More and more organizations are delivering mission applications to their users using web technology than ever before. The ability to deliver rich applications using web 2.0 technologies has certainly helped make this possible. However, we are also seeing interest in using widget frameworks to de-clutter the user desktop experience. One example of such as framework is Ozone and its associated Marketplace recently referenced in the Information Week article, Everybody Wants an App Store.
The Ozone framework is a combination layout manager and messaging mechanism for hosting widgets within a Web browser. It resembles iGoogle, and uses Shindig, an open source Google gadget (widget) container. Ozone is being developed by the National Security Agency (NSA) and it is used by numerous other government organizations such as The US Marshals Service, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) just to name a few. NGA is using Ozone as part of their iGEOINT project to provide analysts with capabilities for easy discovery and access of NGA’s Geospatial Intelligence Data, Products and Services. Another organization is building Ozone widgets that can be easily reconfigured to provide a variety of visual analytics solutions out-of-the-box.
Similar to the Apple App Store, Ozone also contains a marketplace where users can search and view a list of available applications that can easily be added to any desktop. Once selected, the application is then loaded onto the user’s desktop displayed in the web browser.
So, how does collaboration fit into a widget framework? Since the idea behind the widget framework is to provide small applications that users can pull from the marketplace, collaboration is a perfect fit whenever the capabilities are broken down to their smallest units and allowing users to select the capabilities they want such as:
- Presence Awareness
- Document Storage and Sharing
- Instant Messaging
- Web Presentations
- Audio-video Conferencing
- Virtual Whiteboards
- Blogs and Threaded Discussions
- Social Networking
- Alert Streams
Enhancing the marketplace with an integrated suite of collaboration widgets gives users the capability to select widgets from the marketplace they need to be more productive. Users can then quickly and easily create a custom desktop that combines data, analytics and collaboration.
To take advantage of a cloud service, all a user needs is a web browser and access to the Internet. That’s why cloud services have become particularly popular in a down economy, when small to midsize businesses are wary of spending much-needed resources on software licenses, servers, and the IT personnel to install, configure, and run the hardware and software systems needed to support the company.
Web services have started to evolve in the cloud. Web services can be viewed as a form of SaaS; however, the web services provide APIs that enable developers to exploit functionality over the Internet, rather than delivering full-blown applications. Some examples of web services offered are Google Maps, ADP payroll processing, the US Postal Service, Bloomberg, and even conventional credit card processing.
How does collaboration fit into the cloud, and what should you be looking for if you are providing services in the cloud or consuming cloud services? Instead of standing up an in-house collaboration solution, you now have the option of looking for a service provider that will outsource your collaboration solution for you. The providers take care of hosting the applications, and your subscribers access those applications over the Internet.
However, since the outsourcing firm is hosting the application, you need to be aware that it is most likely also storing all the application data in its data center. In the cloud, you must consider two very important factors with regard to collaboration:
- Your data may not be controlled by you. The outsourced collaboration is set up very similarly to services offered by Internet collaboration solutions such as Facebook and LinkedIn. The main difference is that many of the outsourced solutions are designed to protect your data better than the popular consumer sites that are not focused on corporate customers. You must still be sure you understand the risks associated with your data being stored in the outsourcing firm’s data center. You need to ensure that the outsourcing firm’s security policies meet your company’s security requirements regarding access controls, data recovery, and so on.
- You may end up with another collaboration stovepipe. As you look to outsource your collaboration needs, keep in mind that you want a series of services that can integrate into your existing applications. The recent emergence of web services in the cloud offers a possible solution if packaged properly by the service provider.
Using a collaboration solution in a cloud environment can help reduce IT costs but you still need to be mindful of the security risks as well as the potential barriers that can prevent access to the collaborative capabilities.
The shortcoming of outsourcing that you’ll often run into is that a lot of hosting organizations haven’t yet picked up on the possibilities of integrating collaboration horizontally. They still think of it as a standalone tool. They recognize the value of collaboration technology, but they offer it to their customers as an independent collaboration suite. Their subscribers end up with a traditional collaboration tool that isn’t tied into the other applications they subscribe to. Or companies end up using collaboration capabilities from another vendor such as Google, AOL, or Yahoo! so they are not integrated directly with the applications chosen for your organization.
In essence, the customers of outsourcing firms get yet another stovepipe. Whether the software is in-house or outsourced, organizations miss the major benefits of collaboration technology when it’s not integrated horizontally. It fails to go viral because employees don’t have time to open a separate application just to share information or ask each other questions. They need to be able to collaborate from within the tools that they work in every day.
Only then will you get the true benefit of collaboration in your outsourced IT infrastructure. Thinking of collaboration as a service actually fits very neatly into the data center model. A lot of the applications and suites of products that these data centers are hosting are already SOA enabled services. They take advantage of back-end databases and core authentication services. The hosting companies make money by bundling their offerings in terms of price and features, and collaboration is a horizontal service that they can offer end users. They can host as a bundled set of collaborative capabilities, or—if they provide a web-enabled suite of applications—they can prepackage everything together and offer a complete collaborative suite.
In essence, data centers function in much the same way as large organizations do. Just as large corporations and government agencies integrate collaboration horizontally so that they can better serve their employees, data centers need to integrate collaboration horizontally so that they can better serve their clients. The same basic process is at the core: taking what the organization (or data center, as the case may be) already has and incorporating collaboration into it so that existing applications work better for the end users.
Not only do we suggest that data centers consider adding integrated collaboration to their offerings but we also suggest that organizations that are shopping for outsourcing providers make collaboration a factor in their decision. Organizations should ask their providers, “If I outsource to you, would you be able to help me collaborate—in an integrated, seamless way?”