Netscape's Collaborative Solution

Netscape's client and server product suites mesh to let you share complex information within your company and around the world

The Internet is the ultimate collaborative environment. It offers equal access to communications services for anyone, anywhere, at any time. Within a corporation, private intranets are microcosms of the computing universe but with a restricted guest list.

Netscape Communications was one of the first companies to offer people easy access to information across wide areas, and the company has fought hard to maintain a lead on this front. Not surprisingly, Netscape is a major player in the collaborative computing arena, both outside and within the corporation. Netscape products integrate open email, groupware, companywide calendar, and browser tools for sharing information over the Internet or an intranet. I can't review every component and module in detail; instead, I'll describe them briefly and explain how you can use them to foster cooperative work environments.

Netscape's primary competitor is Microsoft, and the two companies have battled fiercely on every front. The result is two suites of features that are similar but come from different heritages and are organized as differently as night and day.

Microsoft fields a full range of products that work together on the desktop to form a collaborative environment. These components range in price from free (Internet Explorer) to ohmygosh! (Exchange Server for large networks). In contrast, Netscape bundles all its collaborative eggs into one browser basket, Communicator.

Netscape has chosen a different approach from Microsoft's, both because the strategy makes sense and because the company wants to differentiate itself from Microsoft. Both Microsoft and Netscape require one or more server pieces, but both companies' products and computing resource requirements are more similar at the server than they are at the desktop.

The Netscape paradigm for collaborative computing is a client/server environment built on open standards such as HTML, Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP), MIME, and Post Office Protocol (POP). The server software runs on Windows NT 3.51 or later and talks to clients and to other servers via TCP/IP. You can also run the server software on several UNIX platforms, or for very small installations, on a Windows 95-based microcomputer.

You need server pieces for the collaborative components you select for your enterprise. This requirement can range from one to as many as nine server programs, each servicing a particular data requirement. Netscape offers four server-side collaborative pieces: the Netscape Enterprise Server, the Messaging Server, the Collabra Server, and the Calendar Server.

Of course, Netscape also sells other, noncollaborative server programs, including Directory Server, which supports a common standard--Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP)--for naming users and resources; Catalog Server for accessing external databases, Certificate Server for electronic authentication, Proxy Server for more secure Internet access, and Media Server for integrating audio with Web pages and multimedia documents. You can buy all nine server pieces (listed in Table 1) in one box with Netscape's SuiteSpot bundle or individually.

I'll talk about some of the collaborative properties of each server component, but because collaborative computing is primarily about people working together across space and time, I'll emphasize this technology at the desktop, or client, level. I'll try to keep the client components with their respective server pieces (except where a client doesn't require a server, as in Netscape Conference's peer-to-peer conferencing capabilities).

Netscape Communicator Components
Netscape's client-side collaborative suite is called Netscape Communicator. Communicator is a large suite of individual components, each launched from the Communicator Web browser. The Standard Edition is for home users, and the Professional Edition is for collaborative activities in the enterprise.

Five of the eight components in the Professional Edition are collaborative tools. Communicator consists of the following collaborative elements:

  • Netscape Navigator Web browser
  • Netscape Messenger email client software
  • Netscape Collabra for open discussion groups and document sharing
  • Netscape Calendar conference and resource scheduling software
  • Netscape Conference for conferencing using text, audio, and video and whiteboards

The Other Stuff:
Servers and Clients

The other components are the noncollaborative components. The Catalog Server, the Certificate Server, and the Proxy Server are valuable assets to a collaborative server, but they don't directly provide any collaboration features. The Directory Server uses NT's domain and user information as a basis for its own files. The other Netscape servers can stand alone with their own data files or use the centralized database of the Directory Server. Performance is excellent.

Netscape servers provide consistent rates of information delivery across a wide range of user activity levels on the NT platform. If your information site will see tens of thousands of visitors a day, you need to scale up to a multiprocessor NT box or to the UNIX platform. You can run all nine servers on one NT Server computer, but you need at least 1GB of hard disk space for program storage (not counting your data) and 128MB of RAM for execution. It's a good thing hard drives are cheap, and memory's getting cheaper.

On the client side are Netscape Composer, Netscape AutoAdmin, and IBM Host On-Demand. Each of these components adds significant value to the desktop (except for IBM Host On-Demand, if you don't have an IBM host to talk to), but they don't contribute to the workflow in a collaborative environment. The exception is Composer, which several collaborative components use to create HTML multimedia content for email, discussion groups, or conferences; therefore, you can consider Composer part of the collaborative foundation.

What's Collaborative
With this overview, we can move on to the specifics of Netscape's Collaborative Solutions. Let's look at the collaborative components and consider some collaborative applications.

Documents and Images:
The Enterprise Server and Netscape Communicator

The Enterprise Server is Netscape's name for the suite's Web server. This server program delivers pages in HTML, as well as Common Gateway Interface (CGI) fill-in-the-blank forms. The Enterprise Server accepts user responses and can execute scripts based on user input. Transactions can be ordinary Web stuff or secure communications that use the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), which is suitable for electronic commerce.

What's so collaborative about a Web server? Web servers are more versatile than you might think. You can use them for making information available to a common base of users and as a central distribution point for documents and other types of files via the Web server's built-in FTP capability. Admittedly, calling a Web server collaborative is a bit of a stretch. You typically use Web servers to provide and collect information, which any good database program can do. The difference is that Web servers use other programs, such as browsers, to present and collect that information. For truly collaborative capabilities, however, you need to look a little farther down the line of the suite's components.

On the client side is the Netscape Communicator. If you've used the Netscape Navigator Web browser, you'll be comfortable with Communicator. It's a logical extension of the Navigator program, with some improvements and a slightly more friendly interface. You can use Communicator to access your Web server--probably a Netscape Enterprise Server. If you also have Internet access, you can use the same program to access any other server you want.

Communicator nicely supports custom HTML tags in remote documents. These tags let Communicator launch additional components on request. For example, let's say you have a question about a colleague's document. If the document has an HTML tag, you can click on the tag and launch your videoconferencing component (also built into Communicator) and establish a video link to that person immediately and automatically.

The Messaging Server and Netscape Messenger

The Messaging Server is the next stop on the tour. This program fits the traditional description of a collaborative application, even though what the program does is straightforward: It sends and receives email. As I discussed in the overview article, "Pathways to Collaboration,", email is the heart of the collaborative enterprise. The larger the enterprise and the more geographically dispersed it is, the more important email becomes. Therefore, the server must be stable, reliable, and versatile. The Netscape Messaging Server appears to meet all three criteria.

The Messaging Server supports all common email transfer protocols including MIME, POP, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), and Internet Mail Access Protocol 4 (IMAP4). Because the Messaging Server supports these standards, the server is fully capable of sending and delivering rich audio and visual information in addition to traditional text messages. Setup is not complicated, especially if you have already installed the Directory Server.

At the desktop, you use Netscape Messenger (or a third-party email client) to access the Messaging Server. Messenger is an enhanced email client that creates messages based on the HTML standard. HTML is an easy way to embed images, audio or video files, documents, applications, or virtually any type of attachment so it is readily accessible at the destination. The client also organizes your communications into folders and lets you search and sort at will. The Messenger client works with the Directory Server to gather address information both within and outside your network.

Discussions and Projects:
The Collabra Server and Netscape Collabra

People started the Internet because users at widespread locations needed to communicate and collaborate; one of the earliest services supported was the USENET. USENET uses NNTP and a constellation of servers to provide electronic bulletin boards that anyone can read and comment on, publicly or privately. Netscape's Collabra Server is an NNTP server with additional features, primarily for intranet security requirements. Collabra Server supports the Directory Server and NT's native user information and SSL communications with the Netscape Collabra client (or a third-party news reader).

The Collabra client is a full-featured NNTP client with extensions for the Collabra server. You can arrange discussions by category, put markers on important files so you can find them later, and use the Composer component to create both regular text and HTML multimedia items. The Collabra client is easy to operate and relatively quick for a program of this type. NNTP clients aren't generally known for their speed of operation, so Collabra's speed is notable by itself.

Resources and People:
The Calendar Server and Netscape Calendar

The Calendar Server provides tracking and scheduling of people and resources, a critical feature for enterprisewide collaboration. A typical use for the Calendar Server is to schedule meetings and keep track of project goals. You don't have to conduct meetings in person. You can just as well have meetings via the audioconferencing or videoconferencing software capabilities built into the Communicator client.

The Netscape Calendar client talks to the Calendar Server. These two components are the only parts of the client/server suite that aren't based on open standards because people can't agree on standards for calendar management. The last person to create a standard for calendar management and make it stick was Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, and we've been trying to catch up ever since.

Peer to Peer:
Netscape Conference

For realtime collaboration, you need a conferencing client, and Netscape Conference is your ticket to the show. Conference supports all manner of communications, depending on the hardware on your desktop. At the most basic level, Conference supports remote whiteboarding and text chat, which lets two or more people view the same application across a network, operate that program, highlight and make other notations that everyone can see without affecting the program's execution, and discuss in a separate chat window what you're all seeing.

The better your system is, the better Conference gets. If you have audio capability (a sound card, speakers, and a microphone), you can talk to other participants in realtime. If you are fortunate enough to have a video camera and a video capture board that digitizes images caught by the camera, other participants can see and hear you. Not all stations need to have videoconferencing capability. People without video cameras can still see other people; the other people just can't see them.

Like the other Communicator components, Conference is based on common standards, including the H.323 videoconferencing standard. The H.323 standard lets people with a standard but non-Communicator-based system participate fully in the videoconference. When you have the Directory Server, Conference uses it to let you create and maintain conferencing directories based on Web pages. Conference also supports client-to-client file transfers--a useful feature when you're sending data files back and forth.

Talk to Me, Please:
The Media Server and Netscape Communicator (again)

One server component has some collaborative aspects. The Media Server lets you deliver audio--from either a live or a recorded source--across the network by streaming.

Traditional methods of delivering audio across networks use .WAV sound table files, and the recipient must receive the whole file before playback can begin. Streaming audio removes this limitation with the use of a special player client. Netscape's Communicator desktop software has this player client built in. The player is compatible with RealAudio: Netscape and Progressive Networks worked together to define the Real Time Streaming Protocol, which both companies use.

All In All, It's All In One
So what's missing? The document management functions are good, but they don't include revision control. Revision control is the ability to track changes made in documents over time and to revert to earlier versions, if necessary. You can do something similar to revision control, using the Collabra server and clients. But saving different versions is mostly manual, and the system won't keep you from accidentally doing something silly, like saving an older version over a newer one. However, other collaborative suites (such as Lotus Domino/Notes, which Carlos Bernal discusses in "Lotus Domino 4.5 Server and Notes 4.5 Client,") have revision control. The Netscape solution set has everything else you need for serious collaboration, and Netscape adds the significant benefit of being based on widely accepted standards for communication and storage of information.

From this description of the program elements, you might think that Netscape has a fragmented view of the enterprise and has designed a rather fragmented solution. The truth is that although each piece can stand by itself and do a fine job, the system consists of a pair of suites: one for the server and one for the desktop. Each suite is well integrated within itself and easy to administer, and the two suites communicate well across LANs, WANs, or the Internet.

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