Pushing the envelope

Greater product complexity and user needs raise the stakes for agency e-mail plans

E-mail systems once were stand-alone office productivity applications, providing an alternative and decidedly secondary way to communicate after the telephone. As such, they differed little in magnitude or significance from other applications, such as word processing and spreadsheets, except that e-mail always required a server while the other applications could run on just a PC.

In time, though, users came to depend on it for more of their jobs, and soon collaborative computing tools came along that let users share and edit centrally managed documents. Now instant messaging, videoconferencing and centralized calendar management are viewed increasingly as expected components.

Those changes spelled the demise of popular e-mail products such as Lotus Development Corp.'s cc: Mail, Microsoft Corp.'s Mail and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenMail. They have been largely replaced by Lotus Domino and Notes, Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, and Novell Inc.'s GroupWise.

The greater complexity of the new products, along with vendor strategies that tie e-mail more closely to basic infrastructure such as operating systems and network directories, make selecting the right e-mail package trickier than ever.

"The emphasis is no longer on improving e-mail, but on collaborative computing technologies such as instant messaging, conferencing and groupware that will sit on top of that e-mail infrastructure," said Matt Cain, vice president of Web and collaboration strategies at META Group Inc., a market research firm.

Tough Choices

Agencies entering the market will find a well-defined field: Lotus is the leader, with Microsoft in second place and closing, according to market analysts. Novell is the third-party candidate, high enough in the polls to be invited to the debates, but running a distant third.

META Group analysts put the pecking order at 100 million worldwide e-mail users for Lotus, 90 million for Microsoft and 28 million for Novell. IDC estimates that Lotus holds 39 percent of the global market for integrated collaborative environment (ICE) e-mail products, Microsoft has 34 percent and Novell has 15 percent.

An e-mail migration isn't a decision to be made lightly, but more users are finding vendors dropping support of older e-mail systems, so they have little choice but to start considering their options. "If you have an old e-mail system that may be unstable or isn't supported anymore, like cc: Mail, then the time is right to move away from that," Cain said.

But the difference in cost between a plain-Jane e-mail system and a full-blown ICE product can be shocking. "Many users don't have an overwhelming need to pay $25 to $45 a seat to pay for an ICE product," said Robert Mahowald, a senior research analyst at IDC.

"The collaborative functions might be wasted for them. Stand-alone e-mail can be had for 25 cents to $3 a seat...a huge cost savings," Mahowald said. Agencies will "see a cost savings they can't ignore."

Agencies considering the new ICE products must sort through the bewildering array of features and product claims to choose the right e-mail system for the future.

"Between 60 and 70 percent of our customers deploy some kind of collaborative applications," said Ed Brill, senior manager of enterprise messaging for Lotus. "We've seen a tremendous uptake in real-time messaging, such as instant messaging, shared whiteboard [and] videoconferencing."

Brill thinks that eventually, products will blend asynchronous messaging — standard e-mail exchanges — with synchronous or real-time messaging technology.

Once agencies decide to ante up for the new technology, the choices are tough. Despite many similar features and claims, the three primary e-mail products have different pros and cons, according to Cain. "Customers should consider their directory plans," he said. "If they are going to [Microsoft's] Active Directory, then Microsoft Exchange is the way to go. If they are interested in collaboration, instant messaging, videoconferencing and team ware, then Domino has the lead in that area."

Although Cain doesn't rate GroupWise as the leader in either area, he said customers should not rule it out. "I think Novell is more of a steady state environment," he said. "The installed base is adding additional licenses, and they are putting resources into developing new versions of that product. If you are a committed [Novell Directory Services] shop, we'd say stay the course for another few years and then re-evaluate every year or so."

Novell officials say their products' strengths are flexibility and ease of use. "We provide collaboration services that are easily accessible," said Paul Turner, Novell's director of product management for collaboration services. "Lotus Notes requires a lot of configuration and administration. We've got migration tools that allow customers to be up and running in days instead of weeks."

Management Headaches

Many agencies are weighing management concerns as they shop for products.

For starters, the e-mail explosion has caused e-mail servers to multiply, which increases the cost and workload. Agencies are finding that the latest releases of Domino, Exchange and GroupWise support many more users on each server, which eases the management strain.

For security and availability, how.ever, those fewer servers may have twins that provide replication, so if they fail for any reason, an identical server at another location is prepared to take over without interruption.

"The biggest requirement we are seeing is consolidation," said Tim Dioquino, program manager for secure messaging in Microsoft's federal office. "They need to consolidate and back them up as efficiently as possible." Microsoft itself has been able to slash its number of e-mail servers by 75 percent through consolidation.

The server operating system employed is a significant consideration when considering e-mail server products, because Exchange only supports its own operating systems. Agencies committed to remaining with other operating systems, such as Unix variants, Novell NetWare or IBM Corp. minicomputer or mainframe operating systems, must rule out Exchange.

Microsoft is trying to throw Windows' hat into the ring by encouraging agencies that don't want to make a strategic move away from their current operating systems to consider deploying a single Windows 2000 server for just e-mail. The Unix clients can run an e-mail client that works with Exchange servers, according to Microsoft. An example is the Army Tactical Messaging service, which created a Unix client using third-party tools to work with Exchange on a Windows 2000 server.

Another example is the Transportation Department, where the Federal Aviation Administration decided to standardize on Domino, even though the rest of the department uses Exchange.

"We see a lot of mixed environments," Mahowald said. "I can't think of an advantage other than comfort of the users [who are familiar with a particular product]. But there's not a tremendous disadvantage other than having to maintain separate systems and separate administrators."

But in the long run, maintaining two systems is less efficient, he said. "Over time, it becomes a competitive disadvantage to maintain multiple systems."

Carney is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.