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Exchange as work management portal

This article appears in the issue November 1998 [Volume 7, Issue 12]

With sales topping 6 million seats in the first half of 1998, an installed base that should pass 20 million seats in Q3, and acceptance as the corporate standard in 26 of the 50 largest companies, Microsoft Exchange is emerging as "home base" for an increasingly large fraction of the corporate world. It's the place users go to look for messages from colleagues, to-dos from the boss, meeting and appointment schedules, and contact names and numbers. In short, it's becoming the portal site for the corporate network.

This phenomenon has been a magnet for vendors hoping to make work management software attractive for mass consumption by layering it on Exchange, the place where users already are conditioned to go to look for and organize their work each day. Can Exchange really handle enterprise work management? Traditional vendors scoff at the prospect. Eastman Software and Keyfile are seeing tremendous customer interest in Exchange-based work management, but most of those installations are still in the pilot stage. FrontOffice Technologies hoped to skip the pilot phase with a 1,000-seat minimum and paid the price. It turned out Exchange's internal database couldn't handle the transaction load and didn't have the locking and other DBMS features needed in 1,000-user systems.

When FrontOffice folded, NetRight picked it up with enthusiasm--not for the server engine, but for the front end. NetRight's back end would stay SQL-based, in a centralized three-tier architecture. That's what you need, said NetRight, to handle thousands of users. But the server is invisible. To make work management palatable to users, you need to integrate it with what they already use on the desktop, e.g., the Exchange client. That's using Exchange not as a work management engine, but as a portal to other, more scalable backend services.

One could dismiss the NetRight example as an isolated trial balloon were it not for other vendors taking a similar tack. Tower Technology, an Australian production work management vendor trying to expand in America, is looking to 80-20 Software's Exchange Document Management Extensions to provide a more user-friendly front end. Compaq's Work Expeditor for Exchange, introduced by its Digital unit in September, provides SQL-based workflow and document management services via extensions to Outlook, Microsoft's principal Exchange client. Expeditor integrates with Outlook forms and views, the Exchange directory and Collaboration Data Objects API, but does not really use Exchange Server. It maintains its own information store, and thus can provide a much richer role-based security model--at the document level--than is possible just using Exchange native security. It also provides shared work queues and other production features missing in mail-based workflow, all accessed via Outlook.

Unlike Keyflow or Eastman WFX, Expeditor work items are not routed via mail, but are simply pointers in Outlook folders to a SQL Server back end. With such a tenuous connection to Microsoft messaging, why is Compaq calling Expeditor an Exchange product? The reason is that with more than 3 million seats of Exchange under contract, Compaq is the world's largest provider of solutions and services to Exchange users. Since Expeditor's work management solutions are delivered by Compaq's system integration unit, Exchange is the perfect delivery vehicle to a large corporate audience.

While architectural purists will grumble, Exchange makes good sense as a front end to SQL Server-based work management products. It is, after all, the portal to the corporate network.


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