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Groupware: The PC Team Sport

What Lies Beneath the Surface of Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes, and Collabra Share?

The networking of corporate America's PCs has caused an explosion of available information, including faxes, email, business correspondence, and other types of data. But how do most companies go about efficiently organizing, storing, accessing, and distributing this information if people are to use it to their competitive advantage? If you ask most Management Information Systems (MIS) managers how they are going to accomplish this feat, they point to groupware. Unfortunately, if you ask three different vendors what groupware is, you get six different answers.

Information Management or Overload?
So, what is groupware? That's not an easy question to answer. In academic circles, groupware is defined as software that allows people to share information in a collaborative way. Some examples are shared white boards and shared messaging applications. Collaboration is fine, but just try to get a CEO to authorize the purchase of groupware solely for employees to be able to work together! From a business perspective, what you should be asking is, what will groupware do for you and your company? What business problems can you solve with groupware?

This article, Part 1 of a two-part series, deals with the key features of three groupware products: Collabra Share, Lotus Notes, and Microsoft Exchange. Part 1 introduces you to the basic functions of groupware and profiles the products' capabilities. Part 2, which will appear in the December issue of Windows NT Magazine, will highlight the key differences among these products and the competitive advantages of each one.

At the heart of groupware is email. It is estimated that by 1996, there will be more than 100 million electronic mailboxes worldwide. Email addresses are as common as fax and telephone numbers today. Groupware must be able to integrate email into the corporate message stream to be successful. Collabra Share, Lotus Notes, and Microsoft Exchange all work with existing email packages.

Lotus Notes: Works nicely with cc:Mail and any Vendor-Independent Messaging (VIM)-compliant mail package. It also provides internal email (i.e., email built into the Notes client and server). It's a full-featured product, sporting spell-checking and document formatting. You can embed documents in your messages via Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) or attach them as separate files. Notes can exchange email with a variety of hosts using Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), X.400, and Message Handling System (MHS) via add-on modules. Clients can run on a number of platforms, such as Windows, Macintosh, UNIX, and OS/2.

Microsoft Exchange: Works well with Microsoft Mail or any Messaging Applications Programming Interface (MAPI)-compliant mail package. With Exchange, your email can look as good as your Word documents. You can even configure it to use Word as your editor, if you want. The Exchange server has built-in email and comes standard with transport agents that allow you to exchange email with Internet and X.400 servers. The version of Exchange that I reviewed was the Beta 2 version. The client is easy to understand, uses a tree structure similar to File Manager's, and is X.500-based. Folders contain the email messages. You can also nest folders within other folders. The Exchange client supports Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME), OLE, and Rich Text Format (RTF).

Collabra Share: Works with either MAPI- or VIM-compliant mail programs. In fact, Collabra Share doesn't provide any internal email; you must have a compatible email program already installed for Collabra Share to work. If you already have email. Colla-bra Share will probably work with it.

Group Messaging
If you've ever called a bulletin-board system (BBS) or used CompuServe, you know what group messaging is. You leave one message on a community bulletin board, and everyone in the company can read it and respond to it. Consider trying to do this with email: Client A sends an email message to Clients B and C. Both respond. Then Client A collects the information and resends to B and C an email message containing their input and the original message. Each responds to the altered message, and the process continues. Now, imagine that instead of three people, you're talking about 10--or even 100. Email quickly becomes an inefficient way of handling this kind of communication.

Lotus Notes: Uses databases to store group-messaging information. The databases are stored in the Notes workspace (see Screen 1). Each database can contain multiple types of information. The databases can be categorized by storing them in different folders. These folders are tabbed and look like subject dividers in a notebook. You can name these tabs as you wish. They provide a handy way to separate and organize information. Messages are displayed in a more text-based fashion which should translate well across the platforms that Notes runs on. You double-click on any message to reveal more information. You can alter the message format via the Views feature, which enables you to give a custom look to the data that the user sees. Thus, the database's designer/administrator can organize and present the data in the way he or she wants it to be seen. However, each user can also create an alternative way to view the same information.

Notes also provides an electronic form designer. It not only allows you to create intricate forms but goes a step further. The form designer has the usual radio buttons and combo boxes; it also has @functions. That's right! The apple--or, in this case, the lotus--doesn't fall far from the tree. This feature allows the millions of people who cut their teeth on Lotus 1-2-3 to feel right at home designing forms and applications with Notes. The package also supports OLE and allows compound documents to be stored in databases.

To create a new database, you can use Notes' provided templates or create your own from scratch. Lotus has provided the most commonly used applications for group discussion in their templates (see Screen 2). For example, if you want to create a group discussion designed to facilitate teamwork, you might pick the team-discussion template.

Microsoft Exchange: Stores group-messaging items in Public Folders. These folders, each with its own security, appear on your Exchange client following the email folders. Each folder has its own security. You can make each folder as open or as closed as you want by restricting or granting access to any Exchange user. From the toolbar, you can compose an item and place it in a folder or reply to an item either publicly, by placing it in a folder, or privately, via email. Items are threaded; that is, they are collected in the logical order in which the discussion occurred (see Screen 3).

Exchange provides a Views feature, which allows you to present the information exactly as you want it to appear. Items may consist of text, graphics, or any OLE object. Exchange allows you to add fields to the public or private view--a powerful feature. Let's say you want to create a public folder that tracks customer inquiries and responses. You could create a field that had a customer reference number and then sort by reference number and date/time. You could then make this the folder's default view. Voilà! You just created a custom-threaded folder without any programming.

One of the most intriguing features of group messaging is the ability to design and attach forms to an individual folder. For example, if you have a folder to collect customer-service inquiries, you can create forms with the electronic form designer that not only prompt but also validate the information entered by Exchange users. In addition, you can incorporate these fields into Exchange Views. Microsoft Forms are the basis for Exchange applications.

After these forms are laid out and posted to the appropriate Exchange folder, the form designer generates Visual Basic 4.0 (VB4) source code, which is then compiled with the runtime VB4 module that comes with Exchange. You can assign multiple forms to a single folder, and each item can have many fields. You can arrange an item's contents in a number of ways, called Views. Views can be either private--for your eyes only--or public--available to all the folder's users. Microsoft provides sample forms and applications, including an impressive customer-service tracking application.

Collabra Share: Uses forums to handle group discussions. Each forum handles a specific discussion. The product also has the ability to group forums together by type, relationship, or date. The Collabra Share client is broken into four main parts: Toolbar, Category Pane, Thread Pane, and Document Pane (see Screen 4). Each forum can contain multiple categories, and each category can have multiple threads. The Document Pane displays the current message, which is highlighted by both the Category Pane and the Thread Pane.

Collabra Share comes with a nice search tool. If you click on the search tool in the toolbar, you can enter one or more search words or phrases. The Thread Pane contains the search results, including the relevancy ranking of each document. You click on the document to display its contents in the Document Pane. Documents can consist of simple text only, or they can be compound and contain embedded objects or attached files, as well as text.

Security is an integral part of Collabra Share forums. Users must request permission to join a forum and add the forum to their local lists before they can participate in any discussions.

Collabra Share also supports document filtering, which enables you to selectively filter documents and create a custom view. It contains built-in filters, such as Newest, Oldest, Largest, By Author, and To You. In addition, Collabra Share lets you create up to 10 "hot lists," which can reference up to 4096 documents each. A hot list appears only to its immediate client and is not available to other users.

And Collabra Share automatically checks the spelling for all the messages you leave in a forum. (You can disable this feature, if you wish.)

OK, email and group messaging are up and running. You're sharing information and working more efficiently. People feel connected, and productivity is up. Now you need to set up sites in each of your company's satellite offices in the US, in Canada, and in various countries in Europe. You need to make the same data available to everyone, including those road warriors from sales whom you vaguely remember talking to at the Christmas party. It's time to replicate!

Replication opens the door to sharing information with all users of the enterprise data stream. It lets you handle remote users the same way you handle local users. You can send information to those people who are only occasionally connected the same way that you send it to your regular network users.

Collabra Share: Policy-based replication--what a great idea! Instead of telling each forum what information to replicate and with whom to replicate it, you can create rules that apply to your whole enterprise. The rules that control replication mirror the ones that you would otherwise set manually for each forum. They include rules for destinations, schedules, permissions, approvals, email usage, notification, persistence, and logging.

Policies are managed via the Replication Manager dialog, which serves a dual purpose: With it you can set replication policies for your enterprise and schedule inbound and outbound replication for forums at your site. In addition to setting policies for existing sites, Collabra Share lets you set up replication sites in advance. This makes life a lot easier for the systems administrator and allows centralized configuration and management.

Microsoft Exchange: Divides replication into two distinct parts: directory replication within a site (intrasite) and directory replication between sites (intersite). Replication within a site is automatic and usually begins five minutes after you change the directory. All directories are updated via a remote procedure that calls one directory at a time. Replication between sites requires configuring a Directory Replication Connector. You must designate a server at each site, called a bridgehead server, to be responsible for requesting updated information and scheduling replication times.

At the scheduled time, the local server sends a request to the remote server for updates. The remote server packages any directory updates and sends them back. Once the requesting server receives this information, the local directory is updated and then replicated throughout the site via intrasite replication. You must have a 1:1 relationship of bridgehead servers at the sites for replication to occur. You must also have the correct permissions for the files and directories you want to update.

You can control the time of server replication with the Directory Replication Connector. You can choose the time, frequency, and day that replication occurs under the Schedule tab. When you have properly configured and run the connector, the Inbound and Outbound Sites tab is populated with available sites. These sites are the places from which you "pull" (inbound) or "push" (outbound) information. You must set up individual permissions to control document content and user authorization.

Lotus Notes: Uses database replication to distribute and update copies of a database that is stored on multiple servers. These servers connect with each other at predetermined times. The information replicated can be documents, access control lists, forms, or views.

Replication is replication--except when it isn't. Although replication between servers and replication between workstation and server can have similar results, the processes used to obtain these results are markedly different. Server-to-server replication involves "pulling" changes from either server's version of the database. Either one can initiate the process. In workstation-to-server replication, the workstation "pushes" changes from its version of the database and "pulls" changes from the server's version. In this case, the workstation always initiates the transaction.

Notes controls database replication in a number of ways: Access Control Lists (ACLs), replication settings, and replication formulas. Instead of the policy approach employed by Collabra Share, Notes uses a far more complex and granular approach. For each database, you must have the appropriate access level set. This regulates which users and servers can change the database. By default, the entire database is replicated. You can further limit what information is replicated by using read-access lists. For a document to be replicated, the destination server must have read-access for it. You can use replication settings to ensure that only the documents that meet special criteria, such as a certain age, are replicated. And you can use selective replication formulas to replicate specific information, such as documents from a particular author. Be aware that a Notes-replicated database may not look exactly like the original database.

Setting permissions and replication strategies can be tricky. A replication/security plan is crucial. You need to be familiar with Notes security, as well as Windows NT security. If replication isn't working correctly, chances are it's a problem with permissions.

Notes also allows global replication management, which is another tricky task, but it's well explained in the manual. To avoid setting up replication formulas on each server, you can tap into the advanced features of the selective replication service in Notes. However, as a central database manager, you will still need the cooperation of the local database managers.

So far, so good. Groupware is a big success. However, there's still more that you can do. Did you ever try to schedule a meeting for 25 people? How about 10? You send a memo and invite those people to the meeting. Everyone says yes, except one guy who is busy and wants to do it the following Monday at 9. That cuts into the accounting department's weekly meeting, so you propose an alternative time and place only to find out that marketing is away at a seminar that day. Soon, you have to call a meeting just to reschedule your original meeting. Sound familiar? What if I told you that you could send one message that had the meeting invitation, approximate time of meeting (including travel time and directions), and a list of alternative times and dates that would accommodate everyone on the list automatically? Would you believe me? Well, it's true. Some groupware packages can do this--and more--for you right now.

Microsoft Exchange: Comes with a new and improved version of the venerable Schedule+ application. Those of you who've used it in the past know it's a useful tool.

Microsoft has made Schedule+ fully Exchange-aware. Now you can use the Meeting Wizard (see Screen 5) to schedule your next big presentation. Using Exchange as the engine, Schedule+ walks you through the steps you need to call a meeting. You can specify required attendees, as well as those you need to invite whose attendance isn't essential. You can include directions and travel information and a range of days and times for the meeting. Schedule+ will show you the times that are available based on the schedules of the people you invite. The first available meeting time that meets the specified criteria is displayed. Click on the Finish button to send a special email to all the attendees. They will be prompted to accept, decline, or suggest an alternative meeting date.

Schedule+'s free and busy times are stored in a Public Folder located on an Exchange server. It's a hidden folder and can be seen only from the Administrator program by using the View Hidden Recipients option. To share free and busy information between sites, I would advise you to create a Public Folder replica in the Public store. Now this information can be replicated with other servers in your organization, effectively extending group scheduling to the entire enterprise.

Lotus Notes: Scheduling in Notes has a different meaning. Notes allows you to schedule a variety of tasks--anything from mail delivery and routing to automating Notes tasks, such as updating all scheduled full-text indexes. As far as group scheduling is concerned, there don't seem to be any out-of-the-box solutions for Notes users. Notes can, however, interface with Lotus Organizer, which has scheduling.

Collabra Share: It has no out-of-the-box group-scheduling package. Collabra Share's function is limited to scheduling server replication.

In Part 2 ...

Email, group messaging, replication, and scheduling are just a few of the capabilities of groupware, in general, and Collabra Share, Lotus Notes, and Microsoft Exchange, in particular. Next month, in Part 2, I'll discuss some other features, including extensibility, administration, installation, integration with existing applications, system requirements, migration tools, training, and more.

Test Systems
Server: Compaq Proliant dual Pentium, 160MB RAM, 10GB disk, Compaq Netflex network adapter
Clients: AST Ascentia 910N laptop, 486 DX4/75, 16MB RAM, 500MB hard disk, 3Com Etherlink III PC-MCIA adapter, Telos 486 DX2/66, 16MB RAM, 1GB hard disk, 3Com Etherlink III network adapter
Contact Info
Collabra Software: Phone: 800-474-7427, Fax: 415-940-6440, Email: [email protected], Web:
Lotus Development: Phone: 800-346-1305, Web:
Microsoft: Phone: 206-882-8080, Web:
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