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IETF tames IM

Oct 21, 20028 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMessaging AppsMobile

After five years of raucous debate and stop-and-start development, the Internet’s premier standards-setting body is finalizing a set of protocols that will let companies exchange instant messages with business partners and customers across private IP networks and the Internet.

Dubbed SIMPLE, the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions is essentially finished. The three main documents outlining SIMPLE have received approval from Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) leaders and are awaiting official publication, which is expected in the next few weeks.

Completion of SIMPLE is a milestone for corporate users of instant-messaging systems, who are demanding interoperability. SIMPLE lets users of different instant-messaging software include each other on their buddy lists, detect when they are available to exchange instant messages and initiate real-time chat sessions.

“The financial services industry needs a secure, auditable [instant-messaging] approach, but based on open standards as much as possible,” says Mike Sayers, CTO of Reuters, which announced last week a major instant-messaging deployment based on SIMPLE that already has attracted 26,000 users at Reuters and 1,100 other financial services firms. “We are offering a hosted [instant-messaging] service that is firewall friendly, encrypted and based on the SIP extensions known as SIMPLE.”

Reuters isn’t the only financial services firm supporting the IETF’s instant-messaging efforts. Seven U.S. brokerage firms last week announced a coalition called the Financial Services Instant Messaging Association to push instant-messaging vendors to support the IETF’s standards. Members of the group include Deutsche Bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, Credit Suisse First Boston, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and UBS Warburg.

As the IETF wraps up its work on SIMPLE, more software vendors are announcing plans to support the protocols. Earlier this month, Lotus began shipping a SIMPLE-compliant instant-messaging gateway with the latest version of Sametime, which is the most popular instant-messaging software among large corporations. SIMPLE is available in Microsoft’s Windows Messenger, which comes bundled in Windows XP.

“Instant-messaging interoperability has been a problem for the last year. Before that, use of [instant messaging] in the enterprise wasn’t that prevalent,” says Mike Osterman, president of Osterman Research, which tracks corporate instant-messaging usage. “[Completion of SIMPLE] is a big step forward, and the implementation of SIMPLE in the new version of Sametime is a critical development. That’s because 61% of the companies that have established a corporate standard for [instant messaging] have selected Sametime.”

The stepped-up product support for SIMPLE coincides with the anticipated publication of three key documents by the IETF. These documents include a system architecture that describes how instant messages are carried via SIMPLE, and two documents that describe how SIMPLE handles presence information.

Vendors are working with these three protocol documents. A dozen companies demonstrated beta-version products that support SIMPLE at the 11th SIP Interoperability Test Event, which was held earlier this month in Atlanta.

“The implementations were primarily presence-enabled phones and applications running in a network that make call-routing decisions based on people’s presence and device,” says Robert Sparks, co-chair of the IETF’s SIMPLE working group and senior software architect at Dynamicsoft. “SIMPLE worked beautifully. People were able to exchange instant messages across devices and platforms.”

With its core documents finished, the SIMPLE working group is developing several optimizations to improve scalability for service providers rolling out large SIMPLE installations. Other ongoing work includes developing standard ways for handling buddy lists and presenting states of presence. The SIMPLE working group will meet next month in Atlanta to discuss these protocol tweaks.

“I envision a six-month process” for these enhancements, says Jon Peterson, co-chair of the SIMPLE working group and a senior technical industry liaison for NeuStar.

SIMPLE supporters say wireless service providers are particularly interested in the protocols. The Third Generation Partnership Project, which is developing next-generation mobile systems, recently decided to use SIMPLE for its instant-messaging standard.

“A lot of wireless carriers are asking for presence support,” says Jonathan Rosenberg, chief scientist at Dynamicsoft and author of several documents pending before the IETF’s SIMPLE working group. “Users want to know if a mobile phone is on or available before they make a call.”

Sprint officials confirmed that they will offer SIMPLE support in their Enterprise IM product by early next year. Sprint’s instant-messaging offering unites secure instant messaging with mobile phone technology.

“It’s been on our road map to adopt SIMPLE as soon as it is published,” says Ken Kurz, senior practice principal with the Sprint Mobile Computing Services team. “In the transportation vertical, among companies that have a large mobile population, we’re seeing keen interest in SIP and SIMPLE.”

Currently, Sprint offers text instant messaging between Windows desktops and a range of mobile devices. With SIP and SIMPLE, Sprint says it can add features such as delivering mobile users their e-mail, instant messages and voice mail on whatever device is handy.

WiredRed, a provider of secure instant-messaging software called e/pop, says it will offer SIMPLE support by the second quarter of 2003. Among WiredRed’s customers are the law firm Baker & McKenzie, Blue Cross and Pfizer.

“In most market segments, the corporate buyers of [instant-messaging] systems are looking to talk to themselves first and then to partners and customers,” says Allen Drennan, president and CEO of WiredRed. “One exception to that is financial services, which cares more about interoperability and open standards.”

One sign of the financial services industry’s push toward instant-messaging standardization is Reuter’s announcement of its hosted instant-messaging service, which is built around SIMPLE. Reuters’ 26,000 users run a variant of Microsoft’s Windows Messenger software on their desktops. The clients hook up to a dedicated server that handles inbound and outgoing instant-messaging traffic, providing encryption and an audit trail.

“We had a common vision with Microsoft around the direction that instant messaging was headed, that it would be based on SIP and the extensions known as SIMPLE,” Reuters CTO Sayers says.

Initially, Reuters will offer instant messaging as a hosted service, but the company plans to offer an enterprise software platform by 2004. Sayers says that offering will be based on Microsoft’s Greenwich, a real-time communications server still under development.

Financial services firms “want to run their own collaboration environments, and companies like Reuters will act as agents for gated communities across companies,” Sayers says.

For now, Reuters offers its instant-messaging service to end users for free. The company says it hopes to sign up 175,000 users by year-end in what observers say will be one of the largest-ever deployments of SIMPLE. Reuters also plans to integrate instant messaging into its existing desktop services that offer up-to-the-minute financial news.

The Reuters deployment is a “reasonably significant milestone because the real focus of the application is on interoperability,” Osterman says.

“From my perspective, the biggest single piece of validation we derive from the Reuters application is that SIMPLE can meet the security requirements to manage that kind of data,” the IETF’s Peterson says.

One company that has backed off its plans to support SIMPLE is AOL, the leading provider of consumer instant-messaging services. AOL announced in the summer of 2001 that it would support SIMPLE, but it has since changed directions. Now AOL says its strategy is to sign licensing agreements that involve AOL’s proprietary instant-messaging protocols. One licensee is Apple Computer, which offers support for AOL Instant Messenger in the iChat feature of Mac OS 10.

Another potential threat for SIMPLE is Jabber, an open source instant-messaging protocol based on XML. The Jabber community has asked the IETF to advance its Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol and to publish it as a standards-track document. The IETF held a preliminary discussion on Jabber at its last meeting in July. The IETF leadership is considering whether to start a Jabber Working Group.

Communicator is one instant-messaging vendor that is debating whether to support Jabber or SIMPLE as its instant-messaging standard. Credit Suisse First Boston, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Salomon Smith Barney and UBS Warburg use Communicator’s Hub instant-messaging product.

“We’re a big believer in standards because they lower the barriers for our customers,” says Gary Reifman, product manager for messaging services at Communicator. “We’re evaluating support for SIMPLE now as well as Jabber. . . . We want to support the standards that our customers want.”

SIMPLE products proliferate

More instant-messaging vendors adopt emerging standard.
Vendor Product SIMPLE support


IM Auditor

Available since Oct. 2001
IBM/Lotus Sametime 3 Available this month
Microsoft Windows Messenger Available since Sept. 2001
Nortel Succession Communications Server for Enterprise Multimedia Exchange Shipping in trials
Sprint Enterprise IM Due Q1 2003
WiredRed e/pop Due Q2 2003