Working together in virtual facilities

Have you ever tried working on a project with someone on another campus, in another state or country? You probably spend hours on the phone, trying to describe what you're looking at or thinking about. If you're lucky, you might be able to send files through e-mail. Take heart - there is a better way.

Collaborative workspaces are secure, virtual "rooms" designed to enhance the exchange of information among a group of workers (also known as a team). Searching the market has led to the identification of dozens of companies with a variety of products (see online Buyer's Guide) that address the opportunity to one degree or another.

We invited eight and completed testing on three product suites that offer a full range of real time and messaging functionality for virtual teams: Groove Networks' Groove Client 2.5 and Enterprise Management server; iCohere's Workgroup Suite 3.1; and Documentum's  eRoom 6.0. Some companies declined to participate in the review because their products were near the end of a product cycle and the upcoming generation of solutions is significantly different than current commercial offerings. The products we tested had significant differences in how they addressed challenges facing members of a virtual workgroup, and how they help users navigate through the spaces. While all the tested products offered a range of functionality, we gave Documentum's eRoom a Blue Ribbon Award. We found the product's use of icons and collapsible navigation easy to use, feature-rich and very responsive. From an administrative view, we liked how the platform does not require a separate messaging server.

Setting up the systems

Documentum's eRoom was by far the easiest to install. The only prerequisite is a fully patched Windows 2000 (or newer) Server. The only mark against the system as we tested it is that the Real Time Server, which supports the collaborative meeting environment, must be installed on a separate Windows 2000 server.

Groove Network's Groove Enterprise Server was almost as easy to install. But in addition to installing on a Windows 2000 Server, you need to install Microsoft  SQLserver 2000. As long as the SQL server permissions are set up correctly, Groove Enterprise Server will install with minimum effort. Our only hitch was understanding some of the options presented, most notably the wording of Certificate Authority settings.

While certainly not difficult, the iCohere's Workgroup Suite install required the most preparation. In addition to installing Windows 2000 Server and SQLserver 2000, you need to install MacroMedia's  ColdFusion MX, Microsoft Outlook 2000 (or newer), and enable Terminal Services and FTP access. ICohere's support staff use FTP to upload the installation files, and then connect to your server using Windows Terminal Services. The installation is then completed for you. The biggest drawback of this configuration is that it requires membership in a domain that has Exchange services available for the sole purpose of sending e-mail. The domain membership is required to launch Outlook without a password challenge.

ICohere shines in the configuration phase, however. After the iCohere staff remotely connect and install the system, they create your workspaces to your specifications as part of a standard installation. As part of a pre-installation survey, you document how many workspaces you need, what functions will be in each room, and other details. When iCohere is finished, you have a complete set of workspaces ready for use. While users can be given different permission levels within a workspace, the administrator controls creating new workspaces.

Groove lets users create new workspaces, and invite whomever they feel is appropriate to join. The roles of manager, participant or guest can be assigned to the invitees. Groove workspaces contain a default set of tools, such as discussion boards and file transfer areas, which then can be customized to fit the purpose of the workspace.

Documentum calls its workspaces "rooms" - new rooms can be populated with objects from a template, or a completely blank room can be created, and you can create your own objects later. A user with permission can create rooms as they see fit, using those objects (tools) that best suit their needs and creativity. Individual items also may have permissions set on them. For example, a folder might be created to hold documents. Some users can be given the right to read and edit, while others can only read. You also can choose to hide the folder from users who get no permissions within the folder. This detail in access control is one of eRoom's strengths.

With a Web-based platform, there is virtually no setup needed to join a community or workspace. A Web browser is all that is required to get up and running with iCohere and eRoom. You can supplement the browser experience on eRoom by installing an optional plug-in. The plug-in gives members easy access to project downloads from a local machine, a workspace preferences configuration tool, monitoring, a "quick start" button on the system tray, and Outlook synchronization.

Groove's client is a run-time application that also integrates smoothly with Outlook, but must be installed on all team member's system. In contrast to the Web-based systems, Groove Workspace relies on the client application, which is only compatible with Windows-based systems.

Both iCohere's Workgroup Suite and Documentum's eRoom have password protection for the browser-only user (when running the plug-in, eRoom will remember the password). For iCohere users who forget their passwords, a temporary password can be e-mailed to the user. With Groove and eRoom, if a user forgets their password, a system administrator needs to be notified.

Activity and asset management

Two major challenges that team members face are managing time and project-related files. All three systems we tested have project- or space-specific calendars. Groove and eRoom (through its optional client plug-in) support calendar synchronization with Microsoft Outlook. ICohere's calendar is Web-based and internal to the application . All three systems could also reflect local times for events or deadlines, permitted recurring events and could issue notifications to team members if a calendar or project management milestone changed. We also liked that all three systems could link a calendar item to other tools or files. For example, a calendar item in Groove can become a link to the meeting area's agenda, list of participants and minutes. Similarly, a calendar item in eRoom can become the basis of a poll or vote.

Keeping track of your files, whether they are documents, diagrams, or slide presentations, can be a headache with e-mail - this issue is handled very well by the collaborative spaces. Groove's client-centric model (all files are replicated by the client on team member hard drives) is well designed for a mobile worker who has a lot of storage space on their notebook. We found that Documentum's database-centric model offered the richest capabilities in terms of asset management, and the most elegant interface for viewing author names, last change date and the like. Both iCohere and Documentum have file check-in, checkout, review and approval systems, and other advanced file management features that are highly controllable by the "owner" of the workspace. All three systems provide file encryption for security-sensitive applications. Groove supports co-editing documents, as well as synchronized navigation (the ability for the host of a space to have all participants in a meeting or project space see the host's screen in real time on their screens) while iCohere offers this through a third-party partner (for example, WebEx or PlaceWare ). Documentum's Real Time Server option has file viewing and application and/or desktop sharing seamlessly integrated within eRoom-facilitated meetings.

Additional features

A collaborative workspace must have a directory or contact database to help members find or get to know one another. ICohere had the most flexible and feature-rich approach, letting us post team members' photos or graphics (although we hit a bump when trying to upload a large graphics file into a profile), or even audio files. Documentum was limited in its directory information, but gives the user the ability to modify everything but their logon name. Groove places the burden on the system administrator to maintain a "corporate" profile of a user, but lets members create and self-maintain additional "personal" profiles. In addition to a local directory, Groove users can be listed in a "global" directory hosted at groove.net. Both Documentum and Groove could leverage multiple LDAP directories or Windows domains. However, Documentum had a feature that was unique - the ability to authenticate using RSA Security  SecurID tokens. We did not test this feature, as it required additional software.

All three systems could show presence  - where a team member was located within the space - but we thought Groove did the best job of tracking the presence states of team members. For example, it was clear when someone was online in a Groove location, but not in the same "room." We would have liked a clear "log out" button on the Documentum eRoom platform. Once the client plug-in is sitting in the system tray, a member may appear to be in a space if they are focused elsewhere on their computer.

Voting and polling are important to get consensus from team members. Groove's client doesn't support voting/polling within the application out of the box. However, you can create this through Groove's custom-built tools or a third-party voting tool, Flexivote, developed by CompuTact Software Services (www.apwiz.com). Flexivote is fairly limited, and does not integrate with other tools.

By contrast, Documentum took voting/polling to the extreme - any event, item or file could have a question and poll associated with it. ICohere also has strong voting/polling features, but they were not as well integrated within the context of a discussion or activity, and were more difficult to configure than Documentum's voting/polling tool.

Scheduled and ad hoc meetings

Real-time messaging (such as chat or instant messaging) in all three systems let team members communicate via text during group meetings or smaller gatherings, whether scheduled or ad hoc. The iCohere "native" system for ad hoc meetings uses pop-up windows that can get hidden behind other open windows, but politely close when no longer needed. Meeting invitations in iCohere can be sent through third-party messaging (e-mail) or the internal workspace-messaging tool. ICohere also can link to an enterprise meeting server or hosted service, which leverages other enterprise resources.

Groove includes text-messaging support, has a strong meeting agenda feature, user management tools, and the ability to "co-edit" files or browse URLs simultaneously with your team. Groove also adds some voice functionality. With the press of a button, your team can chat together as if they were on a speakerphone, although sound quality isn't quite as good, and latency is more noticeable than on a regular audio conference call.

The Documentum eRoom Real Time Server was the most tightly integrated offering and resembled a full-featured Web conferencing platform - including features such as moderator control, synchronized Web surfing and color-coded team member markup tools. From nearly anywhere in the space, a right-click on an asset, task or member name pulls up an eRoom operation menu, including options such as "add to meeting" or "invite to a meeting." The degree to which this integration is important to a team varies with the project or process, but it certainly helps keep everyone focused in the same space, and avoids breaking up the flow of work by changing tools for different tasks.

Messaging and announcements

When team members are not around at the same time, they can use tools such as message boards (also called Discussions) and Announcements as a way to communicate. Threaded discussion systems were all well developed in the three systems tested. We especially liked, with Groove and eRoom, how the system could hide previously read messages, and emphasize the unread contributions.

An Announcements area is a way to show that a message is more important than on a regular message board - all the tools tested also had this functionality.

Creating a message or announcement was easy in all three systems, but selecting the recipients of a message was somewhat clumsy in the iCohere and Documentum systems. They required the sender to select names from a separate screen or pop-up window (if the message was intended for someone other than the entire group), rather than leveraging the user's primary messaging contacts database (for example., Outlook).

Acknowledgements

In true collaboration spirit, this test was completed with the assistance of several companies and people. We'd like to thank the following for their support in this test:

RLX Technologies

For providing server blades

HP

For providing servers

Macromedia

For providing ColdFusion MX
Brett Trusko, and The Future of Work
David Woolley, thinkofit.com/webconf
1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
IT Salary Survey: The results are in