NASA tries Web workgroups

NASA tries Web workgroups

Collaboration apps require change in work culture, not just new software

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

NASA's John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland is piloting several collaboration applications for scientific data.

'Data sharing adds a lot of value to conferencing,' NASA computer engineer Steve Prahst said. Internet tools can facilitate the remote sharing of information and applications, he said, but some of the biggest hurdles aren't technical.

'It's one thing to have tools,' Prahst said. 'It's another thing to have large groups of people effectively using tools. It's not trivial to get the staff ingrained in the culture.'

Internet tools help NASA scientists share data and applications across the country. They work, but only if the scientists recognize their value and use them, a NASA engineer says.

NASA employees are far from being technophobes'their job is rocket science, after all.

'It's more a matter of time,' Prahst said. Getting people to take the time to learn a new application is a big challenge, because they first have to be convinced it's worth their while.

'We haven't really overcome that yet,' he said.

The Glenn center began looking at collaboration tools about three years ago to augment or replace a proprietary internal phone conferencing system that needed a central administrator to schedule and initiate calls.

NASA installed MeetingPlace 2000 servers from Latitude Communications Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., at Glenn as well as at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Video, voice and data

MeetingPlace conferences can be scheduled and attended through a Web interface, through common groupware applications such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook, and over switched telephone, IP phone or wireless connections. The application supports video as well as data and voice conferencing.

The MeetingPlace server is a hardware-software combination running the Linux open-source operating system. It comes with an Ethernet connection and links via a T1 line to a private branch exchange or telephone network. It requires a Pentium-class server for data sharing plus a Web server. Data and Web server software can run on the same machine, although Latitude does not recommend it.

NASA users liked MeetingPlace's flexibility with conventional switched telephone connections as well as voice over IP on the same box, Prahst said.

The software supports T.120 collaboration and sharing via Web browser. Each server can handle up to 120 users in up to 60 concurrent sessions. Dan Leviten, business development manager for Latitude's government markets, said most conferences involve five to eight people.

Despite MeetingPlace's capabilities, NASA uses it primarily for conventional teleconferencing, Prahst said. Data conferencing still is limited.

When workgroups become distributed, document management gets more complex.

'Workgroups need a common repository for their stuff,' Prahst said.

The Glenn center has been using the Livelink document management system from Open Text Corp. of Waterloo, Ontario. It can manage more than a terabyte of data in Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server, and Oracle databases. Livelink services can be extended by Java, ActiveX, Visual Basic, C or C++ programming.

Other applications being tried out at the Glenn center are Enact from Netmosphere Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., recently acquired by Critical Path Inc. of San Francisco, and from Inc. of San Francisco.

Enact is a Web server that uses Java for scheduling meetings and sharing data via a browser interface. It works with Microsoft Internet Information Server, Netscape iPlanet and Apache Web servers, and Oracle and Structured Query Language relational databases, or an integrated flat-file database.

Enact is compatible with Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 or Netscape Navigator 4.5 browsers or later versions. User systems need 64M of RAM and 30M of free storage, plus Adobe Acrobat 3.0 or later for printing in Adobe Portable Document Format. sets up a Web-style environment for scheduling meetings, setting agendas and taking votes. Prahst called it a brainstorming tool. It can be used for distributed meetings, but 'it's easiest if you're all together in the same room,' Prahst said.

Distributed workgroups do not yet function with full effectiveness. A top management buy-in, Prahst said, 'goes a long way to bring the group along. We think these kinds of things will help, but it's still not there yet.'

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