This week’s UPDATE column, posted here because I don’t have time to write a separate entry on this right now
One of my favorite things about IT conferences like Exchange Connections is going to the exhibit floor to talk to vendors and see their products. Sometimes large vendors like HP and Symantec have interesting things to say (like Symantec’s announcement of a new version and pricing strategy of their Exchange security products), but for my money the real goodies are usually found in the booths of smaller vendors. They tend to be more enthusiastic about their products, and more engaging when discussing them. I’ll do a broader review of some of the cool things I saw here next week, but with my deadline looming I had to pick one thing to write about, and it’s… RSS.
Now, you may wonder what RSS has to do with Exchange. Over the last year I’ve mentioned RSS a few times, but it’s always been as a client-side technology that enables individual users to find the information sources they want and display them in a web browser or a rich client like Outlook. However, there are some problems with client-side RSS use:
- you have to install an RSS client on each desktop; this is a non-starter for organizations that are trying to reduce the number of desktop touches. It also encourages end users to install and manage their own software, another hot-button issue that many firms are trying to clamp down on.
- users make duplicate requests; if you have 500 users, and 200 of them are making hourly requests for the latest content for a particular RSS feed, you’re using excess bandwidth to pull the same data over and over. (Of course, the owners of the servers providing the RSS feed might take issue with getting a large number of requests from your organization, which is why heavily-trafficed sites often include a throttling feature that will block requests from IP addresses that are making requests too often.)
- users are left on their own to find the information sources they need. This is an advantage insofar as it allows users to make their own choices, but it makes it difficult to effectively share and consolidate useful information.
NewsGator Technologies has been making client-side aggregators for several years; their NewsGator for Outlook plug-in is my primary aggregator. I run it in a VM to let it collect RSS data that is then published to a tree of folders in my Exchange mailbox; that way, I can access it through OWA, Outlook, Entourage, or even an IMAP client. This addresses the first two of the problems I mention above, but it doesn’t do anything about the third, and it doesn’t scale well.
Enter a new product that NewsGator is showing on the expo floor: NewsGator Enterprise Server. It’s a slick piece of work that effectively addresses all three of these problems by collecting and consolidating feed data in a centralized SQL Server database, then publishing it to users’ mailboxes via WebDAV. This eliminates the need to license or install individual client plugins, and it makes the collected RSS data available to any client that can access an Exchange mailbox through IMAP, WebDAV, or MAPI.
This functionality in itself is very useful, but NewsGator architect Lane Mohler surprised me by showing me two other features. First, NewsGator Enterprise Server lets you specify default feed sets for individual mailboxes, or for sets of mailboxes as defined by Active Directory groups or OUs. For example, you can define a default set of feeds for users in your sales organization, and those feeds automatically appear in those users’ mailboxes. Add a new employee, and she automatically gets access to whatever content you’ve identified as most valuable for people in that position. This neatly eliminates the problem of helping new users find the right set of resources when starting a new task or position.
The other cool new feature is called clippings. It addresses the problem of sharing relevant information by allowing any user to select an individual article and add it to their clipping set—to which other users can subscribe. I think of this like a librarian-in-a-box. Say you have someone in your company whose job it is to find articles about the company or its competitors and share them with appropriate groups. They probably do this by mailing URLs or articles to people, but the same task is more easily accomplished by using clippings; as the librarian finds relevant articles, he can add them as a clippings that are then automatically published to the appropriate users and groups.
What really gets me excited about the potential of NewsGator Enterprise Server is that it works with any kind of RSS feed, not just blogs. You can produce RSS feeds from SharePoint data or other back-end systems, making it easy to slip notification or status data automatically into users’ mailboxes—a very cool potential that I expect other vendors to exploit.