical Path, Gordano, Ipswitch, Mirapoint, Oracle, Qualcomm, Rockliffe, Sendmail, Smartmax, Stalker, Sun, and Vircom.

CIOs can exploit this dynamic marketplace and streamline their back offices considerably. “The conventional e-mail server vendors have particularly targeted that need and gone after Exchange and Notes shops,” said IDC research manager Robert Mahowald. “They’ve said, 'You don’t need those expensive servers.’ They’re making the case that you have classes of workers at companies that don’t need all that functionality.”

Fewer servers, better use of resources
The main impact will be a significant shift in the number of servers deployed. If a flight attendant or a factory worker is given a full-featured groupware package, a relatively large chunk of the server space has to be set aside for him or her, even if none of the features are ever used. The enterprise faces the choice of essentially wasting this bandwidth or not giving workers what they need for their limited—but not unimportant—electronic communications.

The difference in server requirements is significant. A single server running Novell’s version of the lightweight approach (called NetMail) can support about 210,000 mailboxes, said Jay Wood, solutions marketing manager for Novell’s collaborative products. The fully featured collaboration and groupware product, GroupWise, can only support about 10,000 users on an equivalent server. Wood points to Southwest Airlines and Loyola University as examples of distributed enterprises that have instituted a two-tier approach to e-mail.

Mahowald agrees that the potential exists to cut server use significantly. “The workload should be dramatically lightened,” he said. "And the level of specialization could be a whole lot less from an enterprise perspective. You don’t have to hire the same high-level workers. You can just hire an e-mail administrator, who is less costly.”

TechRepublic originally published this article on 11 June 2003.

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