Remote Access Makes Apps “Killer”

Users on the road are the first to say they need a fast, simple and secure connection to their home offices. With the increasing deployment of groupware programs, this has greatly intensified; E-mail and other network data can be crucial.

There are two ways to remotely access a groupware system, according to industry analysts. The standard method is to dial into a network using a modem and remote-control software such as Carbon Copy from Microcom Inc., Close-Up from Norton-Lambert Corp. or CO/Session from Triton Technologies Inc. This method gives users access to everything on the network except the data on a local PC hard drive.

Another way is for the groupware system to have a remote-access feature built-in, such as in Lotus Development Corp.’s Notes and Futurus Corp.’s Team. This enables the user to establish a direct link to the groupware system without going through the time-consuming process of logging on to the network server.

Although this type of direct connection may leave users without access to other network resources, some packages contain programming options that allow users to access other software on the network via the direct link with the groupware system, bypassing the need to actually log in to the network with remote-control software.

Beyond Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., includes a development feature called BeyondRules in its BeyondMail E-mail program that can be programmed to retrieve data from other network applications for specified remote users, according to company officials.

Fort Howard Corp., a paper-goods manufacturer, uses BeyondMail to connect its roughly 270 sales representatives to the main office, said Rob Williams, a PC analyst with the Green Bay, Wis., company. The company uses BeyondRules for its nightly compilation and distribution of sales reports to reps in all major U.S. cities and Puerto Rico. The database of information is stored on the mainframe at Fort Howard’s headquarters.

“What the rep receives is based on their user ID, which is based on territory, and the appropriate reports are passed on to their PC,” said Williams.

Remote links may sound simple in theory, but problems can pop up in practice: Limits to the number of remote users logging on can result in a busy signal; live connections are not always reliable, especially at low modem speeds; and finding a telephone line where a modem can be plugged in can be difficult in an airport or on a train.

Network administrators agree that 9,600 bps is the minimum speed they would use to establish a remote link. Anything less would be impractically slow.

“I expected that we’d have to use 9,600 [bps], otherwise we’d be working at a crawl,” said Scott Joy, project manager at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. The Portsmouth, N.H., company uses Instant Update and Meeting Maker from ON Technology Inc., of Cambridge Mass., to coordinate activities and collaborate on status reports.

Some groupware products are constructed in a way that allows remote users to work off-line. Users of Futurus Team Remote do this and then connect to the Futurus Team groupware system to simultaneously upload the work they’ve done and download all activity that has occurred on the main system.

Lotus Notes also allows users to work off-line, according to Cindy Schuyler, product manager for Notes. Notes, one of the more complex groupware products, includes a feature that allows databases to be replicated. Before a user leaves the office, all the necessary databases can be replicated onto a laptop for use on the road. Whenever a remote link is established, the laptop replica is kept in sync with the master through a database exchange where all changes to both databases since the last connection are exchanged.

Priority 1: security

Once remote users have found a reliable means of connection to a groupware system, security becomes a big issue. A user’s password and the data on the network can be vulnerable when connections are made via public telephone lines.

Security can be built-in at several levels. Although all network operating systems use some sort of security, most groupware packages contain additional features ranging from simple passwords to data-encryption and user-access codes.

The most widely accepted, Data Encryption Standard (DES), endorsed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, uses a randomly selected number as a key for a numerical combination that scrambles data for transmission. The same key is needed to unscramble the data at the other end, ensuring that only the intended recipient will gain access to the message.

The vast number of numerical combinations that can be created using DES makes it a very secure way to send data over both local and wide area networks, analysts say.

A more complicated encryption method, called RSA public key encryption and developed by RSA Data Security Inc., assigns two mathematically related “keys” to every user. The public key encrypts messages and the private key decodes them. Although the keys are numerically related, the number of variations is so vast that it is virtually impossible to break the code, according to analysts. Lotus Notes uses RSA technology in its user ID system and uses encryption and digital-signature features on a message-by-m essage basis.

Notes also contains several layers of security to monitor which parts of the system various users are authorized to access. Notes servers and databases both have access control lists (ACLs), which allow each individual database and server to be programmed to allow or deny access to certain users. User IDs must be recognized by the server or database that is being accessed.

Priority 2: more security

In addition to these widely used methods, other hybrids and unique technologies for security abound.

BeyondMail, for example, uses a combination of passwords and encryption for security. The sender uses a password to encrypt a message and the recipent uses the same password to decrypt it.

Kerberos, a security system developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., establishes the authenticity of a user upon log-on. Once a user’s password has been authenticated, a server grants a “ticket” for that particular session. The ticket contains the user’s name and password, the name of the server the user would like to access, the location of the user and the time the ticket was granted. The information in the ticket is then encrypted, giving the user secure access to the network.

Call-back features are another way of confirming a remote user’s identity. This technology enables the network to call a user back after the user has dialed into the network or groupware system.

There are two benefits to this potential setup, said Michael Joseph, a network administrator with Imaging Technology Inc. in Bedford, Mass. “The remote user would not have to pay for the call, and it would also be a way of confirming the caller’s identity since only calls from predetermined telephone numbers could be returned.”

Messaging And Groupware: Equal Partners

mabdgpRather than put their efforts into defining groupware, managers might do better to focus on preparing a plan to help their companies grow into collaborative computing. Electronic mail provides a foundation for incrementally adding groupware functions; however, standards must be established before the necessary infrastructure can be built.

The boundaries of E-mail as a distinct messaging application are already blurred by Object Linking and Embedding (OLE), Microsoft Corp.’s Network-aware Dynamic Data Exchange (NetDDE) and the other interapplication data-transfer schemes in the new generation of graphical operating systems.

When messaging is the means for data transfer among different applications, the entire operating system in essence becomes just another messaging system. Traditionally, E-mail services provided the back-end functions of storing and forwarding messages; today, however, some of these functions are starting to move into the operating system.

There is a split between back-end functions — such as transport or physical delivery of mail, directory services, message storage and management/security services — and front-end applications –such as calendars, personal information managers, message-enabled applications and the work-flow applications that route tasks between individuals and the applications they need to complete those tasks.

“You have to distinguish between E-mail and messaging,” said Nina Burns, president of the Menlo Park, Calif., market-research firm Creative Networks. Using OLE or DDE, for example, “every application can do a simple send or receive, although there’s no message management.”

E-mail as a building block

In many ways E-mail is going to form the cornerstone of groupware, because it provides the infrastructure on which other applications will exchange data. “Mail becomes a service just like a network file server,” said Felice Curcelli, marketing manager at Lotus Development Corp.’s cc:Mail division, in Mountain View, Calif.

“Groupware applications use E-mail to cooperate with other applications in a work group or WAN because applications such as calendaring and scheduling need the store-and-forward services,” Curcelli said.

The challenge lies in providing the messaging infrastructure that groupware applications can latch onto to transport their data.

Developers must determine which APIs (application programming interfaces) are necessary to provide services to the emerging messaging-reliant applications of groupware. “One of the major reasons groupware has not taken off is that there is no consensus on how applications will interact with the E-mail store-and-forward backbone,” said Ed Owens, a member of the cc:Mail development group at Lotus and a founder of the X.400 API Association, a group of E-mail providers working on API standards for implementing the X.400 protocol.

Without a standard API, groupware application developers have had to come up with their own mechanisms for tracking the names of users and the rules for routing messages to those users, as well as their own directories and store-and-forward mechanisms for messaging.

“Directories are one of the biggest slowdowns for groupware to move to the future,” Owens said. “There are a lot of address lists lying around, as [software developers] try to solve their own problems. Hopefully, we’ll be able to settle on one directory structure where we will get everyone’s information into one place.”

Several companies have offered their own messaging APIs — such as the Vendor-Independent Messaging API developed by Lotus with input from Apple Computer Inc., Novell Inc. and Borland International Inc., and Microsoft’s Messaging Application Program Interface (see PC Week’s Oct. 12 Special Report, “Network Messaging: The Shape of Things To Come”). In addition, some companies have proposed use of common directory standards such as the X.500 protocol.

Apple, with the support of other companies, has chimed in with its own Open Collaboration Environment to provide uniform directory, security and transport mechanisms for collaborative applications.

While API issues are being worked out, some E-mail providers are making it possible for users to add groupware features in an evolutionary manner.

“Not everyone is going to need an integrated work-group system like [Lotus] Notes to take advantage of groupware as it evolves,” said E-mail market researcher Steve Caswell, of the Electronic Mail and Micro Systems newsletter, published in Washington.

“It might be easier to add some things piecemeal, such as scheduling on top of mail,” Caswell said.

An illustration of this evolutionary path is Beyond Inc.’s BeyondMail. Because the program uses rules to filter messages and provides the ability to automatically start applications and pass them data, BeyondMail is positioned as an evolutionary path to groupware.

“First you use it for regular mail, and as internal corporate developers develop more applications, they will be able to develop new forms and add rules on how to process and route them,” said Eugene Lee, marketing manager at Beyond in Cambridge, Mass.

Avoiding Obstacles With Networks

ownsMicrosoft Corp.’s Windows for Workgroups 3.1 removes two of the largest barriers between users on a network, clearing the way for more “group-aware” applications.

Microsoft removed the main obstacle, DDE’s lack of network support, by developing network-aware Dynamic Data Exchange (NetDDE). NetDDE extends DDE under Windows for Workgroups. And the company at least partially overcame the second barrier, lack of a standard messaging architecture within WFW, by adding MAPI (Messaging Application Programming Interface) to WFW. Together with some of the easier development tools of Windows, such as Visual Basic, the enhancements bring the development of groupware into the r ealm of the power user.

NetDDE has the potential to change dramatically the way developers write network software for Windows. In the simplest scenario, NetDDE lets multiple users share rapidly changing information.

Imagine, for instance, multiple users working on different parts of a large financial worksheet. The manager of the entire operation could view one worksheet linked to the smaller ones and get a dynamic, real-time display of the progress of the entire project.

Real-time spreadsheet updates

In another scenario — one that PC Week Labs tried during testing of WFW (see review, Page S/16) — several users can connect to parts of a larger spreadsheet (which could, for instance, be connected to the stock exchange) and get real-time updates of the data in the spreadsheet. We connected four users to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet; two of the four stations displayed parts of the spreadsheet as a table in a Word for Windows document. The other users displayed the different data (from the same worksheet ) as graphs in Word and Excel.

WFW enables existing applications such as Excel and Word to use NetDDE through ClipBook, an extension of the standard Windows clipboard.

ClipBook acts as an intermediary between the network and existing applications, most of which still assume that the data to which they are linked is running on the same PC. NetDDE includes an extension to the standard DDE API (application programming interface), so new applications should be able to connect over the network.

An example of an application that does this is included in WFW: WinChat uses NetDDE to allow users to type messages to each other over the network.

Used in more complex ways, NetDDE provides a relatively easy way to develop applications that use all or some of the machines on a network for processing. Different components of a very large application can use NetDDE to coordinate tasks and pass messages, turning the network into a sort of asymmetric multiprocessing computer.

NetDDE, at least in the tests performed by PC Week Labs, is a fairly fast communication method for networked applications. Changes in source documents were reflected throughout the network in a few seconds, at the most. MAPI is another communication medium for less time-sensitive data.

Microsoft officials have said that the ultimate goal of MAPI is to hide the details of back-end messaging hardware and software from front-end applications. To achieve that goal, Microsoft is preparing a Service Provider API, which independent software vendors will be asked to write to when developing low-level messaging systems such as X.400 or a connection to host-based mail systems such as IBM’s PROFS.

On the application side, MAPI is designed to make it easy to add messaging and mail capabilities to any Windows application. By writing to a single API layer, developers won’t have to be concerned about how messages get from one place to another.

To date, the only component that Microsoft has completed and made public is a subset of MAPI called Simple MAPI. Although it may be too limiting for software developers building industrial-sized applications, Simple MAPI is perfect for creating smaller applications of the kind a power user could create in an afternoon.

We were able to use Simple MAPI to write a macro in Word for Windows to send completed stories to editors through Microsoft Mail 3.0. Similar macros can be written in any macro language (or Visual Basic) that can call a Windows dynamic link library.

But messages are not limited to those between two users. MAPI also provides application-to-application messaging. A good example is in Schedule+, the network-scheduling program included with WFW. Schedule+ exchanges E-mail with itself to exchange schedules of users over local or wide area networks.

Interapplication messaging can be used in simple group applications, such as a checkout board showing which employees are out of the office. Another possibility is posting records to a central database over a WAN.

Egleston Makes Collaboration “Child’s Play”

dteDigital Equipment Corp.’s TeamLinks, which the company began shipping last month, has already garnered rave reviews from beta testers of the groupware program.

At Egleston Children’s Hospital, part of Emory University in Atlanta, officials are using the TeamLinks suite of integrated client/server applications to help control the flow of information while offering new services to users. Egleston currently has 30 nodes in its pilot program and plans to have at least 400 nodes by late 1993.

“We look at TeamLinks as the infrastructure for our work groups … to help facilitate the flow of information,” explained Francis Sulton, manager of end user computing and support systems at Egleston.

During the pilot, only key users in the hospital’s administration and information systems staff have had access to TeamLinks, but the eventual plan is to initiate many new services and applications for other employees.

For example, the hospital is evaluating a customized CD ROM, made by Virtual Microsystems Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., that pharmacists would use to check medication conflicts or interactions. Pharmacists who have questions for a primary-care doctor also would be able to send messages easily by merging the search information into a message sent to the doctor via TeamLinks.

At the hospital, TeamLinks is used to get critical information to the right people at the right time, according to Sulton. “Patient care has to be our No. 1 concern,” he said. “The better we can process all the needed information, the better decisions and choices we can make about that care.”

Meanwhile, the City & County of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, one of the largest public health organizations in the country, also started beta testing TeamLinks, in March.

“We are a public facility, so everything has to be well-documented,” said Michael Peth, director of MIS for the department. “[TeamLinks] gives us a much better way of controlling all of our information.”

In the past, getting the appropriate signatures for even a routine document could take days — even weeks, he said. But by using TeamRoute, TeamLinks’ work-flow automation software, the department has achieved tremendous time savings, Peth said.

“We have been able to cut down the time a contract would have to be shuffled back and forth between offices,” he said. “Now you just press a button and it’s there.” Although it is difficult to put a dollar figure on the amount of time saved by TeamLinks, it wasn’t long before the software paid for itself, Peth said.

The TeamLinks Information Manager, which provides the integration hub for mail, distributed-filing and group-productivity applications, costs $295. TeamLinks for PathWorks, which adds group-conferencing capabilities along with more sophisticated browsing and conversion services, costs $405. And TeamLinks for PathWorks with Microsoft applications, a personal-productivity suite that includes Microsoft Corp.’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint, costs $849.

Because the county health organization is spread among 150 offices and staffed by people in a variety of jobs, TeamLinks’ ability to work with available applications was a major selling point, Peth said. DEC has agreements with both Microsoft and Lotus Development Corp. that enable users to continue using applications such as Excel, Word, Ami Pro 2.0 and Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows. “DEC is very open,” said Peth. “They have built in a lot of third-party hooks that make it very attractive.”

In addition, TeamLinks’ shell is consistent, regardless of the applications running on it. This is an important consideration because it means that once users have mastered the basics, they will be familiar with the interface and will not have to learn new commands.

“We needed to have a consistent shell that could be used by someone with a sixth-grade education and also our Nobel prizewinners,” said Peth. “We found TeamLinks was a good solution.”

If one feature is lacking in TeamLinks, Peth and Sulton agreed, it is a scheduler. But they both expect the oversight to be rectified. “I know [scheduling] will come in time,” said Sulton. “[DEC] knows that this is a concern.”

The users had different views on DEC’s decision to develop TeamLinks using Microsoft’s Visual Basic software, which resulted in a slow program. While Peth would rather it had been written using a faster, lower-level language such as C, Sulton prefers the BASIC code because it is easier to manipulate.

“I have been in this business a long time,” said Sulton. “[Version] 1.0 [of a program] is usually not a whiz-bang version. First, DEC will make it work, and then they will make it work fast.”

Mead Finds Cooperation Profitable

Although Mead Data Central Corp. has taken “a conservative approach” to implementing NCR’s Cooperation, the company is looking forward to a liberal application of the work-flow program, according to Gary Whitney, MDC’s director of systems evaluation.

MDC, a Dayton, Ohio, provider of research services, is in the process of migrating from mainframes to work groups. The company began using Cooperation about a year ago to create user-specific desktops.

Previously, MDC employees worked at mainframe terminals or stand-alone workstations equipped with software such as word processors and spreadsheets. But the need for people to work together made that configuration ineffective.

“The thing that was missing was the sharing of information and applications and being able to configure an environment for a work group that may be different from another work group,” Whitney said. “[With Cooperation,] we’re just starting to look at work-flow automation.”

Cooperation is an object-oriented, client/server operating environment based on NCR’s Open Cooperative Computing Architecture. It was introduced in 1990 as one of the first groupware products; when AT&T acquired NCR in 1991, NCR incorporated AT&T’s groupware offering, Rhapsody, into it.

Cooperation runs on DOS at the desktop and on OS/2 or Unix at the server. The base client, which includes Windows 3.0, provides the tools for creating user-specific desktops, sharing/linking data between applications and automating frequently performed tasks.

The base server includes LAN Manager, file, print and directory services, framework libraries and a system manager. About 50 add-on modules provide sophisticated client features, such as group calendaring and remote application access, and server features such as wide-area links and mail gateways. A typical configuration costs about $800 per user, according to NCR officials, also in Dayton.

Cooperation constitutes the software element of MDC’s migration from the mainframe to a client/server environment. The downsizing has also prompted MDC to buy several NCR System 3000 multiprocessors and servers, although Cooperation runs on any Intel-based PC.

MDC’s varied applications, which range from typical office software to homegrown applications and information-systems tools, run on top of Cooperation. As such, each work group has a desktop tailored to its users’ needs. Existing third-party applications can be registered or bridged into the Cooperation environment, and the framework libraries in the server component facilitate development of homegrown Cooperation-compliant applications.

At this point, most users don’t even realize they have Cooperation, Whitney said. They know only that they have a desktop that provides access to the applications they require.

“All [users] know is that they have objects and icons they click on to do their work. If you went to users and asked them how they like Cooperation, they’d say, `What’s Cooperation?'” Whitney said. “We produce desktops within Cooperation that have the applications and data that [our users] need.”

Because Cooperation runs on either OS/2 or Unix at the server, it allows users to access applications from either system, which was not possible on MDC’s old mainframe system. Whitney said he views Cooperation’s base system as a “technical enabler.”

“It has allowed us to do things within the environment that we were not able to do before, like accessing different systems simultaneously” in a way that’s transparent to the user, he said.

MDC will soon use more sophisticated Cooperation features, including mail. Although users within the same work group already use Cooperation’s E-mail, members of different groups still communicate via the mainframe PROFS, Whitney said. That will change as the migration off the mainframe continues.

MDC has started adding modules that will lead to a more automated workplace, Whitney said. For example, the company has bought the information storage manager module, which manages files on an enterprisewide network.

Whitney said he expects this evolution into work-flow automation will result in more consistent output from MDC’s users, particularly in terms of paper flow among different groups.

“I think the biggest thing we’re looking at is to automate paper flow where a piece of paper can be generated by one person and flow through the organization, a group or multiple groups,” Whitney said.

“With the automation, we will be able to track [changes] and make sure what comes out at the end [of the work-flow process] will be consistent” with all the participants’ input and that the input has had all the appropriate approval, he said.

Understanding The Importance Of Groupware For Corporations

gwfcPerhaps no term in the computer industry generates such a mix of enthusiasm, cynicism and confusion as “groupware.”

In the six years or so since the word was first uttered, groupware alternately has been used to describe everything from basic E-mail to complicated work-flow-automation software. As a result, detractors say, the term ultimately refers to everything, or nothing in particular.

Actually, grasping the principles of groupware “is like riding a bike,” said Brian Plackis, a network manager at MCI Telecommunications Inc., in Richardson, Texas. “You don’t understand it until you’ve done it.”

Plackis and many of his colleagues maintain that groupware should not be considered a category distinct from other types of applications; it’s actually a broad category that includes more definitive types of software.

And although they emphasize the drawbacks and elusiveness of the term, industry analysts acknowledge the applications that deserve to fall under the heading of groupware. Every PC application should in some way enable users to share information, according to these observers. As a matter of fact, in just a short time we will be hard-pressed to find among major PC applications any that are not available with optional links to E-mail programs, the staple of nearly all groupware systems.

Lotus Development Corp. started the trend last year when it launched its Working Together campaign, building cc:Mail hooks into applications such as its Ami Pro word processor and 1-2-3 spreadsheet programs using Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE). And Microsoft Corp. has followed suit: This year it’s touting its plan to enable its spreadsheet, word processor, database and messaging applications to work in concert via Object Linking and Embedding, NetDDE and the Messaging Application Programming Interface.

To provide users of its Windows for Workgroups with groupware capabilities, Microsoft is relying on such a patchworked approach (see Review, Page S/16). Lotus, however, is following a different route. Like most of Lotus’ applications, Notes has the ability to work in tandem with other Lotus and third-party applications to provide groupware capabilities. What sets Notes apart is that, even when deployed alone, it is genuine groupware.

Applications that fit the groupware bill can fall into six categories.

In the first group are messaging systems, such as Lotus’ cc:Mail, Microsoft’s Mail for PC Networks and Da Vinci Systems Corp.’s eMAIL. These systems enable users on a LAN or WAN to exchange E-mail, which may or may not include attachments. Almost every available groupware application includes its own E-mail system or taps into that of another vendor.

Three other types of more traditional applica-tions play off of the messaging systems.

The first of these, exemplified by Lotus’ Notes, uses a combination of E-mail and database capabilities to make possible the sharing, organizing and archiving of ideas in a work group. Mainstays of Notes are its high-security E-mail system, replicated object-store capabilities and end-user development capabilities. Notes is the only turnkey application that lets users build message databases for enterprise WANs; no other vendor is close to releasing a similar system. However, developers at firms such as Mi crosoft and Borland International Inc. are working on their own products to help them organize messages by tapping databases of their own and those of other vendors.

The second category of groupware that works closely with E-mail comprises message-filtering applications. In this area, as in the area of database-enabled messaging applications, one company blazed the trail.

Two years ago, Beyond Inc. released its BeyondMail E-mail program, featuring a rules engine that lets users create software agents that automatically file, forward or delete messages based on their content. Although the program works with only Beyond’s own messaging program, officials said they plan to release next year message-filtering software to work with mail systems, such as Microsoft Mail, and to be included with Notes.

Other developers are creating their own rules-based message-filtering programs. Both Lotus and WordPerfect Corp., for example, will make available next year message-filtering capabilities for cc:Mail and WordPerfect Mail, respectively, said officials for both companies.

The third type of groupware that works closely with E-mail comprises work-group application-development programs. Software in this category is designed to enable users to create custom applications on top of E-mail. Startup Reach Software Inc. is one of the pioneers in this group, with WorkMan, an application designed to help users build systems that use E-mail to automatically route information across their networks. Digital Equipment Corp.’s TeamLinks provides the same capability via its Team Route featu re.

Once a market niche dominated by smaller vendors such as Powercore Inc. and Campbell Services Inc., calendaring and scheduling is increasingly the purview of such vendors as Microsoft, which offers Schedule+ for Windows as an option to its mail system; NCR, which provides those capabilities in Cooperation; and Lotus, which plans to do the same next year.

Finally, document-management and imaging systems should be counted as groupware. All these programs allow users to scan, archive and redistribute image and text files. Some of these systems, such as Keyfile Corp.’s namesake program, include tools that make them somewhat like the application-development environments mentioned above.