Enterprises are coming to terms with Instant Messaging (IM), finding that it has become the best way to accelerate new forms of collaboration and communication among their distributed workforces, and stay productive as email inboxes swell with spam.

For some companies, such as at Jive Software, makers of the Openfire (formerly called Wildfire) collaboration tools, "email is the new snail mail" says Matt Tucker, the CTO of the Oregon-based software vendor. Workers want immediate answers, and waiting for the turnaround on a typical e-mail exchange can seem excruciatingly long.

Plus, "the future generation of workers coming into corporation are familiar with social networking and IM tools. It is their primary communication tool," says Akiba Saeedi, the program director for Unified Communications and Collaboration at IBM/Lotus Software. She says that "IM has become more accepted by corporations, and it will be one of the business tools that will be available in the near future."

The younger generation has in some cases forced IM adoption by enterprises, but the real reason IM is popular is mostly about increased productivity. "Our usage internally varies but there is some heavy usage especially among our younger staff. And if an attorney is talking to a co-worker on the phone, his secretary can alert the lawyer about an incoming call from an important client on the other line via an IM message, without interrupting the phone conversation," says Sam Blumenstyk, technology operations manager at the law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel in New York.

Overall, "corporations are starting to see the benefits of IM through enhanced customer relations and substantial cost-savings," says Michael Jones, CEO of Userplane (now part of AOL) in Los Angeles.

Given IM's advantages, "IM is going to be part of your communications suite. It is just a matter of time before more enterprises adopt it," says John Bracken, the business development director at AOL's Business Services unit.

But before you bite the IM bullet, here are some questions to answer to formulate your potential IM strategy for your corporation.

Does the IM product offer end-to-end encryption of message traffic?

Using public IM networks such as AIM means that just like public e-mail networks, messages are sent as clear text from point-to-point. This isn't always acceptable in corporate environments. Before IM can be deployed as a supported IT application, companies are looking for end-to-end encryption of their IM traffic.

"We would only consider supporting enterprise IM products if they offered encryption," says Blumenstyk. "In general, increased security is a major reason that companies are switching from the public networks to enterprise IM products," says Jive Software's Tucker.

In many cases, formal corporate IM use began at companies that could deploy secure IM networks. "The most security-conscious companies were the first adopters of SameTime" says Lotus' Saeedi. Now SameTime and other secure IM solutions such as Reuters IM are deployed widely in the financial sector. Traders are especially attracted to IM because "they can't have 50 phones in their ear at once, but can have 50 tabbed chat sessions open on their screens," says Paul Guerin, the CEO of Jabber.

"When IT pros get a look at getting control over their operations, there is a desire to bring in management of their communications infrastructure as well as governance over the security approaches. Making sure that IM is encrypted end-to-end is one of the key factors when you are communicating with someone that you are federated with," says Eric Swift, the senior director in the Unified Communications Group at Microsoft.

Does the IM product allow recording of all IM traffic?

Not every corporation has a requirement for IM encryption, however. "We have not seen encryption become a major barrier for IM yet. If you look at email, most businesses still use less secure methods of email transport, even though systems for encryption exist. I believe the primary barrier to corporate use typically involves corporations needing stronger auditing capabilities," says Jones. This brings up a second issue -- how IM is seen in the electronic communications spectrum in terms of client-to-staff messages.

Some corporations demand that all IM conversations are recorded and archived as part of their overall compliance policies. Certainly if your business involves decisions that are based on IM messages, such as a stock broker getting trading instructions via IM, it might be wise to consider which products allow recording and how they do it.

But even if you don't have that kind of message traffic, you may want to consider recording IMs after hearing that a study from Akonix shows that nearly a third of respondents to their survey have been harassed or threatened by a co-worker via IM. "If businesses continue ignoring unsanctioned employee IM communications, corporate attorneys might find themselves busy attempting to resolve a growing number of complaints and lawsuits," said Don Montgomery, vice president of marketing at Akonix Systems.

The legal industry is taking the attitude that IM conversations are like phone calls and corporations don't need to get involved in recording everyone's sessions. An article in the Yale Law Review last year talks about differences in legal discovery issues for various electronic communications and concludes that there currently are no legal requirements for recording IM sessions.

Does the product offer persistent group chat rooms?

Group chat rooms have become the new corporate intranet, the place where the collective knowledge of the company is shared and where immediate answers can be found for everything from customer support to what today's lunch specials are.

Some of the IM products, such as Parlano's MindAlign for LCS, Jabber Now, Lotus SameTime and Reuters Messaging are geared towards supporting persistent group chat sessions, meaning that the conversations can take place among multiple people and are recorded so that a user can review what has taken place when he or she is offline. "You want your group chat room to stay there and log everything, even when you aren't online," says David Uhlir, the vice president of marketing and product management at Jabber.

Does the IM product tie into Active Directory or similar corporate directories?

Some products, such as SameTime, Jabber Now and Microsoft's LCS, can populate their user lists from the corporate directory structure, making their deployment relative painless. Others, such as Nakisa, Parlano and SameTime can search for particular organisational hierarchy, "One way to get adoption is to use SameTime to find people within an organisation, like an intranet. This takes IM beyond just conversations, and ties other functionality and business processes to it," says Saeedi.

Can the IM product block file transfers and protect against viruses?

Malware infections are on the rise for IM and now have their own name -- SPIM, for IM spam. Several products can be configured to block all file transfers among IM users or among particular groups, and there are several third-party protection vendors such as Akonix and Symantec's IMLogic that also offer additional security mechanisms for corporate IM users. "IM and email both face similar challenges. Luckily with IM it is easier to prevent unwanted file transfers into your network," says Jones.

Still, "user education is the best approach to combating the problem of viruses," says David Ferrero, the CTO of Zion Software.

Does the IM product scale up?

Any successful corporate IM solution will eventually catch on and be used everywhere and by everybody, so it pays to investigate what will be involved in deploying enterprise-wide and whether there are issues with scaling up to universal access.

Jabber's Uhlir thinks scalability is critical: "We are seeing that the top issues for our customers are persistence and scalability."

Does the IM product offer support for AIM?

AOL's IM has the largest user base of any of the public IM networks, and many corporations want a product that has connectivity from their private IM networks so that their users don't need to run two IM clients on their desktops. "AIM legacy support has made a huge difference for companies' IM use," says Lotus' Saeedi. "People want to see IM become like email, and want to send a message to anyone that they choose to without having to deal with proprietary communications," says Microsoft's Swift.

An alternative is to make use of AOL's AIM Pro client, which offers encryption and authentication for corporate users while still providing the connections to the public AIM network. "AIM Pro is a really good fit for making the transition from public to corporate IM usage," says AOL's Bracken.

All of the major vendors of enterprise IM products, such as Microsoft, IBM/Lotus, Jabber and America Online offer products that corporations can use to run their own private IM networks, but still have connectivity to the public IM networks. "Our customers look for AIM and MSN support primarily, with Yahoo fairly close behind," says Tucker. Many IT managers love the fact that they can provide access to the legacy IM networks using a single client application while also enforcing security and compliance policies." (See table below.)

IM is certainly on the rise in corporate communications. But matching the right product isn't simple, and at least these few questions will help you get on the right track towards something that will meet your needs.

Company Product Public IM connectors
Microsoft Live Communications Server 2005 MSN, AIM, Yahoo
IBM/Lotus SameTime AIM, Yahoo, Google
Jabber Corp. Jabber Now AIM, GoogleTalk
Jive Software Openfire AIM, MSN, Google, Yahoo
America Online AIM Pro AIM, Yahoo