Using Instant Messaging as a Support Resource

By Troy Thompson | Oct 17, 2000 | Print this Page
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In this article, we'll look at instant messaging (IM) and its growing use in the workplace. What started out as a toy for the Internet is growing in popularity among business users. Many valid applications for this technology exist in the workplace.

Installation

Installing IM software packages, for the most part, is straightforward. You download the software of your choice from the Internet and run the associated setup program. Yahoo Messenger installation starts the install wizard, which consists of only six screens (see Figure 1). Some programs, such as AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), require you to choose a screen name and password before you can download the product (see Figure 2).

Figure 1: The Yahoo Messenger install wizard
Figure 1: The Yahoo Messenger install wizard

Figure 2: The AOL Instant Messenger installation program
Figure 2: The AOL Instant Messenger installation program

How It Works

IM is an Internet technology that lets you send and receive text messages, voice messages, file attachments, and other data instantly over the Internet. E-mail is not an instant technology because it sends messages through a server that stores the items until the user retrieves them. Messages arrive in real time using IM because both parties are constantly connected to the network.

When you log on to an IM service, the software informs a server that you are online and ready to receive messages. In order to send messages to another user, you select that person's name from a contact list you've built. You then enter your message and click Send. Depending on which service you use, the server either directly relays the message to the recipient or facilitates a direct connection between you and the recipient.

There are three methods that IM services use to deliver messages: centralized network, peer-to-peer connection, or a combination of both:

  • Centralized network--Connects users to each other through a series of servers that form a large network. When a message is sent, servers find the recipient's PC and route the message through the network until it reaches its destination. MSN Messenger uses this method.

  • Peer-to-peer--Uses a central server to keep track of who is online. Once you log on, the server sends you the IP addresses of everyone on your contact list who is currently logged on. By doing this, messages are sent directly to the recipient without involving a server. This method is faster for sending large files and graphics. ICQ uses this method.

  • Combination--Uses a centralized network of servers for sending text messages, but establishes a peer-to-peer connection for sending large files and graphics. AIM uses this method.

Advantages

In a poll by Forrester Research, 50 Fortune 500 companies indicated that they expect to use IM services by 2002. There are several reasons to use IM:

  • Price--It's free. All you have to do is download the software and install it on your PC.

  • Speed--IM spreads messages quickly. Instant messaging applications spread a message quickly to employees when e-mail is not an option. Take the recent ILOVEYOU virus, for example. Consider the resource savings if your IT staff had a way of sending an instant warning to employees.

  • Communicate long distances--IM can reduce long-distance phone bills by allowing employees to communicate in real time, just as they would on a telephone. Several IM services provide voice as well as text messaging.

  • Improve communication--IM has the potential to improve communication in your company by allowing employees to communicate in real time using their computers.

  • It works when e-mail is down--If your e-mail server is taken offline for maintenance, IM will still allow you to communicate.

  • It's instant--As long as the service is running on a PC, IM is real time. AIM 4.0 and ICQ 2000 include voice messaging that lets you talk in real time, as you would on a telephone.

  • Help the help desk--Instant messaging can be used in a support environment to immediately report problems. Support staff can walk you through a problem without spending money on long distance phone calls and without using e-mail.

  • Low hardware requirement--The hardware needed to run IM will not break your bank. For instance, ICQ requires just a 66-MHz 486-DX2 PC with 8 MB of RAM. Most simple text messaging works well over a 56-Kbps modem.

In addition, IM lets you communicate with people in remote locations, and can help you roll out large-scale applications. IM is also customer oriented--no longer does your Web site have to be self-serve for your customers. Your staff can communicate with customers, making your site more consumer-friendly. Some e-commerce businesses are using IM to answer the questions of potential customers in real time. This allows customers who only have one phone line to get the information they need without having to disconnect from their session to make a phone call.

Support Staff Scenario

Let's say that another wide-scale virus attack, such as the I Love You virus, takes place throughout the world. As an administrator, you will be forced to take your Exchange Server offline as soon as you are aware of the problem. If your Exchange Server is your only form of communication, you'll be completely crippled from a communication standpoint. Sure, there are telephones and faxes, but using them can be a time-consuming and cumbersome process. If you have a procedure in place using IM, you can still disseminate important information to key personnel quickly using distribution lists. You can keep them abreast of the progress in fighting off the attack. When the system is brought online after successful implementation of a fix, you can use IM to spread the word quickly.

Standards

Currently, there is no standard for IM services, which prevents users who have different IM services from communicating with each other. However, on July 25, 2000 a group of vendors, including AT&T, Excite@Home Corp., iCAST Corp., Microsoft's MSN, Odigo Inc., Phone.com Inc., Prodigy Communications L.P., Tribal Voice, a CMGI Co., and Yahoo, announced the formation of IMUnified. This is a coalition aimed at bringing interoperability to instant messaging services.

Missing from the coalition is America Online. AOL has the biggest market share of IM users and has been accused of monopolistic behavior. With 120 million users of its AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ products, AOL accounts for 90% of the instant messaging market, sending nearly one billion messages per day.

IMUnified aims to support protocols developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to create standards for instant messaging. A few companies have decided to go ahead and make interoperability a reality. The IM services Jabber, Everybuddy, and Bantu offer software that integrates different IM services into one program. You still have to have an account with each service, but you can access them all from one application. Until interoperability standards are decided, you may have to use Jabber or a similar product if you need to communicate with several IM services.

Dangers and Inadequacies

Although the potential uses for IM are growing in leaps and bounds, it must be noted that there are risks associated with using it:

  • Lack of security--The messages sent across IM are not secure. There is no encryption, which means that if your message is intercepted, it can be read without any special key.

  • No tracking--IM messages cannot be tracked like e-mail. For instance, it is not possible to retrieve messages that have been sent via IM. Many companies also bill their clients based on minutes or hours of consultation. Unlike the telephone, you cannot track how much time was spent with a client using IM.

  • Susceptibility to viruses--Companies have placed a lot of emphasis on preventing their e-mail systems from spreading viruses. Many IM services will allow the transfer of files, and these transfers can circumvent the measures taken to prevent viruses on your system.
CrossLinks

Firewalls and Proxy Servers

You can run into many problems when using IM with firewalls or proxy servers. If you are trying to connect from behind a firewall that does not use proxy servers, Yahoo Messenger will automatically search the firewall for an open port, and, if it finds one, use that port to connect. If it's not able to find an open port, ask your system administrator to open port 5050 to the pager servers, cs1.yahoo.com, cs2.yahoo.com, and cs3.yahoo.com.

When using AOL software, you may get the message "Error loading ticker file" when you are behind a firewall or proxy server. There is no solution for this problem yet. If you have disabled ports on your proxy server for increased security, you may also be blocking some IM packages from communicating. You may have to ask your system administrator for an IP address and a port number before you can use IM. Some common ports for various IM packages are: AOL port 5190, ICQ port 4000, IRC port 6667, MSN port 569. In some cases, when you are running Microsoft Proxy Server, loading Microsoft Proxy Client on your workstation will allow your IM software to function.

There are many other concerns in using IM with firewalls and proxy servers, too many to cover in one article. Most of the IM sites have a troubleshooting page that addresses issues specific to their software.

The Future of IM

The future of IM will go far beyond the consumer desktop. Soon, you will be able to get traffic updates, weather reports, and live customer support sent directly to your cell phone, pager, television or car. Devices such as printers may send you an instant message to let you know they are out of ink or paper. A refrigerator may tell you to get milk or eggs. Microsoft also plans to incorporate IM into its Office products in the future. //

Troy Thompson, MCSE+Internet, is a freelance consultant in the Louisville, Kentucky area.