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Microsoft, Lotus Chase Service Provider Messaging Business

In the space of a week, Microsoft and IBM’s Lotus software group introduced versions of their enterprise messaging and groupware platforms designed to support high-volume service provider and ISP implementations.

IBM-Lotus made the announcement during its Lotusphere 2003 conference last week, introducing an as-yet-unnamed mail application -- provisionally dubbed “Next-Gen Messaging” -- that is powered by IBM’s DB2 database and WebSphere Application Server.

On Wednesday, Microsoft announced its Solution for High Volume Exchange, a version of its flagship messaging platform optimized for the requirements of service providers and ISPs. Microsoft’s new Exchange hosting solution builds on a similar product -- Solution for Windows-based Hosting -- that the software giant announced in October, 2002.

Neither company has figured prominently in the high-volume messaging space, which has traditionally been dominated by vendors such as Sun Microsystems Inc., Critical Path Inc. and Sendmail Inc.

There’s good reason for that, suggests Burton Group senior analyst James Kobeilus. Up to this point, he says, neither Lotus nor Microsoft have “really made much of a play in the ISP space or the service provider space” largely because they haven’t typically provided “service provider-grade messaging software.”

Domino and Exchange are in use in several 100,000-plus user accounts, Kobielus allows, but -- at least as they’ve been packaged thus far -- “they’re not scalable enough for the needs of ISPs who want to host millions of mailboxes.”

To address these issues, IBM-Lotus and Microsoft are approaching the high-volume market from different angles.

Big Blue, for its part, has positioned Next-Gen as a solution for service providers and ISPs, as well as for enterprise IT organizations that need to expose basic e-mail service to employees -- such as factory workers or retail clerks -- who don’t currently have it. To that end, Next-Gen eschews the collaborative and groupware features that distinguish Domino. Instead, it leverages a stripped-down Web-browser interface -- based on Lotus’ iNotes client -- and, initially, will provide e-mail only support with POP3 access, if desired.

In addition, notes Tim Kounadis, senior marketing manager for IBM-Lotus messaging solutions, Next-Gen messaging exploits DB2 as its message repository. This has the effect of making it much more scalable than Domino’s message store, which has been optimized to support collaborative applications at the expense of transactional performance.

Says Kounadis: “The performance that you’re going to get out of a relational database is better. It’s more scalable. This will enable you to support more users and drive down the cost. Plus, it lets you do some interesting things programmatically with SQL statements.”

IBM plans to leverage the expertise of its Global Services unit to assist with Next-Gen implementations, Kounadis explains.

Microsoft, for its part, positions the collaborative capabilities of its high-volume Exchange solution as part of the business value that it brings to service providers and other high-volume customers. “There’s great advantage in using Exchange [for service providers or ISPs]. Users can start with a very simple mailbox, but they can also share their calendar and use a lot of the collaboration components,” says Ignacio Davila, a product manager with Microsoft’s Network Service Provider (NSP) team.

In contrast to Lotus’ Next-Gen solution, Microsoft’s high-volume Exchange package is based on the same version of Exchange 2000 that it sells to corporate customers, albeit with a couple of important design considerations.

First of all, Davila notes, high-volume Exchange supports only Outlook Web Access on the client-side. This means that it won’t interoperate with the standalone Outlook client and its cumbersome Mail Application Programming Interface (MAPI), nor will it support POP3 access to mailboxes. MAPI may be supported in future versions, Davila says.

In addition, Microsoft positions high-volume Exchange as a more manageable alternative to its enterprise counterpart. For example, Davila suggests, it supports the Microsoft Provisioning System (MPS), which makes it easier for administrators in non-Windows environments -- such as most service provider or ISP data centers -- to perform administrative tasks like configuring servers or creating new users or assigning user policies. Microsoft is also shipping a special Solution for High Volume Exchange administration pack for its Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) environment.

Davila indicates that security is a concern in any high-volume, hosted environment, and says that Microsoft has defined a secure architecture for high-volume Exchange. “You can create firewalls and different networks in a way that you are insulating the core components from any potential attack.”

He says Exchange has thus far scaled to support more than 100,000 users in some current implementations, but stresses that user concurrency requirements are usually different for service providers and ISPs. “If you’re in an office environment, you log in at 8:30 and log out at 5:00, and it’s almost constant, whereas in a service provider environment, the login behavior is different, so depending on the concurrency of users, it’s going to be changing.”

With an assumed concurrency of about 50 percent of potential users, Microsoft is currently able to support 200,000 users per Exchange 2000 cluster, Davila says.

A Korean customer, Korea.com, uses Microsoft’s high-volume Exchange solution to support as many as 7 million users, Davila confirms. In addition, he says, Telecom Argentina supports anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 users on a similar Exchange infrastructure.

Because of the architectural requirements associated with high-volume Exchange, the software giant recommends that potential customers tap the expertise of a systems integrator to assist with their implementations. The Solution for High Volume Exchange is officially supported by Microsoft’s System Services organization, along with Hewlett-Packard Co.’s Exchange services team.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.