Take Notes

Latest version of Lotus Notes and Domino has enough features, upgrades to keep Microsoft Exchange at bay

GCN Lab Reviewer's Choice: Lotus Notes and Domino 7.0

Performance: A

Features: A

Ease of use: A

Value: A-

Price: Domino starts at $1,145 per CPU; Notes starts at $101 per client

Reviewer's comments: The Notes client makes some nice strides with this release, helping inundated workers manage information overload. Domino finally gets smart, helping servers heal themselves when problems arise.

Contact:IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., (888) 746-7426, www.ibm.com

With IBM's Lotus Notes client on the front end and a Domino server on the back, agencies can have a robust enterprise collaboration platform that handles most office tasks'despite what Microsoft says. The Redmond giant has made converting holdouts from Notes to Exchange its mission in life. That won't be easy for organizations with investments in custom Notes apps.

The GCN Lab installed Notes and Domino 7 on our test network for a month-long test. We'd been running Version 6.5.1 of both programs over the network and wanted to see if Version 7 improved an already vastly improved interface.

The answer is, it does. Both end users and administrators will appreciate a better Notes/Domino 7. Although two of the most significant changes'DB2 support and the ability to fix performance issues on the fly'are features of Domino, most users will likely notice improvements to the Notes client. So that's where we'll start.

Common ground

The last version of Notes took a page from Microsoft Corp. in giving the suite a homogeneous look and feel. A user trained to use the calendar function of Notes could probably manipulate the e-mail module as well. That was a big step. In Version 7, the steps are a bit smaller, but they're still aimed at a better overall user experience.

The biggest improvement is in the way Notes manages e-mail. Everyone knows that e-mail floods into users' mailboxes.

Even with good spam filtering, there is a wide range of valid e-mail that needs sorting and action. Notes 7 tries to figure out how important a message is and classify it for you.

E-mail is rated based on what's called an Attention Indicator, a small button that sits in a field on the Notes mail client.

A solid button means the e-mail is probably important. One that's half-filled indicates either lower priority or an item the program can't classify. A clear button means you can probably put the e-mail aside until later. You can sort your e-mail based on these attention levels, putting important documents higher in the list.

How Notes determines what's important is governed by rules similar to those we've grown accustomed to in spam filters. For example, a message you got because you were one of a thousand people in the CC field, or because you were in the BCC field, will probably be categorized as half-important.

Most of the mail that came into our test accounts was categorized this way. However, you can manipulate the way the program sorts messages under the Tools, Preferences menu, assigning messages from your boss, for example, the highest priority.

A better business tool

Overall, messaging is a better business tool in Notes 7. For example, the suite's ability to save entire instant messaging sessions as an e-mail file would be helpful for storage and later reference (as well as compliance with records management mandates).

Notes 7 also now makes e-mail available to searches performed in your office suite. If you're looking for files or folders, Notes will check e-mail to see if what you need is attached to a message, for instance.

The calendar functions in Notes 7 are also better, though less dramatically than e-mail options. The biggest improvement is filtering. You can sort meetings on the calendar by who is the chairperson, for example, and prioritize them accordingly.

On the server side, one of the biggest enhancements to Domino is support for DB2, which admins can use for storing Notes application data. This sounds like a big deal because DB2 allows for much more scalability in applications than the somewhat limiting Notes Storage Format.

But keep in mind that existing applications cannot be converted to work with DB2. To use this feature, you need to create a new database in that format. So if you have five years' worth of Domino data, DB2 support won't help much. But if you're creating a new Notes/Domino app and want more expandability, then by all means make use of the new DB2 support.

The biggest back-end news is that IBM has finally migrated its self-healing server technology to Domino.

Previous releases of Domino included the ability to spot activity trends so administrators could monitor their networks of servers and discover any choke points slowing the enterprise down. However, it was pretty much up to the administrator to do something about it.

Now Domino does an excellent job of suggesting a solution and then actually making it happen.

We set up two Domino servers. One we overloaded with queries; the other we barely stressed. The software showed us what was happening and offered to balance the load by putting about half of the most requested data onto the second server.

It showed us how this would likely affect the overall network if trends continued and gave us an option to make the change. Other than actually making the decision, we didn't have to do anything. And from the client's point of view, nothing changed'except that response times got faster.

Lotus Notes and Domino 7 continue to improve in the face of heated competition from Microsoft. Notes users who have to manage a lot of information are going to love most of the changes. And we found that the new management features in Domino server made the software easier to administer than Exchange 2003, especially if you have multiple servers. Lotus shops will appreciate this upgrade.

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