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IM - a Viable Tool for the Enterprise

IM - a Viable Tool for the Enterprise

Instant Messaging (IM) systems have historically leveraged XML as a messaging protocol. The power and flexibility of XML allow IM systems to clearly identify the content and meaning of messages moving through the system. Enterprises are beginning to explore the potential of IM systems as a means of dramatically improving productivity. IM systems will utilize XML not only as a messaging protocol to allow person-to-person communication, but as a means of allowing applications to interact with humans or other applications.

In spite of the powerful capabilities that IM systems provide, the technology has not been rapidly accepted by businesses as an enterprise tool. The technology itself has gained the reputation of being non-productive for an enterprise - even counter-productive. IM technology is overwhelmingly used today by individuals for personal use - the IM community comprises millions of users primarily engaged in personal communication. Many businesses restrict internal usage of popular chat systems to limit the amount of personal communication going on during the workday. Furthermore, IM technology has been commonly identified with chat rooms as a tool for entertaining, personal collaboration. Finally, there haven't been many serious business cases made for use of IM within the enterprise, regardless of the fact that it carries significant advantages over other tried-and-true enterprise technologies like e-mail.

IM technology incorporates many unique and powerful capabilities that are being looked at, indeed implemented, for use within the modern enterprise. Here are just a few:
1.   Presence: Always knowing who is available right now.
2.   Conferencing: The ability to support many people in a collaborative, real-time fashion.
3.   Archival: Easy tracking of all messaging.
4.   Security: Encrypted communication, for example, SSL, can be used.

With the powerful capabilities mentioned above, it's easy to see how IM technology can be used to improve productivity within the enterprise. Presence and conferencing in particular can bring people together to solve problems much more quickly than conventional tools such as e-mail or paging. The next step involves facilitating interaction between not only people, but between people and enterprise applications. Consider enterprise applications with respect to IM technology. What are they? What should they be? Ideally, they would be just like any other "buddy" (with associated presence) that can interact with other entities within the IM layer. If we view enterprise applications as "buddies," it follows that we should be able to define a way of communicating with them through IM to get things done. For example, a purchase order is sent to a vendor and rejected because it contains an invalid part number. The supply chain management (SCM) system notifies the appropriate person via IM, and that person can then modify the part number and resubmit the purchase order entirely by interacting with the SCM "buddy." Also, applications should be able to utilize IM presence to determine which people are available for a variety of interactions, most notably alerts (to facilitate problem resolution) or notifications.

XML is the natural candidate for enabling IM interfaces to a variety of back-end systems. Allowing people to communicate with applications involves exposing a defined set of functionality that can be invoked through the IM layer. When the IM server identifies a message for delivery to an application, the application must be prepared to execute as expected. Through the use of Web services, the IM server is able to indicate to the application what action(s) should be taken.

It's likely that IM will be increasingly used within enterprises as a tool to improve productivity. We're already seeing systems that leverage key IM concepts such as presence to accomplish tasks more quickly than ever before. Furthermore, the trend of exposing enterprise applications using a Web services model will make it easier to allow interaction between humans and applications via an IM layer. With IM capabilities expanding to enable interaction with enterprise applications as well as online friends, don't be surprised if you find yourself chatting with J.D. Edwards or Seibel one day soon.

More Stories By Matt Campbell

Matt Campbell is president of Bowline Solutions, Inc., a focused group of developers and architects specializing in application integration leveraging IM technology. Bowline Solutions has designed and deployed integrated solutions for commercial and federal customers.

More Stories By Carmine Marino

Carmine Marino is CTO of Bowline Solutions, Inc. Carmine's research and development efforts have yielded high-quality IM and XML architectures capable of facilitating person-to-machine interaction via wireless devices.

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