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Agile Computing Authors: Xenia von Wedel, Sanjay Zalavadia, Elizabeth White, Dana Gardner, Kevin Benedict

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Application Collaboration Goes Virtual

Using virtual war rooms, distributed teams get more real work done

OK, raise your hand if your team has ever traded ten emails to address a problem that could have been solved in two minutes. Take one step forward if you’re spending eight or ten hours a week in unproductive conference calls, trying to work with peers in different locations. Don’t worry...you’re not alone.

Most employees today will tell you they’re drowning in email and meetings, and their teams are still struggling to work together efficiently. Not that long ago, most enterprises got work done in person between the hours of 9am-5pm in office buildings, and complex enterprise applications were handled by IT or specialists. Compare that with today - flexible work hours, telecommuting, distributed teams, and outsourcing are the norm, and employees increasingly rely on a collection of applications to get their jobs done. Unfortunately, many enterprises are behind the curve in helping their teams to collaborate in this new environment.

However, a new class of online application collaboration tools is emerging to help distributed teams communicate and cooperate more effectively, while saving money on travel and wasted meetings. These tools combine “presence” technologies like online chat, VOIP, and webcam video with virtual “war rooms” to let workers collaborate on multiple applications in real time. \

Inward Bound

Today, there are a growing number of services that are jostling to address the enterprise collaboration gap. Online meeting services such as Cisco’s WebEx, Citrix’ Go2Meeting, and Microsoft’s Office Live Meeting, which typically have been used for online sales presentations, are pitching enterprises to use their services for internal meetings and collaboration. For executive teams that can afford a $300,000 system, Cisco’s Telepresence delivers lifelike video conferencing. Legal firms and M&A teams often use services from vendors such as Merrill Corporation to build shared document repositories for each project. Some organizations have even experimented with consumer-oriented services like Second Life and Facebook to enhance team communication. Recently, a new class of enterprise-class application collaboration solutions has been getting traction.

Qwaq, a Redwood City, CA-based vendor, provides its application collaboration solution to over 100 enterprise customers, including large global firms like British Petroleum and Fuji-Xerox. Qwaq offers a solution that can run in the cloud or behind the firewall, and users interact with applications and teammates in an intuitive virtual operations center, much like a 3-D NASA control room. Features such as integrated chat, VOIP, multi-user application sharing, persistent workspaces, and virtual sticky notes help employees quickly drill into data and avoid wasting time.

Greg Nuyens, CEO of Qwaq, points out the business challenge: “As soon as distributed teams need to work together on three or more applications, traditional collaboration tools like email and conference calls break down. We worked closely with our customers to build a multi-application collaboration environment that could really stand up to enterprise requirements. Best of all, end users tell us they enjoy their jobs more when they can focus on real work instead of endless emails and meetings.”

Virtual Collaboration, Real Work

Let’s examine how a large manufacturing firm might use application collaboration to speed up the production lifecycle for a new product. Initially, design teams might build a virtual war room incorporating product requirement documents, CAD diagrams, ERP applications, and project timelines to develop a prototype and draft schedule. Experts from multiple offices could join the meetings, and actively participate by voice, chat, and editing documents. Later, marketing and sales teams could build a launch war room incorporating prototype images, supply chain forecasting applications, and CRM planning tools, with small group and large group discussions. Selected materials could be copied to an external workspace, enabling collaboration with offsite advertising agencies and reseller partners.

In order for enterprises to run their mission-critical applications and data in a collaboration service, the new generation of platforms needs to meet a number of key requirements. All applications and communications must be secured in an encrypted channel, and access controls must be enforced throughout the system. Administrators need to have powerful control over policies, configuration, and user privileges, and the system should be able to synchronize with enterprise directory services. Many organizations will want the option to run the service behind their corporate firewall for internal teams, and use an Internet-hosted version to work with selected partners and consultants. As companies ramp up their usage of the service, scalability and compatibility with a wide range of applications will be critical.

In today’s economic environment, it’s a good bet that getting real work done more efficiently will be an interesting topic. Just don’t send me ten emails for a conference call to discuss it.

More Stories By Kevin Brown

Kevin Brown is CEO of Coraid, Inc. He is an accomplished entrepreneur and executive, with experience in the networking, storage, security, and virtualization sectors. Most recently, he served as President and CEO of Kidaro, a desktop virtualization software vendor, where he led the team to a leadership position in this emerging segment. Kidaro was acquired by Microsoft in May 2008 and incorporated as a key element of Windows virtualization.

Prior to joining Kidaro, Brown served as a vice president on the original executive team of storage security vendor Decru, where he led worldwide marketing, business development, and product management. As one of the leading experts on storage security, he served as an advisor to the U.S. Congress, Federal Trade Commission, and U.S. Department of Defense.

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