Being the social butterfly that I am, I have an account with every IM Service out there. So it seemed natural that I would be tasked with discovering what options, there are as far as IM in SharePoint 2010. This post is a high level overview of what’s out there.
But first some definitions:
1.) Consumer IM: Consumer IM is IM that is not contained within the security envelope of a single organization. It may include many protocols. The features here are all dependent on the service, but today very robust to the point of video chat, group conferencing, and file transfers. It requires that one make an account with the service. These services are delivered via a thick chat client, or web based. Web based clients will facilitate anonymous chat, but this is not the norm. Examples of this include MSN, Yahoo, AIM, Facebook, the evil devil GTalk etc.
2.) Commercial IM: Commercial IM, I refer to as the many-to-one conversations that happen in the browser as a part of sales and support activities. These services allow for anonymous communication from a customer or prospect to a select few internal representatives. It’s great because it’s in the browser and very convenient for customers. For organizations, they get better response time for customers and good tracking. It’s not designed for one-on-one peer conversations. It’s usually sold as a month-to-month service. The integration is with HTML object’s embedded in a site.
3.) EIM: Enterprise IM (EIM) / Unified Communications (UC). While the providers of these solutions make it seem like something way more then it actually is, for the most part consider this nothing more than Consumer IM inside a corporate firewall. They talk about presence engine (ability to see if someone is available to talk or not), video chat, and group meetings. For the most part consumer IM has all of this, but it’s not as tightly governed and in some few instances less advanced (in areas of group and Telephony). So don’t let the fancy talk fool you, this is expensive controlled consumer IM. Because of that, Gartner makes fancy graphs for these guys. The top players are Microsoft, Avaya, and Cisco. These services are delivered with some minor exceptions in a thick client ONLY.
Source: Gartner “fancy graph” research 2009
There is a concept of integration between these three use cases but this is the foundation. Alright so how can we get this stuff in SharePoint?
I’m reluctant to call this IM, but it’s important to look at what you get OTB with SharePoint ( Standard or Enterprise ) to facilitate IM chat type functionality. Your option here is really Chatterbox if it’s SharePoint 2007 or Note Board in SharePoint 2010. The benefit of note boards is that you can configure it in minuets, and it has really tight integration with AD and SharePoint. The downside is, it’s not really transactional based chat, as we are used to in IM. This would be for internal communication only primarily. One thing to be aware of is conversations are tied to a URL, and anyone with access to a site page will see the conversation.
Out-Of-The-Box + Consumer IM:
If the IM service has created Flash based HTML embedded objects, there is a very good chance you can use it with SharePoint. What this gives you is in browser chat. Most of the time conversations are many-to-one, very similar to the approach in commercial IM. The web user may be anonymous (usually required to dignify themselves), with an internal user assigned to receive the conversations. This allows the receiving internal user to keep their “buddy list” and receive chat request from the site. Examples are MSN, Meebo, Yahoo. Like the OTB note board feature, this will take moments to setup with the Content Editor Web-Part. A very good example of this in action is my blog ------------>
Out-Of-The-Box + Commercial IM:
This integration is HIGHLY variable. There may be very little effort, similar to consumer IM. If the service has Flash based HTML embedded objects OR code to launch a separate resized browser window, integration is as easy as pasting the proper code in the Content Editor Web-Part. This will most likely be the scenario. In this situation, there are two administration points, first your SharePoint site, which allows external users to create a request for internal conversation, then the service site where internal users will partake in and manage conversations. Some companies may want (they will find out quickly that they don’t want) to make this type of solution work for internal IM as well. This is quite the task. It requires a service with an API and some very extensive development to integrate with internal active directory. This I DO NOT recommend at all. The final solution is also highly dependent on the service provider you choose, and there are many. This solution is great for customer facing sites where you want to have an option of live chat for sales and support.
Out-Of-The-Box + Lync / Office Communications Server (OCS):
Intermission: I am talking about Lync here because you will see in a moment that it’s the only solution in the category of EIM that makes sense with SharePoint.
As far as EIM goes, I would say the integration with SharePoint is not very mature, but the best option, here is Lync, formerly OCS or Communicator. The reason for this is the key pivot point of Active Directory AD. One of the primary requirements of EIM is to pull users from an internal user list. Because both Lync and SharePoint pull from AD and Cisco and Avaya do not that I’m aware of, this alone makes Lync the best solution. The amount of effort it would take to integrate a Cisco and Avaya system with SharePoint would be huge, and the result the same. I digress. What you get when you integrate Lync with SharePoint, only two things, first presence engine. Using the web parts for Note Board, Site Users, and Members, you will get a nice little indicator next to each user if they are online, available, idle, or busy. This is the magical presence engine. Next you will get the ability to, in the browser, launch a chat dialog from the thick Lync client for a particular user. Oh neat! This solution installs quickly. It might be a little pricey as each user needs a CAL, but will be minimal cost on the setup end. For the individual users, they can also add users from other protocols in their individual chat clients, thus combining with consumer IM services.
There is a web app for Lync, but it’s limited to text-based chat, and invitation only. It runs on Silverlight, and will require the user to install a plugin. My hope is that more advancement comes in this area, making Lync the ideal solution.
There does not appear to be a perfect solution of EIM or just IM in SharePoint, perhaps an opportunity for the third party market to create some cool web-parts or integrations with AD. However, the above three paradigms cover the vast majority of requirements an organization would have. My advice is to stick with the features you can get from the described solutions, and avoid as much customization as possible for the simple reason that more customization alienates upgrade paths when more robust features surly come.