Lotus hits new high

Each of the last few releases of Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes and Domino products have brought fairly significant improvements to the company's groupware, collaboration and messaging platform. But the evolution of the feature set in Release 5 (R5) product suite of Notes, Domino and Domino Designer eclipses that of prior releases and serves to punctuate the progress that Lotus has made with the Notes/Domino platform in recent years.

Overall, the benefits of R5 include a more powerful and fuller-featured client, a much more robust application development environment and a more powerful application server, which provides powerful administration capabilities and better connectivity and integration to external data stores.

From a competitive standpoint, R5 makes significant strides in eliminating some of the product suite's past weaknesses. Specifically, the ease-of-use and general interface enhancements to the Notes client make it much more competitive than past versions with Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook, the client for its Exchange Server.

Meanwhile, enhancements in Domino's development and server infrastructure start to make the platform a more attractive choice as a World Wide Web-based application server. And enhancements to the platform's administration tools not only make the platform much easier for administrators to manage, but they also should help redefine users' expectations of how distributed messaging and application server environments should be managed.

Client Evolution

Typical Notes end users will perceive the benefits of R5 in two ways: in improved general usability and enhanced features in the new Notes client; and in more feature-rich applications that developers will be able to provide because of enhancements in Domino tools.

The conventional Notes client has been completely overhauled in R5 to provide a much more Web-like experience for Notes users. Lotus also has separated the three elements of the Notes client—end-user functions, design and Domino administration—into distinct components. Each component still uses the same common code base, but administrators now can discriminate easily which components get installed on each user's machine.

From the start, Notes R5 introduces the traditional Notes user to an entirely new experience. R5's new Welcome page provides a graphical Web-like front end that allows users to quickly access common tasks, such as creating new e-mail messages or calendar entries, or to simply open their e-mail inbox or calendar for access to a full range of tasks.

Lotus provides four predefined Welcome pages from which to choose. I was able to customize the look of each page and add custom pages fairly easily. Notes power users can use Domino Designer for more advanced customization. However, I felt Lotus could have enabled a bit more advanced tailoring capabilities from the general Notes interface.

In addition to the Welcome page, the general client interface has undergone a lot of changes. Lotus has incorporated the use of bookmarks and subscriptions into the Notes interface. Bookmarks allow quick access to specific Notes databases, documents or Web pages on the Internet, while subscriptions monitor specific Notes databases for new activity and publish a list of new items posted to those databases.

The new Notes client also benefits from a number of enhancements to core Notes databases, such as the user mail and personal address book databases. These enhancements go a long way toward making the general Notes user experience a more pleasant one.

Application Design

While most people probably do not think of Domino Designer very often when they think about the Notes/Domino platform, this component is critical. If you want to use the platform to deploy rich workgroup applications, it all starts with Domino Designer because its features determine, to a large extent, the kinds of applications you can create for the platform.

Compared with prior versions of the product, Domino Designer R5 is nothing short of awesome. R5 introduces the most robust design client of any previous Notes/Domino release. In particular, the features in this version start to make Domino and the Web look like a natural companionship rather than a forced one.

Using Domino Designer, I was able to quickly create basic Notes applications. Among Domino Designer's new features, I was able to create framesets, which make it possible to present multiple Hypertext Markup Language pages as a single cohesive page, which worked well in Notes and a browser; pages, which now allow for static documents in Domino databases; and outlines, which provide reusable, hierarchical navigation elements to be used in forms or views.

For general form and view authoring, Domino Designer includes numerous small enhancements—such as aligning specific Action buttons to the right or the left, or setting the background color of a view—that will give developers more creative control over the look and feel of their applications. Another feature that I was happy to see implemented is Shared Actions, which allowed me to reuse a single Action button in various forms and views throughout the database.

The new release also provides the ability to utilize JavaScript as an embedded scripting language within forms. Keep in mind, though, that the JavaScript

implementation doesn't really replace Lotus' own LotusScript because it doesn't tie the JavaScript language to a Domino-specific object model. As such, the option to use JavaScript only appears on relevant design elements within a form.

Domino Designer also enables developers to employ Java applets in the database as common design elements to be used in general Notes forms or pages.

Lotus also has ported some of the Notes client interface elements to Java. Through the standard design properties dialog boxes, I was able to set elements, such as Notes view, to render as Java applets (as opposed to HTML) when viewed through a browser. That comes with a price in terms of download time and general interactivity. In general, this performance issue is to be expected, but Lotus still should work on getting the performance of these components up to speed.

Server Advances

There are several key advances in the Domino R5 server, the message and application component of the Notes/Domino solution. R5 offers the full complement of Internet Protocol standards support, including SMTP, POP3, IMAP4, NNTP, LDAP Version 3 and support for X.509 Version 3 certificates. The notable improvements in this release, however, are the integration of Domino Enterprise Connection Services (DECS) and support for running Java-based servlets—Java-based server-side components—on the server.

DECS enables Domino to work more harmoniously with external relational data stores, such as IBM Corp. DB2, Oracle Corp., Sybase Inc., or Microsoft's Open Database Connectivity-compliant databases as well as ASCII databases stored on a file system. The addition of DECS to R5 significantly broadens Domino's capabilities by extending its back end to support more robust database engines while simultaneously providing an integration layer for future knowledge management applications.

Domino has other key points of integration with other platforms. In particular, Domino now allows administrators to configure the product to use Microsoft's Internet Information Service (IIS) Web server, as opposed to the product's built-in Hypertext Transport Protocol server (which is based on code from IBM), as the core HTTP server. Users will be able to integrate Web applications based on Domino and Microsoft's Active Server as a single cohesive Web server platform.

In implementing this feature, I was able to configure Domino as an Internet Server application program interface for IIS. After I completed this task, IIS handled all of the HTTP services, passing requests for Domino databases to the Domino rendering engine. After Domino performs the HTML translation event for the requested database document, it passes the HTML back to IIS. IIS then services the client request. Meanwhile, IIS serves up general HTML pages from the server's file system.

Domino R5 also supports Common Object Request Broker Architecture and Internet InterORB Protocol (CORBA/IIOP) for supporting object calls to and from other distributed application platforms that conform to the CORBA/IIOP specification.

Administration

The functionality in Domino R5's Domino Administrator puts it at the forefront of application and messaging server management.

The Domino Administrator client runs over the traditional Notes client framework. However, the management console itself is constructed in Java, which unfortunately comes with a little bit of a performance disadvantage.

After getting beyond the performance implications of the Java-based tool, I was thoroughly impressed with the capabilities that the Domino Administrator client presented. If you are familiar with the traditional Domino administration interface for performing user registration and server configuration tasks, all of those capabilities can be found in Domino Administrator. But the tool also gives administrators a complete console for keeping tabs on the status of Domino services as well as building and viewing reports and a comprehensive battery of server monitoring statistics.

This release of Domino also keeps the Web-based, Java administrative front end introduced in Version 4.6. However, I found added benefit to this feature in R5—in this release it actually worked!

Overall, the array of improvements in this release of the product suite is staggering. Current Domino shops definitely will want to pursue the upgrade, particularly if they are on the Lotus Passport program or another form of upgrade protection. For sites currently considering a messaging migration, Notes/Domino is a powerfully strong candidate. They will, of course, want to perform a full-blown needs analysis before making a final purchasing decision.

-- Symoens is a senior analyst at the InfoWorld Test Center. He can be reached at jeffsym@ix.netcom.com.

***

Lotus Domino, Notes and Domino Designer Release 5Lotus Development Corp.(617) 577-8500 www.lotus.com

Price and Availability: Lotus Release 5 Suite is available on many resellers' General Services Administration schedules. Average pricing: Notes Desktop client with a one-year subscription, $67; Domino standard server with a one-year subscription, $1,600; and Notes Domino Designer client with a one-year subscription, $407.

Remarks: This latest release of the product suite significantly builds on prior versions and is a "must upgrade" for current Domino sites. Key features include better integration with legacy data, a fully revamped desktop client and greatly improved administration and development capabilities.

Final Score: Excellent

***

Matching up Domino R5 with Exchange 5.5

When making any purchasing decision for an agency or department, particularly infrastructure or platform products, buyers always want to have a good comparative checklist. Although this review is not intended to serve as a full-blown product comparison, here is a look at the key competitive points between the latest releases from the market leaders in the messaging space, Lotus Development Corp.'s Domino Release 5 (R5) and Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange Server 5.5 (with Service Pack 2).

Although Domino and Exchange compete in many of the same areas, the platforms were conceived to solve different problems. As such, the strengths that stem from each platform reflect each product's initial design goals and architecture.

Domino originally was designed as a messaging-enabled, collaborative database application platform. Transforming the platform into a robust messaging platform was not the obvious evolution for Domino, based on early releases of the product. As a result, Domino's most competitive advantages remain its integrated services platform architecture and its robust integrated design client, which is tailored to support rich application development on that architecture.

As Domino has evolved, the platform gained support for open-protocol messaging, discussions and directory access. However, the most significant shift in direction for the platform was the addition of the Hypertext Transport Protocol rendering engine in Release 4.5, which enabled the server to render traditional Notes database documents as Hypertext Markup Language or serve up typical HTML documents from the server's file system.

As a consolidated services platform, the Domino/Notes product suite brings all this functionality together in a tightly integrated fashion better than any other platform. In addition, higher-level services, such as built-in clustering and server partitioning, provide higher availability than other products and enable sites to host multiple-server instances—for example, host data for multiple departments or organizations as separate virtual entities—on a single server.

However, Domino's consolidated platform does have some weak spots. The most critical of these is that Domino's underlying database architecture is not relational, which has performance implications when scaling up an application. As a result, the addition of Domino Enterprise Connections Services in R5 is significant, as it allows for better access to external data stores. Still, for large, busy applications, this approach also could have performance implications.

Microsoft's Exchange was conceived as the evolution of the Microsoft Mail product and was designed to provide a more robust client/server messaging platform than its predecessor. Key design goals for the release of Exchange were to include some basic groupware features, such as public discussion groups and file libraries, called Exchange Public Folders, as well as a strong level of customization for Exchange-based forms.

From its inception, Exchange Server has offered some fairly robust messaging features, such as message logging and recovery and the Exchange Site structure, which incorporates intelligent routing and replication policies between slower connectivity links. In addition, Microsoft has focused on providing strong tools to support migration and coexistence with other messaging systems, such as Lotus' Domino and cc:Mail, and Novell Inc.'s GroupWise. These tools have definitely been a strength as Exchange has struggled up the market-share ladder. Like Domino, Exchange Server has progressively added the full complement of open Internet Protocol support over the last several releases.

The initial extensibility and development capabilities in the first release of Exchange Server were somewhat limited. While forms creation and customization had some rich capabilities, the product required add-ons such as Visual Basic to exploit the capabilities. Exchange Server's development extensions have gotten much better over the years. For example, features—such as the ability for users to create custom views for public folders and the Collaborative Data Objects object model, which finally allowed developers scripted access to Exchange message stores—brought more powerful development options to the platform.

More development options are being added to Exchange Server all the time. However, the product's overall development model of develop-publish-debug/develop-publish-debug is still a bit cumbersome. In addition, the product relies on Internet Information Server (IIS) for World Wide Web services, and because the Exchange Server really doesn't provide an extensible data store, more robust applications will require the addition of a relational database management system, such as Microsoft's SQL Server. Also, to port custom Outlook forms to HTML-based forms for Web access, developers need to run a separate tool. As a result, the full complement of products required to build rich, full-featured applications includes Exchange Server, IIS, SQL Server, Outlook, Exchange Forms Conversion Wizard, Visual Basic and Visual InterDev.

From the user's perspective, there are some differences between the latest releases of Notes and Outlook, but they are fairly on par with each other as far as typical e-mail, contact management and scheduling clients go. Both products have nice features and a few limitations with respect to these areas. In general, Outlook is considered a bit easier to use than Notes, but Notes offers much greater functionality, enabling users to work with Domino databases, browse the Web, post to Usenet newsgroups, read mail, and manage meetings and tasks all without ever leaving the Notes client. Outlook, on the other hand, requires additional tools, such as Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, to handle these additional functions.

-- Jeff Symoens

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