consraAlthough conferencing systems such as Lotus Development Corp.’s Notes or Collabra Software Inc.’s Collabra Share can enhance group productivity by providing a mechanism for group brainstorming and decision-making, such programs are tricky to manage.

Administering a conferencing system can be complex and time-consuming; it requires many of the same tasks found in maintaining conventional database-transaction systems. For instance, managers must make sure that discussion information is stored properly, is archived as part of a routine backup process, and is distributed to remote offices and workgroups.

As with other groupware applications, conferencing systems are still in the early stages of evolution — as are the tools used to administer them. In fact, most conferencing systems need to branch out and, instead of utilities that cover a single server, offer a more integrated, centralized management system for distributed conferencing.

The tools administrators use to manage conferencing systems vary considerably. Some of the older conferencing systems, such as Notes, come with a variety of tools but demand much administrative attention. Newer competitors, such as Collaboa Share and Digital Communications Associates Inc.’s OpenMind, allow users to take on some of the administrative tasks of setting up conferences.

Platform selection and setup

One of the first challenges confronting the administrator of a desktop conferencing system is to determine which platform makes sense for the system. Notes runs on a variety of systems: It can be a Windows-based application, an OS/2-based process, or a NetWare Loadable Module process running on a NetWare file server. OpenMind runs on a Windows NT Advanced Server, while Collabra Share is a server-based shared-file application.

Establishing the conferencing system as a server process might make sense in environments where data is centralized and the application can make use of other resources, such as communications gateways. However, as the size of the conferencing system grows and the number of concurrent users increases, performance demands might dictate that it be moved to a dedicated server.

The initial setup of the system represents another challenge, because it may require administrators to create user accounts for each individual using the conferencing system. Establishing links between the conferencing system and current network directory systems, such as the NetWare Bindery or NetWare Directory Services, can simplify this task by importing current user names into the conferencing system.

Database maintenance tasks

Once the conferencing system is up and running, one of the main administrative tasks entails monitoring the size of the databases: Pruning databases of old material can free up valuable disk space on the server and improve system performance.

Some of the newer systems, among them Collabra Share and OpenMind, have taken more proactive steps to limit the size of databases by allowing managers to restrict the size of messages or attached files that users can submit.

In addition, most of the systems on the market provide a mechanism for automatically “aging” material and purging it from the database after a period of administrator-defined time.

Indexing exerts one of the biggest impacts on system performance. Indexing, a mechanism that lets users quickly search and retrieve specific items, can consume a lot of processor time and disk space. For instance, Lotus officials estimate that indexing 20M bytes of text can take as long as an hour, depending on document length. In fact, the indexes themselves can eat up a sizable chunk of space: Depending on the amount of information indexed, the index of an 8M-byte file can be nearly 75 percent of the ori ginal file size.

To minimize the impact of indexing, administrators should limit the amount of information that is indexed. Rather than indexing the full text, only key words should be indexed, such as title, author, and company or product name.

Compared with OpenMind and Collabra Share, Notes has the most extensive administrative controls over indexing. Administrators can run indexing continuously, on an hourly basis, or on an administrator-chosen schedule. In contrast, OpenMind and Collabra Share expect that indexing will always be operating.

Using these indexing and aging utilities will ensure that the conference database is always being turned over, with fresh information taking the place of older material.

However, avoid the temptation to merely toss the old material — it often contains the critical historical context of how a decision was made or a policy was developed. Saving the context is useful in bringing new hires up to date on previous corporate decisions.

Administrators should find a way to save such data by archiving older material rather than simply deleting it.

The need for archiving

Unfortunately, conferencing products have yet to come up with a satisfactory method of storing old messages. Old data is either deleted from the system or archived to a backup tape, and archiving material to a backup system makes the data unavailable to users searching for information.

What is needed are links to HSM (hierarchical storage management) systems, where older data is automatically moved, or migrated, from a server’s hard disk to off-line optical disks or tape libraries. Long used in mainframes and now moving into LAN backup architectures, HSM technology calls for leaving a shadow file behind that automatically restores the original file once a user requests the migrated file. Such an option would be very useful for larger documents and attached files, particularly in conferen cing systems that are oriented toward document management.

Managing a conferencing database would be difficult enough if it were confined to only one network. But as context-oriented discussion systems find new life as document-management and workflow-automation systems, they spread throughout an organization, requiring managers to synchronize information that resides on distributed systems.

Lotus Notes and some of its competitors, such as OpenMind, solve this problem by replicating information between servers, with administrators determining which databases should be synchronized and how often synchronization should occur. OpenMind has a particularly detailed replication scheme that allows managers to determine which subsections of a database have greater priority in replication.

Shortcomings to address

Replication, though powerful, is still in the early evolutionary process. While Notes does support specialized servers that can be dedicated to replication services, there is no mechanism for dealing with communications failures between servers that prevent replication. What’s needed are mechanisms that automatically provide an alternative communications path for replication between servers.

Notes officials suggested that administrators establish redundant links between several servers to ensure that material is replicated if one of the links should fail.

Administrators also need the ability to manage remote servers easily. Most systems require them to log on to each server individually to perform management tasks. Though remote-access devices and direct dial-in asynchronous services make this possible, a central management console that can monitor all of the servers should be an option.

Desktop conferencing systems also need better monitoring functions. Today, if a remote server fails, no alarm or alert informs managers of this calamity. Finally, vendors should tie the conferencing systems into such network-management services as SNMP.