LCS 2005: Business-Grade Messaging with All the Extras
Microsoft's IM environment has matured into an enterprise-class tool, but it packs in more features than most users really need.
The speed and convenience of instant messaging (IM) has been irresistible for business users. For years, they've used it to keep in constant contact with remote colleagues, but they've stirred up a hornet's nest for their employers in the process.
The unregulated flow of data and the constant threat of spyware and adware invasions with consumer-oriented IM services like Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo! give nightmares to network administrators and security managers.
So IT pros were intrigued when a flock of corporate-grade IM products hit the market a couple of years ago. Among them was Microsoft's Live Communications Server (LCS) 2003. LCS 2003 was a major step in the right direction over Exchange IM, adding must-have features like encryption, optional archiving and logging and standards-based protocols.
However, many felt the product's big payoff would come when Microsoft made it more tightly integrated with both Windows Server 2003 and the Office 2003 suite. The folks in Redmond weren't bashful about dropping hints that integration would be a primary focus of the next release.
As expected, you can weave LCS 2005 deeply into Office. This is both a blessing and a curse—it brings additional functionality, but also potential installation and administration headaches. Besides basic IM, LCS 2005 supports peer-to-peer audio, video, application-sharing and data collaboration. If Redmond readers' use is any indication, most
businesses are focusing on fine-tuning basic internal IM practices and procedures, and taking their time to implement LCS 2005's more advanced features.
Up in an Instant—Mostly
Readers' opinions vary widely on how easy it is to get LCS 2005 up and running. "The installation was very easy," says Brian Monroe, a network systems engineer at Maumee, Ohio-based
Therma-Tru Corp., which has about 600 users. Monroe recently upgraded his company from LCS 2003 to LCS 2005.
Monroe believes one reason for the fast install is because Therma-Tru also runs Microsoft's Systems Management Server 2003, which helped him push out the client components. "LCS 2005 was easy to get up on the client side," he says. "We had [it] up and running in about four weeks, and that's including testing."
At the other end of the installation spectrum is Jason Griffith, a network administrator at the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. With
palpable frustration, Griffith says, "I have been a beta tester for Istanbul [the Microsoft code name for LCS 2005]. I wanted to install the address book
service. It won't install—it gives an ‘RPC server unavailable [message].'"
While he did eventually complete the installation, Griffith chafes at what he views as a dearth of documentation and resources to help administrators get LCS up and running.
"We tried to push a project forward to help collaboration between our teams on the call center floor."
Senior Network Engineer, Select Portfolio Servicing
Are You There?
Any potential installation issues aside, LCS 2005's advanced features have been well received—with Presence Control winning especially high marks. "When you IM someone, you can see if that person is actually available to respond or if they're in a meeting," says Christopher Hollenbeck, messaging administrator at Belcan Corp., a Cincinnati IT engineering and staffing firm.
Hollenbeck also appreciates the support for multiple message types, like audio, video and text. "The voice chat feature is a bonus," he adds.
Like Hollenbeck, Andrew Barrett, an information security engineer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency, says Presence Control has won many converts. "We use that feature in a variety of Microsoft Office applications, including Project, Outlook, Word, Excel and SharePoint," he says. "We're very happy with how it connects our organization."
Another of LCS 2005's more intriguing features is public IM connectivity. This licensed service offers a single client that connects your internal LCS users with outside users of the Big Three consumer IM services—MSN Messenger, AOL IM and Yahoo! Messenger. You need Service Pack 1 and a separate license
to use this feature, but public IM
connectivity appeals to many network and security managers because it encrypts data, reduces the number of clients on the desktop and can log and archive IM sessions.
Keeping It Real
Most companies are just using LCS 2005 for straightforward IM, and not delving too deeply into its advanced features. Some of that is likely due to the overall skepticism among IT pros and users over what some still view as a productivity-draining chat toy.
"We tried to push a project forward to help collaboration between our teams on the call center floor," says J. Casalino, a senior network engineer at Salt Lake City, Utah-based Select Portfolio Servicing. "But the managers pushed back, complaining that … employees were wasting time on IM. In fact, some of the managers went so far as to ask our help desk to physically uninstall the IM client from workstations."
Were the workers at Casalino's
company truly wasting time instant messaging with LCS 2005? He doesn't believe any of his managers quantified that, nor did they have any anecdotal evidence to support their misgivings. "I think 85 percent of it was [managers' own discomfort] with the technology. Chatting is regarded by the
general public as a social tool rather
than a business tool," he says. "So we wait and continue allowing one-liner e-mails to flow through the overburdened
Belcan is gradually probing some of LCS 2005's more advanced capabilities. "The ability to integrate application control and white-boarding … is a definite bonus," says Hollenbeck. "The presence feature has been well worth the switch." Belcan previously used the Jabber IM service.
|LCS 2005 a la Carte
Live Communications Server Standard Edition is priced at $787 per server plus $31 per seat, and uses the Microsoft Data Engine, the company's no-cost database manager. It supports up to 15,000 users (that's 50 percent more than LCS 2003) and can only be used in a single-server configuration.
LCS 2005 Enterprise Edition, which costs $3,154 per server plus $31 per seat, necessitates SQL Server 2000. This high-level edition supports up to 100,000 users, and can be deployed in two-tier, multiple-server configurations.
Live Communications Server 2005 Service Pack 1 is a free update that lets users connect with other public IM services (under a separate license); provides better defenses against IM spam; adds support for Microsoft Communicator 2005; and provides additional application programming interface "hooks."
Sticking with LCS 2003—for Now
As a practical matter, companies tend to stick with tried-and-true applications until they have clearly outlived their
usefulness—long after vendors would like them to migrate to the hot new releases. That's certainly the case with LCS 2005.
Several Redmond readers eventually plan to move from the 2003 release to LCS 2005, but they're certainly in no hurry. ASG, a Naples, Fla., software and services firm, investigated an upgrade to LCS 2005, but "put it on hold," says Manager of Network Services Tyler Bonyman. He says the primary reason for the planned upgrade was remote security. Previously, ASG had no way to encrypt and secure laptop users' IM sessions.
The company recently solved that problem when it rolled out Microsoft's Internet Security and Acceleration Server 2004, says Bonyman. "With ISA, we require our own private certificate," he says. "We put it on the laptops. Then [remote] users just authenticate when they log on. That sends them to the LCS 2003 server and encrypts [IM] traffic."
Many readers express relief at having enterprise-grade IM that nestles so easily into Office and the rest of their existing Microsoft infrastructure. The bottom line on LCS 2005, according to most Redmond readers, seems to be, "Thanks for giving us secure IM. We'll check out the other zillion features when we get around to it."
To read more about Microsoft Live Communications Server 2005 on its home page
Learn about Suresh Behera's LCS deployment tips and resources here.
For more detailed information on LCS 2005, check out Definitive Guide to Live Communications Server 2005, by Joe Schurman. ISBN: 0672328186. Paperback, $42.99.
LCS 2005 Wish List
With many users content just to tap into the IM functions of LCS 2005, it clearly isn't missing much in the way of features or advanced functionality. Among readers, the wish list for LCS is pretty sparse. The general consensus is that administration is reasonably painless, and only a few companies have even explored the product's more advanced capabilities. Chris Hollenbeck, messaging administrator for Cincinnati-based Belcan Corp. says his company is just now upgrading to Service Pack 1.
Brian Monroe, network systems engineer for Maumee, Ohio-based Therma-Tru Corp., says he'd appreciate more presence settings for each user—"maybe a customizable field instead of … canned options." He also says Microsoft should improve reporting to give administrators more detailed information on traffic.
Hollenbeck's early experience with LCS 2005 leaves him very hopeful. "My company's goal is to not only extend the functionality of LCS to our entire user population [about 2,500], but also to leverage some of the other features to boost productivity and extend the availability of the help desk—their ability to actually 'see' the problem," he says. Adding secure IM to a communications infrastructure has other intangible benefits as well. "I really found this to be a great tool for our company," says Monroe. "It's reduced phone calls … and e-mails users send for quick questions."