Web collaboration: No bad options

Given the lightning speed with which our decision-making processes flow these days and the increase in telecommuting staff, using Web-based collaboration tools makes more sense than ever. For agencies, administering an integrated collaboration suite is a good option when compared with the time needed to maintain one or more stand-alone tools.

We recently examined four integrated collaboration suites and found the core collaboration functionality — such as document sharing and instant messaging — to be fairly standard in all of them. Whether your agency chooses to evaluate SiteScape Inc.'s Enterprise Forum Version 7.0, Groove Networks Inc.'s Groove Workspace Version 2.1, IBM Corp.'s Lotus QuickPlace Version 3.0, or Documentum Inc.'s eRoom Version 6, the basic features compare favorably to one another.

More likely, three other factors will drive your choice of an integrated collaboration suite. The first of these is what platforms the suite supports. For example, if your agency uses Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris or IBM's OS/400, your choice of suites will be narrow from the start.

Pricing may also drive your decision. The per-user cost for these collaboration suites is similar (less than $100), except for eRoom, which is significantly higher. Prices for the server components of these suites range from $1,000 to more than $16,000.

Choosing the right collaboration suite for your agency, however, may ultimately come down to features that go beyond core collaboration, such as integration with desktop applications and security capabilities.

SiteScape Enterprise Forum 7.0

SiteScape's Enterprise Forum 7.0 was a good performer in our distributed collaboration tests. Accessing the suite from different Web browsers was easy and the portal-like interface is simple to use.

In particular, the new task features were very helpful. We were able to associate tasks with discussions and quickly view the status of our tasks thanks to the colored indicators that showed assignments' status.

Document sharing and editing is very easy with Enterprise Forum. The latest version of the suite includes a Java applet that lets you launch a document-handling application, such as WordPerfect, while in a discussion. Once you have edited your document, you can upload it to the server, where Enterprise Forum changes the version of the document. We had no trouble using any of the core collaboration features of the suite. We tried the HTML-based chat facility, threaded discussions and the search feature, which enabled us to locate information across multiple work spaces.

Administering the suite was also simple. We were able to customize the look and feel of the graphical interfaces by using HTML templates. Task delegation and access control lists also are supported. Integrating Enterprise Forum with our Lightweight Directory Access Protocol server proved easy, and we were able to automate account setups using LDAP.

A development toolkit is also available to help programmers further customize Enterprise Forum usage within agencies. Databases can be integrated with the suite using ODBC support, which is included.

Enterprise Forum differs from its rivals by providing optional portal, Web conferencing and computer-aided design file support. The suite can integrate with portals from Oracle Corp., Plumtree Software, Viador Inc. and Citrix Systems Inc. Agencies that want to hold online meetings can use available support for online collaboration company PlaceWare's real-time service.

Groove Networks Groove Workspace 2.1

Groove Networks' Groove Workspace 2.1 is a highly capable collaboration suite. Although it is centered more on Microsoft technologies than its rivals, Groove Workspace provides solid core collaboration tools.

We found it very easy to set up "shared spaces" using the included Groove Workspace tools. You might think of shared spaces as work areas that you organize by team or by project within a team.

Groove Workspace includes different tools to facilitate collaboration, and you can choose which ones you want to associate with a particular shared space. We added calendar, project management and discussion tools to one shared space while adding the pin board — a tool for reminders — and document review and meeting management tools to a second shared space.

Useful for workflow automation, Groove Workspace includes a forms tool that can be used to collect and share common information, such as frequently asked questions. Developers can use tools from the suite to customize forms for specific agency processes.

A new feature in Groove Networks' latest release is support for IBM Lotus Notes. An included wizard made it easy for us to create a shared space from Lotus Notes e-mail and databases. The new support also provides an easy mechanism for agencies that might be considering migrating away from Lotus Notes.

Groove Networks also has improved its instant messaging capabilities in this latest release. Users now can not only chat in real time, but the chat string can be held in memory until users respond. We tried the new support for message forwarding as well as the message reply history feature and found both to be useful for staffers who may be working together on projects at different times.

When compared with other collaboration suites, Groove Workspace places a good deal of emphasis on application developers. The company supplies a development kit that can help Microsoft Visual Basic developers and Web application creators (HTML, JavaScript and Microsoft VBScript) integrate collaboration capabilities into their applications.

A second toolkit is also available for developers who might be building applications and Web services using Microsoft .NET technologies. Agencies using Microsoft's Visual Studio.NET can access and use reusable Groove Workspace components within the integrated development environment.

IBM Lotus QuickPlace 3.0

In terms of enterprise platforms, Lotus QuickPlace reaches further than its rivals. The tightly integrated collaboration suite can be hosted on everything from a Solaris server to a mainframe. Although it does not yet offer a Linux-based client, QuickPlace does support Windows and Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh end users as well as the Netscape Communications Corp. Navigator and Internet Explorer browsers.

While rival Groove Networks' collaboration suite is centered on Microsoft technologies, QuickPlace works with the IBM Domino server and an instant messaging and Web conferencing component, Lotus Sametime, to provide a robust collaboration platform. QuickPlace is an ideal solution for agencies that already have deployed the Domino server.

We had no trouble setting up QuickPlace, but installation took longer than others. Once installed, the included "My Places" interface provides one-stop access to all work spaces the user belongs to. Accessing multiple work spaces was easy.

Like Enterprise Forum, QuickPlace includes a useful search tool, which enabled us to easily find information across our work spaces or within a single work space. We also liked the "room map" feature, with which we rapidly navigated work spaces.

QuickPlace integrates with Sametime to provide instant messaging and Web conferencing capabilities. With a quick glance, we could see who was online, who was away and who asked not to be disturbed. We held several one-on-one chats as well as group meetings, in which we shared documents and collaborated on several test projects.

One thing the Sametime module does well when compared with rivals is support textual communications and audio- and video-based collaboration. We easily set up and used the audio and video features among three distributed sites. Agencies that require a heavy degree of distributed communications will find Sametime a very useful tool.

QuickPlace compares favorably to the other suites in terms of calendar integration. When we wanted to schedule collaboration sessions or online meetings, QuickPlace provided tight integration with both Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook calendar functions. We had no trouble setting up events.

In a fashion similar to Enterprise Forum, QuickPlace lets you create and modify business documents from the convenience of a Web browser. Aside from accessing and modifying several documents, we liked that we also could save and share document content in standard formats, such as HTML.

Agency staffers can still work on shared documents while off-line. Once back online, QuickPlace does a good job of synchronizing the locally updated documents with those already on the server.

QuickPlace also does a good job of helping project teams closely track tasks and project milestones. We found it equally easy to view and track tasks and milestones for a single project and multiple projects.

Another useful QuickPlace feature was the e-mail integration capabilities. We could send e-mail to shared work spaces and receive notifications from various work spaces about tasks, events and collaborative updates.

As with Groove Workspace, the look and feel of QuickPlace can be modified either on an individual or agencywide basis.

Like Enterprise Forum, QuickPlace can be integrated with LDAP servers, including the one integrated with Domino. We had no trouble linking QuickPlace with the Domino LDAP server.

IBM has also placed strong emphasis on developer tools to integrate QuickPlace collaboration components into agency applications. For example, the company provides a Web services development kit that enables QuickPlace integration across all Java-supported systems as well as Microsoft Windows NT and 2000 platforms.

In addition, there is a QuickPlace Developer's Kit that can be used to extend QuickPlace to custom-built agency applications. You might use the developer kit to automate workflow as we did or to build additional levels of authentication or auditing.

Documentum eRoom Version 6

ERoom compares quite favorably to the other suites in terms of core collaboration functionality. We found eRoom easy to use, whether users were within the same walls or miles apart. In particular, it was simple to set up work spaces that were customized by team and project.

Starting a collaboration session with eRoom is as easy as selecting people from the directory. ERoom sends e-mail invitations with a link to the online work space to participants.

Like its competitors, eRoom does a good job of enabling project planning and group document modification. We were able to create and modify several Microsoft Office documents together during a collaboration session, and then we embedded the documents into our threaded discussion, which was handy as a reference point as the discussion progressed.

Agencies using eRoom can take polls of participants as part of the decision-making process. The polling function worked well, although it may be useful only when larger groups of people are collaborating on a project.

The shared calendar integration in eRoom is also well implemented. Agencies that use Outlook will be able to easily schedule shared collaboration sessions.

The notification and alert functionality in eRoom was particularly useful. Staffers can be kept up-to-date on changes in one or more work spaces. We used the notification feature to create a status update on our projects.

Like Groove Workspace, Enterprise Forum and QuickPlace, eRoom users can work on projects and content online or off-line and then synchronize updates with the server. We found that this functionality worked well, and we also liked how easy it was to view and work with multiple projects.

One other especially useful feature is built-in support for dragging and dropping documents into work spaces. We were able to include several Office documents in our work spaces using this approach and then give authorized users access to the documents.

Like the other suites, eRoom does a good job of saving different versions of documents so changes can be monitored. We could easily view document changes via the history. An agency might use eRoom to set up an automated workflow for business processes or document approvals using the built-in facilities.

ERoom's integration with Outlook goes beyond calendar linkage. Agencies that use Outlook may find eRoom particularly compelling because eRoom work spaces can be opened directly from Outlook. Likewise, users can synchronize tasks and calendar entries with eRoom.

ERoom compares favorably to the other suites in terms of its real-time capabilities. For example, we were able to mark several documents during our collaboration sessions without a hitch. ERoom also supports application and desktop sharing.

Instant messaging with eRoom is straightforward. We could chat one-on-one or in a group easily and invite other people to join our online meeting.

Administrating eRoom is not at all complicated. We chose to integrate eRoom with an LDAP server so that we could link with our user directory. ERoom also can integrate with Windows NT networks or Microsoft's Active Directory.

There are two administrative interfaces for eRoom. The first is a Web-based console that supports remote administration of the eRoom server. The second is a plug-in to Microsoft's Management Console. Both are easy to access and use.

Administrators can use a template-based approach to quickly set up workspaces for project types that might be repetitive. Agencies might also want to consider integrating eRoom into their intranet or extranet environment.

Developers can use the eRoom Application Programming Interface to build custom applications that include eRoom components. Like QuickPlace and Groove Workspace, eRoom also offers support for Web services standards, such as Extensible Markup Language and Simple Object Access Protocol. Additionally, eRoom offers enterprise connectors to support integration with databases and other enterprise applications.

There were only two real downsides we found when examining eRoom. The first is its price. On both the client and server side, eRoom costs more than its rivals. Second, eRoom's server platform limitation to Windows may not bode well for agencies using other server platforms, such as Sun's Trusted Solaris Operating Environment. Expanding eRoom's server platform support would make the suite more applicable to more agencies.

Closely Matched

All of the collaboration suites we examined are very well matched against one another in terms of core collaboration functionality. Any of these solutions is a good choice for agencywide or interagency collaboration.

If your agency already is standardized on the Windows platforms or you've adopted Microsoft .NET and are deploying Web services, Groove Workspace might be an ideal choice. If you have varied client operating systems and mainly Windows servers, eRoom might be a good fit.

However, we give Enterprise Forum and QuickPlace a slight nod over Groove Workspace and eRoom. Enterprise Forum offers solid functionality that is flexible and will fit into most any agency. It also offers the best ratio of price to features.

On the other hand, QuickPlace has the edge over the other suites when it comes to enterprise platform reach, integration capabilities with enterprise applications and resources, and Java programmability.

No matter which collaboration suite you choose to implement at your agency, it is clear that these tools have developed and are ready to help you tackle major project initiatives, process automation and workflow enhancements.

Biggs is a freelance writer based in Northern California. She has more than 15 years of business and IT experience.

REPORT CARDS

Chart: "Comparing collaboration software" (PDF)

***

SiteScape Enterprise Forum 7.0
Grade: B+
SiteScape Inc.
(910) 256-5038
www.sitescape.com
Enterprise Forum costs $49 to $99 per client; $1,000 and more per server.
Enterprise Forum offers solid, flexible functionality that will fit into almost any agency.

***

Groove Networks
Groove Workspace 2.1
Grade: B
Groove Networks
(978) 720-2000
www.groove.net
Groove Workspace costs $49 per user for the Standard Edition, $99 per user for the Enterprise Edition and $2,495 for the Starter Kit.
Groove Workspace provides solid core collaboration tools but focuses on Microsoft Corp. technologies.

***

IBM Lotus QuickPlace 3.0
Grade: B+
IBM Corp.
(888) 746-7426
www.lotus.com
Lotus QuickPlace costs $40 per client and $8,645 per server.
QuickPlace offers broad support for enterprise platforms from Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris 8 servers to mainframes as well as integration with enterprise applications.

***

Documentum eRoom 6
Grade: B
Documentum Inc.
(617) 497-6300
www.eroom.com
ERoom costs $249 per client and $16,995 per server.
ERoom offers collaborative functionality but lacks broad server support because it only supports Microsoft Corp. Windows.

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