Collaboration Made Easier For Less

by Joseph Moran

If you're looking for a way to let your employees share calendars, contacts and schedules without the complexity and cost of MS Exchange, Ipswitch Collaboration Suite could do the trick.

For most businesses, e-mail is a critical communications tool, and at many organizations, hosted POP3 /IMAP mail service provides cheap and convenient e-mail. Companies that covet the additional control and collaboration features you get by running an internal mail server may, however, be put off by the cost and complexity of purchasing and maintaining a technically challenging e-mail infrastructure using something like Microsoft Exchange.

Ipswitch, a Lexington, Mass.-based software company, is attempting to bridge the gap between simple hosted e-mail and the intricacies of an Exchange implementation with its new Ipswitch Collaboration Suite (ICS), which includes an e-mail server, schedule-and-address-book sharing and instant messaging.

Installation and Configuration
Getting ICS up and running on a server isn't complicated, since you can install and configure all of the components with a single setup wizard. You can run ICS on either Windows 2000 or 2003 Server and configure it to create accounts automatically from the records it finds in your Windows domain.

Although installing the ICS server is a unified process, a separate administration application controls each component. Keeping each module compartmentalized like this has its advantages, but it can also make for a confusing phalanx of open windows. Ipswitch plans a single Web-based console for the next iteration of ICS, along with remote server administration capability.

Ipswitch Collaboration Suite administration screen
Click here for a larger image.

On the client side, you need to install two pieces of software — the IM client and a plug-in for Outlook 2000 or later (alas, it's the only mail client ICS supports) to enable information sharing. It would have been convenient if the server software automatically set up a shared distribution point for the client software, but instead an administrator must locate the two applications within the ICS software's folder structure and manually create a shared folder to get them to clients.

The client applications are straightforward enough to be installed by an end user, though computers running software firewalls may require additional configuration because both the IM client and the Outlook plug-in require specific open ports for data transfer.

Mail Protection
The core of the Ipswitch Collaboration Suite is the company's IMail mail server, and since spam is the bane of every company's existence, IMail includes anti-spam capabilities that let you filter messages based on content, origin or other properties that may indicate that a message is questionable.

The many configurable options may be intimidating for anyone concerned about effectively blocking spam without unintentionally blocking legitimate mail. As an alternative, the Premium Edition of ICS requires little configuration — it includes more sophisticated filtering that identifies spam based on a signature database instead of general message characteristics.

Spam is more than just annoying; it's a drain on both productivity and computing resources, and it can also contain damaging viruses. The Standard Edition of ICS includes a basic mail server anti-virus application that doesn't provide much in the way of reporting capability. In contrast, the Premium Edition incorporates Symantec anti-virus, which offers a separate browser-based administration console and advanced logging and alert functions.

Workgroup Share
When you install the Outlook plug-in on an employee's PC, ICS automatically publishes the person's Calendar, Contacts, Notes and Tasks. You can tailor what information to share depending on your specific needs and set permissions for access. For example, you can give an administrative assistant access to his or her superior's Inbox in order to monitor or send e-mail on that person's behalf.

When an individual shares information, it's easily visible by others as a hierarchical folder in Outlook. Each client automatically synchronizes its information with the server every 20 minutes, but you can configure it to take place more or less frequently.

Ipswitch Collaboration Suite workgroup sharing
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Beyond letting employees view each other's schedules, you can also take advantage of Outlook's Free/Busy feature to avoid conflicts when scheduling group meetings or access to resources like a conference room.

To access someone's data when scheduling a meeting, you can specify a prospective attendee by providing that person's e-mail address. Unfortunately, ICS doesn't automatically create a comprehensive list of individual accounts for you to pick from (analogous to the Global Address List in Exchange), so you have to create your own list using the administration utility and then add people to it via an Outlook, which can be time consuming if you have a lot of accounts.

Instant Messaging
Although not quite as critical as e-mail, instant messaging has steadily become, however informally, an important business tool for many companies. ICS provides its own IM server so that your employees can securely communicate with each other quickly and efficiently. It even gives you a spell-checker.

The Ipswitch Collaboration Suite's IM Server is a closed system, because at the moment there isn't a common technological standard that will allow people who use the many IM services to communicate with each other. This means you can only use the ICS IM Server to contact other people or groups using ICS and not, for example, an outside client or supplier that's using another utility like AIM or MSN Messenger.

Ipswitch Collaboration Suite instant messaging
Click here for a larger image.

While the lack of outside access could be considered a limitation, it can also be a benefit because it reduces the likelihood that the IM system will be used for productivity-draining, non-work related communication.

But there's another benefit to having your IM provider in-house: auditing — which is important if your business is subject to IT regulations. In addition to tracking system events like who logs on and off, and when, IM Server's Conversation Store retains the full content of every exchange that transpires on the system — the default is seven days, but you can extend up to 32,767 days, which is a bit shy of 90 years — so your audit trial can be as long as you like (or as applicable regulations require).

Another useful by-product of the Conversation Store is that you can send employees or co-workers an IM even if they're currently offline. When they log onto the system, they're notified that they missed part of the conversation and can catch up with a click of a button. (Whether or not they avail themselves of that capability, the missed entries are included in the Conversation Store.)

If there's a potential snag in the IM Server's detailed record keeping, it's that the system stores each conversation and each log in separate text files, which over time could make finding a specific piece of information time consuming unless you have some idea of what you're looking for and approximately where to find it.

Will choosing the Ipswitch Collaboration Suite save your company money over, say, implementing Exchange 2003? Chances are good that it will, though the savings will vary according to the size of your organization.

For example, the Premium Edition of the Ipswitch Collaboration Suite costs $1,495 for 25 people (the Standard Edition price is $1,295.) By comparison, at retail pricing Exchange 2003 Standard with 25 Client Access Licenses will cost just north of $2,000 (and Exchange doesn't come with anti-virus or instant messaging components.) The price difference will vary based on how many seats you need and what Microsoft licensing terms you qualify for, but in most cases the up-front costs of ICS should prove to be lower.

Of course, the cost of purchasing software is often only a fraction of the cost of maintaining it, and in this respect ICS has advantages as well. Although it does require some technical knowledge to set up to greatest effect, it doesn't require someone with certification letters after their name or the word "engineer" in their title — something that can't be said about Exchange. Moreover, you get one year of telephone technical support with ICS.

Bottom Line
If you're looking for collaboration features like shared calendars or instant messaging, you're likely to find the Ipswtich Collaboration Suite a relatively simple and cost-effective means of providing them. Just to be sure, you can also download a full-function, 30-day trial version of the software.

Price: $1,495 (Premium Edition, 25 seats)

Pros: cost effective; includes instant messaging and server anti-virus software

Cons: multiple administration consoles; must manually create companywide address book

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in St. Petersburg, FL. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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  This article was originally published on Monday Aug 29th 2005
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