by December 2, 2003 0 comments

Instant Messaging–text-based chatting in real time with anyone, anywhere in the world–is a common way to keep in touch with friends or business associates. It also helps cut down expensive long-distance calls and travel costs as you can even invite colleagues for online conferences. Depending on your IM solution and infrastructure, you can extend your IM’s capabilities to include online voice chats and video conferencing. Here are some issues to keep in mind when deploying instant messaging in an organization. 

Public or private? 
In the public domain, there are IMs such as Yahoo, MSN and ICQ. Though these are free to download, they are difficult to manage and control–you can’t control who logs in, nor can you monitor the user’s activities. This can be a security risk as anyone can pass confidential information out. So, you must think twice before using them for business purposes. 

Public IMs don’t let you manage and control user IDs. So, with them you can’t control whom your employees chat with. A disgruntled employee could pass info to competition, while general chatting reduces employee productivity and can be an entry point for malicious software
Public IMs use more bandwidth than private IMs even for simple chatting on the LAN. Bandwidth requirements increase if you use audio, video, desktop sharing, whiteboarding, etc. Private IMs require a separate server

Public: Yahoo, MSN, Jabber, ICQ. Private: Lotus SameTime, MS Exchange 2000 server’s built-in messaging. Free server: ICQ Groupware beta (You could start out trying this one)

Small organizations having a handful of nodes (say 50) could opt for a public IM as manageability wouldn’t be a major issue.

Managing user Ids is another gray area with public IMs, especially since you can’t even define your own. You’ll have to live with whatever’s available with the public IM server. While a small office may not have problems creating these Ids, it can nevertheless be a headache maintaining them.

With private IMs, on the other hand, you can restrict the communication within your company and also monitor their usage.

Lotus SameTime, for instance, allows you to see who’s logged in and for how long. In Private IMs, you can also define your own user IDs. 

Resource requirements
While public IMs can help you cut down phone calls, cost may go up in other places, say your Internet connectivity costs.

That’s because even if two IMs are on the same network, they’ll have to first communicate with the parent IM server, hence requiring an increase in the Internet connectivity bandwidth. Also, a slow Net connect and the IM server being down can be a problem. Here again, a private IM is a boon as you control the server and local communication doesn’t need to access the Internet. This can speed up file transfers. Public IMs, on the other hand, have difficulty with file transfers through a proxy or firewall.

Resource requirements for an IM solution depend upon the features you need and the investments you’re willing to make. For instance, if security is not a prime concern, and you still need a quick means of communication, then a public IM is good enough. With private IMs, most players offer custom solutions, where price depends upon your messaging requirements.

Features can be anything beyond text-based chat, such as online meetings, whiteboard and application sharing and voice and video support. If you’re a medium-sized organization, you’ll need a separate hardware server for your IM server and spend extra bucks on the network OS. 

If you also plan to use it for video and application sharing, then you have to ensure that your existing local network bandwidth can take the extra load. You may need to upgrade to a 10/100 Mbps switched network if you have a shared one for voice and application sharing. For video, you might need a 100 Mbps switched network.

One of the many hazards of using a public IM is that anyone using a packet-sniffing utility can capture chat conversations, as shown in the highlighted area

Security concerns
Since most public IMs can change their port number for communication (they could even use port 80, the default port for Web access), it is difficult to block them. So, if you decide to implement a private IM, you should remove the public IMs from all the clients. Lack of confidentiality and security are two other areas where private IMs score over the public ones. In Yahoo Messenger, there were cases of messages reaching the wrong recipients. Plus, most public IMs don’t have support for encrypted conversation. It happens in clear text, so anyone with a packet capturing utility can easily capture and read conversations. Lastly, the latest trouble with public IMs is that of virus threats. Today, viruses are being developed that specifically spread through IMs. Private ones haven’t yet registered this type of a problem.

Another critical security issue is whether the person you’re sending a message to is actually there. For all you know, someone else might be faking as the recipient of your message, and could extract confidential information. The way out is not through technology, but by caution. You could, for instance, set up certain questions and answers that are known only to you and the 

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