Sametime but Hardly Same Old

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The latest version of the popular collaboration client offers extended platform support, Web conferencing, instant messaging and a host of other enhancements.

A mainstay in the business collaboration market, the Lotus Sametime client from IBM continues to make new inroads. Although ServerWatch does not normally look at the client side, Sametime is an important-enough product to warrant examination.

In version 7.5, IBM implemented support for the public IM services, but the new features don't stop there. We installed a test Sametime to see what all the fuss is about.

Overview and Enhancements

In addition to extended platform support, Sametime 7.5 also introduces new features. Web conferencing and instant messaging (IM) received numerous enhancements, although conferencing seems to have had the most significant improvements. A more streamlined interface adds to the overall user experience, but back-end changes are perhaps just as important.

A sample meeting with two attendees.
Figure 1. A sample meeting with two attendees.

When a user becomes disconnected from a meeting, the Meeting Room Client (MRC) continues running and attempts to reconnect transparently. This limits meeting interruptions and also makes it easier on the disconnected user. The Sametime 7.5 MRC uses the Sun Java virtual machine instead of the Microsoft one, which allows for a wider variety of client support.

For those unfamiliar with Sametime's meeting capabilities, here's a brief overview: Attendees all connect to a scheduled meeting, and the presenter or presenters can use a variety of tools to conduct the meeting. There's voice, video, screen sharing, whiteboards, and presentation slides. Most features are easily accessible in the meeting interface, shown in Figure 1. Authorized presenters can send attendees Web links, polls and chat messages. After all is said and done, the entire transcript of the meeting, including everything the attendees saw on their screen, can be saved and archived for later use.

Viewing a meeting's vitals.
Figure 2. Viewing a meeting's vitals.

Usability is much improved in this version. Finding and joining your meeting is intuitive and easy to accomplish. The meeting details page, shown in Figure 2, provides all meeting information in an easy-to-read format. Once users determine they've found the correct place, they click "Attend Meeting," and the connection begins. Sametime provides simple status messages and instructions to minimize user confusion. Figure 3 is a great example of the complete and helpful messages users will see.

On the IM front, Sametime 7.5 offers many user interface improvements, as well as a new plug-in interface for developers. New is the IBM Lotus Sametime Gateway — a fancy way to say that Sametime interoperates with many technologies now, including public IM services. While that may be an improvement, allowing public IM services into a corporate network is a quite frightening proposition for some.

The IBM Lotus Sametime Gateway is configurable, and capable of disallowing certain domains. It translates various protocols at the Gateway server and then forwards messages on to users' Sametime clients. It has SPIM (IM spam) filters, access lists and even logging. Voice chat is available via Sametime, but it's unclear whether the public IM interoperability supports voice chat. It's a configuration task for sure, but allowing public IM services certainly increases Sametime's flexibility.

The Java applet connecting to a meeting.
Figure 3. The Java applet connecting to a meeting.

You can run the Sametime server on Linux, i5/OS, AIX, Solaris, or Windows Server. For certain functionality, non-supported clients used to rely on the Web-based interface to connect with everyone else. IBM has embraced the diversity and now supports clients on nearly every operating system.

Installation and Administration

To get Sametime running, you must install the Sametime server product. Sametime does require the Domino server be installed, but it can be managed from a single interface. It is also possible to configure Sametime to use an LDAP directory, such as Tivoli, Active Directory, OpenLDAP, or the Sun Directory Server.

Surprisingly, installation was easy. Installing Domino and Sametime on a Solaris 10 server didn't take much time at all, once the kinks were worked out. Due to a modified operating system, some of the install scripts for Sametime didn't work properly. This was our fault though, and we expect the installer would run seamlessly on most platforms.

Running the installer, we were presented with a Java-based InstallShield wizard. After a few simple questions about which directory Domino was located in, and where to install Sametime, we were off and running. Well, after a few minutes, that is — the Sametime server is certainly not a lightweight application.

The meeting monitor interface.
Figure 4. The meeting monitor interface.

If the ease with which the installation completed is any indicator, maintaining Sametime is a breeze. After the installation, everything "just worked." The administrator interface, which is easily accessible via a Web browser, provides a very intuitive and streamlined management center.

The Web interface is fully integrated with Domino's, so you can add users, schedule meetings and configure nearly everything from a single interface. It's extremely easy to set up a new meeting, and by default all users can schedule meetings.

From an administrator point of view, Sametime is a robust and scalable product. Configuring access lists, meeting parameters, and protocol support is straightforward. The administrator interface also provides a single point for monitoring the server, including the number of users connected, meeting statistics, chat logging, and exactly which tools are being used within meetings, as shown in Figure 4.

The popular Lotus Sametime has certainly picked up a bunch of much-needed enhancements in this version, including the capability to run the server on Linux and OS X client support. Also, since IBM began using Eclipse for development, developers are now able to extend Sametime functionality in new ways.

These new additions, along with the well-regarded voice and video chat, enterprise IM capabilities, and intuitive meeting functionality should help further extend Sametime's reach.

This article was originally published on Instant Messaging Planet.

This article was originally published on May 23, 2007
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