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Learning to Collaborate

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This month, it's all about the "C", as in "collaboration." I've talked about collaboration before; it's one of those big, fuzzy words you hang from the technology rearview mirror, and it dangles there doing not much of anything. But in real life, there are a number of areas where collaboration tools can really help businesses (especially small ones), and I'll address those areas.

A significant percentage of the collaboration tools are small, relatively standalone products that help in your day-to-day business by furnishing such functionality as instant messaging or the ability to share folders in Outlook. And while these tools provide important capabilities for business users, they don't provide the hooks where programmers get to sink their teeth into the meat of collaboration. Yes, it's nice to be able to send an email or look up a contact, but the real business ROI comes from being able to seamlessly integrate your back-end business functions with your collaborative processes.

In this article, I won't go into a big comparison of the features and functions of various collaboration options. Instead, I want to focus on a slightly different topic: education. Rather than a feature-by-feature breakdown, I'll instead try to show you how you can get your own information and make your own choices. To do that, I'm going to compare the primary options from each of the big players: IBM and Microsoft.

What Am I Comparing?

At the simplest level, I am comparing the two collaboration suites from IBM and Microsoft. In this corner, wearing the blue IBM trunks, is the tag team of Lotus Sametime and QuickPlace. In the opposite corner, wearing the bright green dollar sign of Microsoft, is the contender, SharePoint and its partner Live Communications.

Just to be clear, let's first take a look at the Lotus duo: Sametime and QuickPlace. These venerable tools are the standard for collaborative tool suites; Lotus essentially created the genre with these applications. QuickPlace is designed to allow non-technical users (which is really just marketing speak for non-programmers) to create virtual "workplaces" where team members can share documents, plan, assign tasks, schedule on a shared calendar—all the stuff that's required in a collaborative environment. Sametime adds the features that comprise the industry buzzword of "presence awareness," which takes what you and I might call instant messaging (and what our kids call IMing or "texting") and makes it corporate, with the ability to see if someone is logged in and if so, hook up with them and even shanghai them into a conference.

On the other side of the ring is Microsoft's SharePoint. Starting out life as an extension of FrontPage (Microsoft's original Web site development tool), SharePoint has grown into a reasonable competitor for QuickPlace, and the new version slated for 2007 release has promised dozens of new features. In the meantime, Live Communications started out as Windows Messenger and has morphed into a corporate communications behemoth, with conferencing and whiteboard and all the other features you expect from a collaboration tool, all seasoned with the distinct Microsoft flavor of taking advantage of Active Directory and tight bonding to the Office suite.

Note that I'm not trying to sell you either option here, nor to even provide a features-based comparison for you to use to help in your decision. No, that's not the point of this particular article. Instead, I want to go a different route and focus on the integration of these tools into your applications.

What's So Important About Integration Anyway?

I'm glad you asked! Seriously, though, integration (and specifically application integration) may not be important to you. For example, if all you need is the capability to get people together on a video or audio conference and maybe work together on a document and finally to plan the next round of tasks (something like a board meeting), then you're probably fine with what you'll get from any package (including a wide variety of open-source packages).

But a whole additional group of benefits appears when you start to integrate these collaboration packages into your external business processes. Here's a simple scenario: Marty, the order fulfillment specialist, sees a late order. (Author's Note: No! No! Not though a dashboard! Please don't get me started on dashboards!) Marty takes a look at the order, but it is not immediately apparent why it hasn't been shipped. He clicks on the salesperson in the order (Toni), and a balloon pops up to say whether Toni is in the office. She is, so Marty starts a call with her. Upon discussing the situation, they realize they need to getting the shipping department involved, and so they conference in the shipping department. Shipping explains that they just found out that the delivery address on the order is invalid and needs to be changed. At this point, they conference in the customer. They explain the situation, the customer gives them the new information, which is immediately entered into the order and reprinted for the shipping department, and away everything goes.

This is just one of dozens of ways you can integrate your vendors and customers into your business processes. But in order to do that, you need to be able to integrate your collaboration tools into your business systems. Somehow, the salesperson number on the order has to be translated into a phone number, and that phone number has to be connected. It may even be one more layer than that; the salesperson may link to some sort of entity ID that can be fed into your collaboration software. You'll also have to be able to add other people to the call programmatically. As you can see, there will be a number of areas where you'll need APIs into the collaboration system and documentation as to how to use them.

What Sort of Education Is Available?

This is what I've done for you. I've gone out and scoured the Internet for information, study guides, documentation of all kinds on these two tool suites. I've also called both Microsoft and IBM asking how to get started. And this is what I've found.

Online Tutorials and Documents

Tutorials are not exactly the strong suit of IBM's education offerings, but I'm impressed by the "roadmaps" that are available. You can find education of all types, although this is still a work in process and occasionally links are missing or invalid. Also, many of the courses are not cheap or easy; a typical IBM course is a three-day, instructor-led course for about $2000 or a self-paced, "e-learning" course for about $1000. The catalog is a bit out of date as well; I happened to look at WebSphere training and saw several offerings for VisualAge for Java.

Online documentation is a different story. IBM has a ton of information available on QuickPlace and Sametime, including nearly two dozen Redbooks/Redpapers. In fact, IBM has an entire QuickPlace library. Not only that, there's a separate page devoted to QuickPlace on i5/OS, as well as one for Sametime on i5/OS (interestingly enough, I didn't find a general Sametime library, but you can start at the i5/OS library and find all the documentation you need). According to IBM, the i5/OS-specific versions will be going away and all information will be platform-independent. We can only wait and see how well that goes. I keep trying to get enough time to install Lotus products, and I just never can.

Microsoft has a pretty extensive library of SharePoint tutorials. For example, start at this initial tutorial and note the list of additional tutorials on the right side of the page. Be warned, though, that this is for Microsoft SharePoint Services, which is only the free component of SharePoint and really doesn't cover the stuff that makes SharePoint competitive with QuickPlace. SharePoint Services is more for putting up Web sites that people can share, sort of in the same spirit as wikis or blogs. Microsoft also has an entire site devoted to e-learning, with a wide variety of topics, many of which are free (and even the for-fee entries seem to be from $29 to $99).

As far as actual documentation, though, Microsoft clearly knows how to put together a technical library. The Getting Started with SharePoint Portal Server page is awesome. Of course, I'd expect that, considering the fact that the MSDN site is the best on the Web for reference material. You just have to look at the documentation for the Document Object Model and the JavaScript dialect supported in IE (e.g, window.open) to see what a reference site is supposed to be.

Online Communities

Lotus has a vibrant and even slightly cultish following, sort of like that which surrounded Apple and particularly the Mac. I think it may be partly due to the sort of "us vs. them" mentality that grows up around a successful niche product or product line. And lest some Lotusphile come whacking me about the head and shoulders for classifying a Lotus product as a niche product, it's pretty much a given in the industry that Domino is not exactly the right toolset for a small business owner and her three employees. Nonetheless, I'll probably get beat up by the Lotus zealots for this statement. As to the cultish feeling, I almost get the sense that some of the more intense among them enjoy the sense of being an outsider, not unlike the days of the TROU campaign for Mac (the computer for The Rest Of Us).

SharePoint has its share (no pun intended) of user communities as well. They range from avid SharePoint fans to real curmudgeons like Mike Drips. And while the QuickPlace/Sametime folks have the common center of the entire Lotus product family, SharePoint seems to be a little bit of a wallflower (and Live Communication doesn't even get invited to the dance). In general, I get the sense that specific Microsoft products don't really attract the same sort of following as the individual Lotus products both within Microsoft and in the greater user community. Is this a cultural thing? Or more an issue of the sort of hegemony that Microsoft tends to impose on its product lines? I couldn't tell you, but I find it interesting that Microsoft products tend to be as blurred as IBM products (particularly our beloved iSeries), whereas the Lotus product line is fiercely independent. Would that we had the same sort of inner support for the iSeries!

Developer Conferences

Lotus has Lotusphere, of course, which is a hugely popular show (although, oddly enough, there is absolutely no information available on Lotusphere 2007 even though it is supposedly being held around the last week of January), as well as Lotus Developer, which is run by the same fine folks at Wellesley Information Services that bring you iSeries DevCon. One unique thing I found was a conference specifically devoted to QuickPlace and Sametime called Collaboration University.

SharePoint also has its conference, although, just like Lotusphere, the conference is over, and there's no information to be found about the upcoming conference. And as always, not a peep about Live Communications.

User Groups

Lotus has a bunch. For example, there are about 30 in the United States and another 20 worldwide. As always, remember that anything to do with Lotus is likely to be dominated by Notes/Domino, but where there is Domino, there are QuickPlace and Sametime. Interestingly enough, in this age of MPEGs and Webinars, there simply aren't that many good online tutorials that aren't sponsored by the vendors themselves. One nice touch in the Lotus community is the "virtual user group" run by LotusUserGroup.org. They do Webcasts of Lotus-related events, but the last one was in May, so I'm not sure what's upcoming.

Windows also has user groups, although I was kind of surprised that I couldn't find a really good central repository. Unlike the Lotus user groups or even the iSeries user groups, the Windows user groups seem to have no central clearinghouse.

Which Way to Go?

That's the question, isn't it? Comparing these two sets of information doesn't give you a whole lot to go on, either, although I think I can say this: The conventional wisdom on Lotus products is that larger companies can take advantage of and indeed need the extra features that the Lotus suite provides, while smaller companies often cannot afford the initial cost—of both product and more importantly training—that goes with a Lotus startup. That being the case, the SMB market, especially the low end, tends to belong to Microsoft by default. Tight, tight integration with Office doesn't hurt.

However, this article is focused on training. You might want to think about the fact that while Microsoft seems to be sort of feeling its way in the dark and has no clear direction for its collaboration suite, Lotus knows exactly what it wants to do and keeps going in that direction. Microsoft can give you documentation on this year's products but can't really tell you what next year holds, while Lotus has a large, avid base of users who continue to give feedback to the developers and who have a large vested interest in making sure Lotus continues supporting old code as it moves into the future ("futureproof" is the buzzword I hear most often). This fan base (for lack of a better term) will be available to provide lots of training and support and technical tips that may not be available for the "lesser" Microsoft products.

So if you're willing to take the plunge into a whole new technology but with a smaller initial investment and are willing to rely on Microsoft's online documentation, then SharePoint/Live Communications may be a viable solution. If, on the other hand, you want to take advantage of a huge install base and a ton of existing customers and are willing to endure the higher cost and learning curve, then the QuickPlace/Sametime product family might well be for you.

Joe Pluta is the founder and chief architect of Pluta Brothers Design, Inc. and has been extending the IBM midrange since the days of the IBM System/3. Joe uses WebSphere extensively, especially as the base for PSC/400, the only product that can move your legacy systems to the Web using simple green-screen commands. He has written several books including E-Deployment: The Fastest Path to the Web, Eclipse: Step by Step, and WDSC: Step by Step. Joe performs onsite mentoring and speaks at user groups around the country. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Joe Pluta

Joe Pluta is the founder and chief architect of Pluta Brothers Design, Inc. He has been extending the IBM midrange since the days of the IBM System/3. Joe uses WebSphere extensively, especially as the base for PSC/400, the only product that can move your legacy systems to the Web using simple green-screen commands. He has written several books, including Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i, E-Deployment: The Fastest Path to the Web, Eclipse: Step by Step, and WDSC: Step by Step. Joe performs onsite mentoring and speaks at user groups around the country. You can reach him at joepluta@plutabrothers.com.


MC Press books written by Joe Pluta available now on the MC Press Bookstore.

Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i
Joe Pluta introduces you to EGL Rich UI and IBM’s Rational Developer for the IBM i platform.
List Price $39.95

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WDSC: Step by Step WDSC: Step by Step
Discover incredibly powerful WDSC with this easy-to-understand yet thorough introduction.
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    • The basics of Git and tools to help those new to it
    • Using NodeRun.com as a pre-built development environment

     

     

  • Inside the Integrated File System (IFS)

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericDuring this webinar, you’ll learn basic tips, helpful tools, and integrated file system commands—including WRKLNK—for managing your IFS directories and Access Client Solutions (ACS). We’ll answer your most pressing IFS questions, including:

    • What is stored inside my IFS directories?
    • How do I monitor the IFS?
    • How do I replicate the IFS or back it up?
    • How do I secure the IFS?

    Understanding what the integrated file system is and how to work with it must be a critical part of your systems management plans for IBM i.

     

  • Expert Tips for IBM i Security: Beyond the Basics

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

    Don't miss this chance to take your knowledge of IBM i security beyond the basics.

     

     

  • 5 IBM i Security Quick Wins

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn today’s threat landscape, upper management is laser-focused on cybersecurity. You need to make progress in securing your systems—and make it fast.
    There’s no shortage of actions you could take, but what tactics will actually deliver the results you need? And how can you find a security strategy that fits your budget and time constraints?
    Join top IBM i security expert Robin Tatam as he outlines the five fastest and most impactful changes you can make to strengthen IBM i security this year.
    Your system didn’t become unsecure overnight and you won’t be able to turn it around overnight either. But quick wins are possible with IBM i security, and Robin Tatam will show you how to achieve them.

  • How to Meet the Newest Encryption Requirements on IBM i

    SB PowerTech WC GenericA growing number of compliance mandates require sensitive data to be encrypted. But what kind of encryption solution will satisfy an auditor and how can you implement encryption on IBM i? Watch this on-demand webinar to find out how to meet today’s most common encryption requirements on IBM i. You’ll also learn:

    • Why disk encryption isn’t enough
    • What sets strong encryption apart from other solutions
    • Important considerations before implementing encryption

     

     

  • Security Bulletin: Malware Infection Discovered on IBM i Server!

    SB PowerTech WC GenericMalicious programs can bring entire businesses to their knees—and IBM i shops are not immune. It’s critical to grasp the true impact malware can have on IBM i and the network that connects to it. Attend this webinar to gain a thorough understanding of the relationships between:

    • Viruses, native objects, and the integrated file system (IFS)
    • Power Systems and Windows-based viruses and malware
    • PC-based anti-virus scanning versus native IBM i scanning

    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.

     

     

  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

     

     

     

  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.

     

  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.

     

     

  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.

     

     

  • Node Webinar Series Pt. 1: The World of Node.js on IBM i

    SB Profound WC GenericHave you been wondering about Node.js? Our free Node.js Webinar Series takes you from total beginner to creating a fully-functional IBM i Node.js business application.
    Part 1 will teach you what Node.js is, why it's a great option for IBM i shops, and how to take advantage of the ecosystem surrounding Node.
    In addition to background information, our Director of Product Development Scott Klement will demonstrate applications that take advantage of the Node Package Manager (npm).
    Watch Now.

  • The Biggest Mistakes in IBM i Security

    SB Profound WC Generic The Biggest Mistakes in IBM i Security
    Here’s the harsh reality: cybersecurity pros have to get their jobs right every single day, while an attacker only has to succeed once to do incredible damage.
    Whether that’s thousands of exposed records, millions of dollars in fines and legal fees, or diminished share value, it’s easy to judge organizations that fall victim. IBM i enjoys an enviable reputation for security, but no system is impervious to mistakes.
    Join this webinar to learn about the biggest errors made when securing a Power Systems server.
    This knowledge is critical for ensuring integrity of your application data and preventing you from becoming the next Equifax. It’s also essential for complying with all formal regulations, including SOX, PCI, GDPR, and HIPAA
    Watch Now.

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  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.