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Businesses Embrace Instant Messaging

Monday, January 15, 2001

By David Strom
CNET Enterprise

Managing IM

IM can quickly establish itself in a company. “We have found that word of mouth and email are all that is needed to spread IM around,” says John Patrick, vice president of Internet Technology for IBM. “Within hours, we have found thousands of new IM users were established this way.” IBM currently has more than 250,000 IM users. “It is the communications channel of choice for the company,” says Patrick, “with over 2 million messages being sent daily.” He uses IM to communicate when he travels. “When I am in a hotel room and only have a single phone line and am online with my computer, my secretary can easily reach me, since she sees that I am online.”

However, IT involvement will probably be required for IM to truly take off in most companies. Using a private IM product requires setting up your own IM server and linking it to your corporate directory. Such an activity isn’t that complex; indeed, it’ll probably involve only an hour or two of work and be far easier than setting up most email servers. The cost may range from $10 to $90 per desktop; however, IM can be free if you opt for one of the public IM services. The biggest challenge is setting up a single directory for your enterprise, if you don’t already have one, or connecting any IM solution with your existing directory services. Sametime, for example, works with a Domino/Notes server, and others work with LDAP servers.

IM does have one major drawback: The lack of an audit trail. You don’t get a trail unless users print out a copy of each session. “Email is especially effective when a record of the communications is necessary,” says Moss. But this drawback isn’t affecting the Navy’s use of IM. “You would think that an organization that is as structured as ours would resist this, but everyone has embraced IM and we are willing to live with the occasional problem,” says Houston. So, organizations that require audit trails should avoid IM and stick with email.

With so many messages flying around, you’d expect security problems to abound. However, you can protect your systems from viruses via encryption. “Sametime’s message traffic is encrypted, and we are finding lots of CIOs who want their people to be able to have confidential conversations easily,” says Patrick. This encryption is built into the product. There is nothing for the user to operate or adjust, unlike email encryption products, which are more complex and not as transparent.

Another related IM problem, however, has to do with attachments. Given that a virus-infected attachment on an IM message could be quickly sent around a corporation, there is the potential to rapidly infect an entire network. Good practice for any corporation, with or without IM, is to secure its desktops with solid antivirus software.