Jabber's latest IM server could have more improvements in useability, but its support for open messaging standards is a big plus in a market where vendor lock-in can be a major source of expense and inconvenience.
Implementing a groupware-based IM product like IBM's Lotus Sametime can be expensive and difficult if you're not already using Lotus Notes. Jabber XCP 5.0 offers an alternative--it's not expensive compared with other non-groupware-based IM servers and because it uses an open standard for IM communication you aren't locked in to a single vendor solution.
Jabber has improved the usability of its product since we last tested it, when we dinged the software for a complex administration interface and for having fewer features than competitive products from IBM, Microsoft, Sun and WiredRed. To gauge the changes, I tested a shipping copy of Jabber XCP 5.0 in our Syracuse University Real-World Labs®. The product needs some more work, but Jabber now seems well-suited for midsize enterprises with a technical IT staff, and for developers writing extensions.
The UI has been refined slightly, though it's still needlessly complex at points, and the bundled client doesn't have many advanced collaboration features. XCP can run on Linux, Sun Solaris and Windows, and requires a database for features such as message archiving and persistent chat rooms, like many other IM servers. New to this release is support for Microsoft SQL Server, though you can also use PostgreSQL or Oracle. I decided to use Windows 2000 Release 3 with SQL 2000. Installing XCP was relatively painless and straightforward, with the exception of the database and LDAP setup.
I was instructed to run scripts to set up the database tables outside of the installer program. This shouldn't be a separate step and should work from within the installer. Likewise, setting up LDAP (for Active Directory) authentication was more tedious than in comparable products. The LDAP schema had to be extended to support centralized group creation, a feature most enterprises will want. For authentication only, the schema doesn't need to be touched. After a few minutes of figuring out LDAP settings, I had the IM server up and running.
Management is chiefly handled through a Web system. The main page shows various components for Jabber, such as the directory services, text conferencing (chat rooms), message archiving or the core settings. Each component has its own configuration screen. I liked how I could switch configuration views between basic, intermediate and advanced. Each mode hides or shows configuration options. This helped make things less intimidating when I was presented with a long list of options.
The built-in help isn't extensive, though, offering little information on what to do next or how to perform certain tasks. Even the included documentation is a bit skimpy on how to get from point A to B. Most irritating is the error reporting. When there is a configuration mistake--perhaps you didn't fill in a required value--the error message is cryptic and unhelpful. Also, the error log is accessible through the Windows event viewer, but not through the Web interface. Message archives can be captured to a SQL database, but the management GUI cannot access or display these, so you must write your own queries and reports.
What You See
The Jabber Messenger 3.2 client has an excellent user interface, even though it's a bit skimpy on features. You can display multiple messages in individual windows or dock them together with tabs. This fusion of tabs and windows works well. A monthly calendar is displayed to the right of the docked IMs. Unfortunately, there aren't many advanced collaboration features. Persistent and temporary user-created chat rooms are available, as are offline and broadcast messaging. But screen sharing, whiteboards, video and audio conferencing aren't included in the Jabber client. These features are available in products from WiredRed and Microsoft. Integration with WebEx is supported, though.
Jabber uses a standardized IM protocol, XMPP, so I was able to connect my Apple iChat client to the test server. XCP also supports sending messages to AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) users, but federating between a Jabber server and AIM requires sending some information to AOL and waiting a few days. Being able to use third-party XMPP-based clients is a bonus in a field where most vendors support only their own clients. I especially liked how clients, first- or third-party, are available on all the major desktop platforms.
My wish list for the next edition includes a revamped management interface and collaboration features.
Michael J. DeMaria is a technology editor based at Network Computing's Syracuse University's Real-World Labs®. Write to him at email@example.com.
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