• United States
by Travis Berkley, Network World Lab Alliance

Oracle Collaboration Suite

Aug 23, 200410 mins
Collaboration SoftwareEnterprise ApplicationsOracle

Oracle's take on enterprise collaboration impresses

Oracle’s take on enterprise collaboration impresses.

Collaboration between colleagues often means sending files through e-mail and hoping they don’t get lost in the ever-growing wasteland of the in-box. To solve this, Oracle offers its Oracle Collaboration Suite, a comprehensive set of tools to help companies manage information across whatever boundaries they might have.

Tools such as Web conferencing, e-mail, calendaring, file storage  and content searching are provided in an environment that lets data get stored, shared and ultimately found by those who need it.

The Oracle Hosted Pilot Program

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How we did it

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We recently tested (see How we did it ) the OCS and found it to be a solid performer, offering a number of good tools that let workers share information and find data within a company. Its variety of access methods (through the Web or with a desktop client or even PDA or cell phone) also impressed us.

Building the framework

The OCS is built on the Oracle Database and the Oracle Application Server products. OCS can be accessed through a customizable Web portal, using applets to access the calendar, e-mail and other functions. Alternatively, there are stand-alone applications available to access the calendar, and various e-mail clients can connect using POP or Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP ).

Rather than install OCS ourselves, we used Oracle’s Hosted Pilot program. This program lets potential OCS customers take OCS for a “test drive” (see story ). Using the Hosted Pilot, we accessed all parts of the OCS just as if it were installed locally in our lab.

The OCS administration is very detailed. After the installation, there was a small group of administrator accounts with complete control over each applet. But additional administrators can be created within each applet. This gives the ability to grant one user the rights to provision calendar accounts, but maybe a different user to provision e-mail privileges. Or, perhaps you need different administrators for each department. OCS gives you the flexibility to assign rights in whatever ways your business requires.

The “gotcha” was in switching between different users. OCS relies on Web browser cookies to keep track of who is signed on. It is a best practice to completely close the browser, thus clearing your session cookies, before trying to switch users. This only will be an issue if you find yourself switching between privileged and unprivileged accounts, or if there is a machine that is shared among users.

Web conferencing

The first tool that one thinks of when you use the word collaboration is Web conference. OCS is no exception, offering Web conferencing with the standard array of functions such as application sharing, whiteboarding and chat.

A small console in the form of an executable is downloaded when a new user enters a conference. From there, the conference presenter can share application windows or their entire desktop. The presenter can maintain control of the whiteboard, or it can be shared with others. Public and private chat sessions also can be launched, and it has the ability to conduct polls. The presenter can coordinate the viewing of a Web page or a document that was loaded into the conference beforehand.

The Web conference feature supports streaming audio from a telephone call-in bridge. Presenters and any participants who want to talk in the conference can dial into the bridge; participants who just want to listen can do so via the streaming version from their Web browsers. This is the only option available for audio in the current version, but plans are in the works to add VoIP or audio streaming in a future version, the company says.

Overall, the Web conferencing in OCS is as good as any other product with which we’ve worked. The console application doesn’t take up much room on the desktop, and it can be minimized to free more viewing area. It includes a nice “network connection” meter, which gauges your response times and how smooth the presentation should be. The interface is clean and easy to use.

Space to work

The next tool in the OCS arsenal is the workspace. This essentially is an area where files can be stored and shared. Each user account receives a private and public workspace. The private space is just that – only the user can access files in this workspace. Public files are accessible to any user who can authenticate into the OCS.

OCS also can create any number of workspaces for specific members to share. For example, a project team could make its own workspace to share project files. If the system administrator allows it, users can create and manage their own workspaces, inviting others to participate as they see fit. As new users are invited, they can be a Participant (add and edit files) or a Viewer (read only access).

Workspaces have storage quotas placed on them. While a workspace administrator can request to increase the quota, only the system administrator can grant it. If the space quota is exceeded, new files or updates to files cannot be added. But files can be deleted to make more room.

For Windows clients, Oracle offers FileSync, an application that replicates files from any number of workspaces down to the local machine. FileSync compares what is stored locally with what is in the workspace and then uses a WebDAV  connection to synchronize changes. It is a handy way to grab fresh copies of workspace files before heading out on the road with a laptop. Upon a return, FileSync quickly can upload any changes made to the files and grab any new files that have arrived.

A business intelligence engine is also available for workflow processing. While navigation was a little difficult, it does have some very nice features. You can flag a file to be reviewed and/or approved by someone in the workgroup. The file can still be accessed, but it cannot be changed until the specified approver has released the file. When we entered the workflow piece, some of the links generated errors from time to time. Sometimes a user didn’t receive notification of an impending approval. Refreshing or reloading the workflow pages again often cleared up the problem. But the most inconvenient part is that there aren’t any links to return to the main portal once you are finished using the workflow applet. You have to use the “back” button in your browser or log on again.

Versioning tools are also available. These let you have a history of a document over time. As changes are made, users can save an old version, but mark the new one as the working copy. Versioning files worked slightly different depending on whether you used FileSync or did a manual upload. FileSync would upload new files, avoiding conflicts as specified. If it is set to avoid overwriting, it will add “(new version)” to the file name. When doing a manual upload, a user can generate a new version, which moves the old version into the history area.

The workflow applet is a very powerful tool that lets you create some very customized business logic.

Common tools

A workhorse tool included in the OCS is the e-mail component. It includes everything you would expect in a Web-based e-mail client, including folder management and access to directory services. A public directory and private user address books are available to store e-mail addresses. A mailing list feature within OCS lets you create groups to send to multiple users.

For users who want to use other e-mail clients, OCS has a POP3 and IMAP4 interface. Users then can use other programs to manage their mail, as well as download mail locally to their computers. Also, address books and user directories are accessible via Lightweight Directory Access Protocol  queries.

You do not have to use the e-mail in OCS if you already have a satisfactory e-mail system in place. Messages and notifications are sent within OCS via e-mail, but an external address works just as well as an OCS address.

As a Web-based e-mail system, OCS is a solid performer. Nothing flashy, but all of the basics are covered. A basic filtering function lets you create rules that can sort or file e-mail as it is delivered, read or deleted. No out-of-office replies are available, however.

The calendaring feature is referred to as a user’s Agenda. The Agenda includes everything you would expect, including daily appointments, notes and tasks. Users can grant rights for other users to view their Agenda entries. You also can mark items as confidential or personal. Access to those items can be controlled separately.

For users who don’t want to use the Web interface, Oracle has developed stand-alone programs to access the Agenda. Versions are available for Windows, Macintosh OS 9 and OS X, Linux and Solaris. The stand-alone versions are functionally equivalent to the Web version, but include the ability to view several users’ agendas at once.

Users also can synchronize their PDAs with the agenda, tasks and notes in OCS. The Oracle Calendar Sync for Palm application is available for Windows, Macintosh OS 9 and OS X clients. A Pocket PC version for Windows is also available.

Crawling about

Oracle Collaboration

Company: Oracle Cost: Oracle Collaboration Suite, all components: $60 per named user; Oracle Collaboration Suite, Web Conferencing: $45 per named user; Oracle Collaboration Suite, File: $45 per named user. Pros: Accessible from Web, desktop and other avenues; stand-alone apps support multiple platforms; flexible and granular administration; very rich set of tools. Cons: Workflow applet interface is different from others; Web interface is very dependent on cookies.
The breakdown    
Features 40%  4
Accessibility 30%  5
Usability 30%   4
Scoring Key: 5: Exceptional; 4: Very good; 3: Average; 2: Below average; 1: Consistently subpar

A tool called Ultra Search lets administrators create Web crawlers that go to specified parts of the Web and catalog what it finds. For example, you could create a Web crawler that looks over the intranet, and indexes the information it finds. The administrator can specify how deep to follow each length and the types of data to index (such as searching for only HTML and PDF files, but not JPGs or GIFs). OCS users then can search the information the Web crawlers harvested. For example, a user might search for the phrase “2004 sales catalog,” and be given a list of links where information on that topic can be found.

Depending on the size of your business, this search function could be quite useful. If you routinely try to find information but have no idea what the file name might be, where it might be stored or even what type of file it is, Ultra Search could be quite useful. Only an administrator can set up a Web crawler, but all users can access the results.

Not to be overlooked is the very aggressive pricing that Oracle offers for OCS. This could make OCS particularly attractive to the small or midsize business looking to find some powerful tools without a large expense (see related story ).