Invite IM in or it could take a back door

Invite IM in or it could take a back door

The Lowdown

  • What is it? Instant messaging is real-time communication among groups of users.


  • Why would you need it? IM is so useful that if your office doesn't implement it, your users might subscribe on their own to a free Web service.


  • How do you prepare for IM? Develop IM management protocols now, before the practice becomes so widespread that messages flood users at work like spam on e-mail systems. Look for the ability to block nuisance users. Limit the number of people in your buddy list. And never assume you have security.


  • What are the security concerns? Internet-based IM security problems run the gamut from transparent communications to difficult firewall configurations.


  • What about compatibility? Follow efforts to make IM systems work together through the Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol Working Group, at www.imppwg.org. Microsoft and IBM-Lotus support this, but AOL does not.

  • If you haven't used instant messaging, you have no idea how useful it is.

    Think of a telephone system that never makes you suffer through voice-mail menus and that doesn't need call waiting because it lets you carry on a dozen conversations at once. It's also like e-mail, except you know your message got through because you get a reply within seconds.

    Instant messaging monitors active network connections for every person in a designated buddy list so the software knows who is online at any given moment.

    You can ignore an instant message, but if you manage your buddy list well by including only people you want or need to hear from, you'll know that the messages are usually important, unlike random e-mail.

    Local is safer

    There are two ways to use IM. In the first, people within an organization, often in the same building, exchange messages on a local network or intranet. The other IM application works between any two Internet or wireless Internet users.

    If your users mostly work with people in the same office or agency, consider a local IM product that you install on your network. But if they are dealing with people outside the agency, Internet IM capability is crucial, although it creates security and management problems.

    Instant messaging over the Web uses two systems'centralized and peer-to-peer. Centralized systems pass all your messages through their servers, possibly recording them, and peer-to-peer systems use central servers to track IP addresses and manage users, but the messages are routed directly between users. Peer-to-peer is best for large file transfers and can offer better security.

    Some IM services combine the two. America Online Inc.'s AIM uses a centralized system for text messages and peer-to-peer for voice, file and image exchange.

    If you choose a free Web IM system, you have to be sure that the people on your buddy list have registered, too, or you won't be able to communicate with them.

    AOL claims the largest number of members and has a commanding presence on the Internet, but it is a proprietary system. Outsiders can't easily contact AOL users, making it essentially useless for government and business users. Also, a large percentage of AIM users are kids.

    Microsoft Corp. released MSN Messenger to compete with rival AOL, and it has a distinct advantage'Microsoft plans to tightly integrate Messenger with its next generation of software. Because the company has about 95 percent of the office market for operating systems and office suites, in a few years nearly everyone with access to the Internet will be accessible via MSN Messenger unless they specifically opt out.

    Earlier this year, Microsoft announced HailStorm, which will bundle the single-sign-on Passport system with the forthcoming Windows XP operating system.

    Some of the proposed features in Windows XP are controversial, and it isn't clear just what capabilities will end up in the shipped version. But what Microsoft does is an important consideration: If your users are about to get secure IM bundled free with their next OS, then you don't need to budget for it.

    Most agencies object to the use of MSN, AOL and other online IM services because of poor security and the difficulty of managing such services. But instant messaging is so useful that agency employees are already using these online IM clients, and many network managers realize that the only way to stop unauthorized use is to implement a secure, manageable IM system of their own.

    John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com.

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