Air Force abuzz over instant messaging app

The Air Force has added instant messaging to its Web portal, which ties together 700 databases and hundreds of applications at 110 sites.

'We call it the Online Collaboration Center,' said Capt. Kirk Phillips, chief of the IT division for the Air Force Senior Leadership Management Office. 'What we're doing right now is exploring the potential.'

Instant messaging is two people chatting one-on-one by typing text, Phillips said, but 'we use it more for collaborating on issues, without telephones or e-mail tag.'

Conferencing typically involves 10 to 20 people chatting. 'Rarely do you get more than that,' Phillips said. The portal already had document sharing to supplement text conferencing.

The Bantu Enterprise Instant Messaging Platform chosen by the Air Force also is part of the Army's Knowledge Online portal and used by the Navy and the departments of Commerce, Homeland Security and State.

IM technology was more or less forced on the government as a fait accompli, said Larry Schlang, chief executive officer of Bantu Inc. of Washington.

People just started using IM products from America Online Inc., Yahoo.com and Microsoft Corp., Schlang said, and 'they saw how effective the commercial products were. Collaboration is a big mandate in government, and immediacy is more important than ever.'

But bringing consumer products into the government workplace opened new holes for malicious code to enter and for sensitive information to leak out, with no way to manage or archive the traffic.

Security comes first

The government's first requirement for an enterprise-grade instant messaging platform is security, Schlang said. It must encrypt traffic and be compatible with existing firewall and proxy server infrastructures.

Bantu uses Secure Sockets Layer encryption and works with several encryption products certified under Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2. Client-side digital certificates manage identity. There usually is no need to open new ports or change security rules for Bantu, which automatically logs and archives all communications, Schland said.

The platform allows conventional instant messaging through buddy lists as well as conferencing with multiple chatters. But the feature the company touts most is presence management'the ability to see and manage the online status of all users, as well as to search by various criteria to find the person you need to communicate with. These functions can run on the same or separate servers. The chat function uses Java applets so there is no client software to load.

It was easy to get up and running, and easy to use, Phillips said.

'It's something we've used at home for years,' he said. 'There's nothing complicated about it. It's so simple, you think, 'Why didn't we use it a long time ago?''

The Air Force began awarding contracts for its portal in 2001. BroadVision Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., received a four-year, $13 million contract for its One-to-One Enterprise and InfoExchange Portal products. Plumtree Software Inc. of San Francisco got a $2.4 million contract for content development and management software. An enterprise license was negotiated with Bantu in April 2003.

Phillips said the chat room format keeps discussions focused and easier to manage than face-to-face meetings.

'Within seconds of finishing, you can save and e-mail the entire conference,' he said. Participants don't have to take minutes or generate a transcript.

Next on the conferencing agenda is mass online meetings.

'We see some town hall features as having great potential down the road,' Phillips said.

Present chat rooms aren't designed for that, but building such a meeting space would not be difficult, he said. 'You could do a couple of minor tweaks and turn it into a town hall.'

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