Support for SIP Expands Messaging Options for Stalker
by Alex Woodie
Stalker Software is due to start shipping a new release of its CommuniGate Pro messaging server software that supports a promising young technology called Session Initiation Protocol, or SIP. With the capability to initialize a number of different types of connections, including Voice Over Internet Protocol, secure instant messaging, and video conferencing, among others, SIP is positioned to open up a whole new world of mobile collaboration, Stalker says.
SIP is an IP-based telephony signaling protocol under development by the Internet Engineering Task Force. It is a text-based protocol, similar to HTTP and SMTP, used to initiate interactive communication sessions between users, and has applications in video, voice, instant messaging, gaming, and virtual reality.
Stalker Software has debuted SIP support with CommuniGate Pro 4.2, the latest release of its messaging platform, which runs on more than two dozen operating system, including Linux, Unix, Windows (NT, 2000, and XP), and OS/400. In the past, the Mill Valley, California, company has positioned CommuniGate Pro as a less-expensive and scalable replacement for Microsoft Exchange. As an e-mail and collaboration server, CommuniGate Pro has racked up 8,000 customers across six continents, the company says.
While spam hasn't yet snuffed all life from e-mail (although it's come awfully close), new forms of computer-based communication are appearing on the horizon. One of the most promising, Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), is experiencing tremendous growth as early-adopters give way to mainstream users and traditional telecommunications providers, like AT&T, introduce VOIP services.
Another Net-only communication medium, instant messaging, has already taken off but suffers from interoperability problems among the major networks, much like e-mail did before the establishment of the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), when users of America Online and CompuServe couldn't communicate. Along with VOIP, the Session Initiation Protocol has much promise in fostering a standard for implementing secure instant messaging. Similarly, video conferencing has a lot of potential.
For all of these new forms of communication, the Session Initiation Protocol is the underlying answer, Stalker says. "We believe that [SIP] will be the one that evolves into a standard, just like SMTP did," says Josh Olson, sales engineer at Stalker. "We're providing a server that will be the backbone for these devices to communicate."
CommuniGate Pro will function as a SIP server, or a "registrar" for SIP-enabled devices, Stalker says. Any SIP-enabled device can establish its Internet presence through CommuniGate Pro, depending on the type of SIP communication supported by a device. One of the cool things about SIP is that your e-mail address (or IP address) becomes your unique identifier. So, instead of dialing a 10-digit phone number, you would dial the e-mail address of the person you want to call on your VOIP phone, and this would work for an SIP-enabled device. Another SIP function is communicating the status of users, such as "active" or "idle," much like with instant messaging.
This may sound very futuristic. And it may be. But consider this: 80 to 85 percent of new phones shipping today already support SIP, according to Michael Osterman, principal of messaging consultants Osterman Research. Stalker, which has an office in Russia, has reduced its long-distance phone bill by about $200 by using VOIP phones connected via CommuniGate Pro and SIP, says Ali Liptrot, director of sales and marketing.
SIP also has strong backing from Microsoft, which supports SIP in its instant messaging client, Windows Messenger, and is building a SIP server that offers similar capabilities as CommuniGate Pro 4.2, called Office Live Communication Server 2005. Other tech companies supporting SIP include IBM, Cisco Systems, and Siemens.
SIP IN SERVICE
One of the early adopters of CommuniGate Pro 4.2 is the Institute for Social and Economic Development, a nonprofit organization that helps people coming off of welfare to set up their own business, and provides a range of other services. With two main offices, in Washington, D.C., and Des Moines, Iowa, and seven satellite offices spreading from Utah to Kentucky and Delaware, it's a challenge for project leaders to collaborate, says Todd Schuldt, ISED IT director. Today, ISED project leaders collaborate through conference calls and follow ups via e-mail. Then, once a quarter, they get together to discuss work.
With the whiteboard capabilities of the SIP-enabled CommuniGate Pro 4.2, Schuldt envisions an increase in his project leaders' ability to collaborate, and perhaps to cut down on travel expenses as well. He also plans to streamline help desk support, through the software's remote desktop capability. Stalker's software will also be used to keep close tabs on the use of instant messaging; it will be configured through a port on the Cisco router to ensure that no outside messages make it through.
Schuldt could have gone with Microsoft's SIP server offerings to provide white board, shared application, and IM services. His 70 or so users are using Windows desktops and the Windows Messenger software, after all. However, going the Microsoft way would have necessitated installing a Windows server operating system (the organization currently runs CommuniGate Pro on a Dell server, running SuSE Linux), as well as using Microsoft's .NET Passport authentication services, and that didn't sit right. "Security is a high concern for us," he says, adding that Social Security numbers and other sensitive information are routinely handled. "I don't trust it if it's outside; I'm paranoid. This way, if there's any security flaw in the Windows Messenger software . . . an outside person can't come through the firewall."
Another factor for Schuldt was that the upgrade to CommuniGate Pro 4.2 was free. The organization paid Stalker about $1,200 in licensing fees in 2001, for a license for 200 users and 15 distribution lists. "They haven't asked for a dime since," he says.
Other enhancements in CommuniGate Pro 4.2 include a new skin for Stalker's Web-based e-mail client that looks like Microsoft Outlook, and support for full-text indexing and archiving in the MailDirMailbox (.mdir) mail format.
CommuniGate Pro 4.2 is due to ship in mid-August. Pricing starts at $499 for the single-server version, which supports 50 e-mail users and scales up to $59,999 for an unlimited number of users. For more information, go to www.stalker.com.