Building a collaborative environment with Exchange Server and Outlook

Microsoft's vision for Exchange Server encompasses more than just email. The perfect server for today's electronic office must include features such as document management, collaboration, and workflow in addition to email and calendar functionality. Lotus Notes' success is largely a result of the product's groupware capabilities, and Microsoft is well aware that Exchange Server must include similar functionality to maintain Exchange Server's long-term success. Currently, Exchange Server doesn't quite meet this standard, but Microsoft has made progress in increasing Exchange Server's groupware capability. Third-party groupware applications can bridge the gap between Microsoft's vision for Exchange Server and reality.

Several software vendors offer groupware applications that integrate with Exchange Server and Outlook. For example, Eastman Software produces WorkFolder for Microsoft Exchange and Document Manager for Microsoft Exchange, two products that organize business processes on an Exchange Server system. Document Management Extensions for Microsoft Exchange from 80-20 Software is a low-cost Exchange document-management solution at $98 per seat. Keyfile offers Keyflow for Microsoft Exchange Server, an Exchange workflow application. And Compaq introduced Work Expeditor for Exchange at the 1998 Microsoft Exchange Conference in Boston, Massachusetts.

This product selection indicates a demand for groupware applications in the Exchange Server community. However, before I discuss the functionality you should look for in collaborative solutions, consider what you can do with standard Exchange Server and Outlook.

Is Exchange Enough?
Using Exchange Server and Outlook to build a collaborative environment is completely feasible. You can create public folders to store project documentation, use a distribution list to grant access to the documentation to only the project team, and combine Outlook forms with public folders to input and store structured information such as customer contact information. Also, you can combine Collaboration Data Object (CDO) Routing Objects with Outlook forms to build basic routing applications. (For more information about routing applications, see "Building Routing Applications in Exchange," October 1998.)

Is this functionality enough for your company? Exchange Server's features offer sufficient collaboration functionality for many businesses. For example, my organization uses public folders to share documents, and users access those documents via Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) news-readers and Web browsers. However, you need a third-party product if you require advanced features. Exchange Server public folders don't let you set different access controls on individual documents within a folder or automatically maintain different versions of a document as various people contribute.

Exchange Server might also meet your workflow needs. Workflow items are intelligent documents that know to whom the document must go, what the recipient needs to do with the document, and whether the document must meet any conditions before continuing in the routing process. Exchange Server offers serial routing, which is fine for simple workflow items. For example, travel requests in which an employee asks a manager for authorization to take a trip are straightforward serial routing requests. The employee creates a request, and the routing application sends the request to the authorizing manager, who can approve or disapprove the item. If the manager approves the request, the application routes the item to the travel department, which makes the necessary reservations.

Parallel routing complicates the process by introducing concepts such as splits, joins, and merges. For example, a parallel routing application must account for documents that require two or more managers' approval. What does the application do with a document if some, but not all, the managers reject the document? Can the document proceed to the next step if three managers approve the document and one manager rejects it? Add to this scenario conditional routing, which controls the flow of items based on the data they contain, and collecting electronic signatures, which verify that the right people interact with the item, and you have a very complex environment.

Exchange Server can't account for these complex conditions, despite CDO Routing Objects' potential. Microsoft acknowledges this limitation and explains that CDO Routing Objects deliver simple document routing rather than workflow functionality. (Also, CDO Routing Objects are an enabling technology, not a finished application. Be prepared to write code to use CDO Routing Objects.) To conceptualize the subtle difference between routing and workflow, think of routing as the mechanics of moving an item from place to place along a predefined route, and workflow as the mechanism that controls the interaction between the recipient and the item at each stage in the item's routing cycle.

If Exchange Server doesn't offer the features your company needs, third- party solutions are an alternative. You can use a third-party product with Exchange Server and Outlook, or you can invest in a separate document management system. To expand Exchange Server's standard capabilities and add information access control, choose a product that integrates with Exchange Server and Outlook.

Extending Exchange Server and Outlook's Horizon
Outlook has always been an extendable client. Software developers can use two technologies to incorporate new functionality into Outlook. First, developers can use the Messaging API (MAPI) to build an information service provider that describes a foreign repository's contents to a MAPI client, such as Outlook. The second technology is Outlook's Add-In Manager, which lets products add options to Outlook's menus.

MAPI. Many document management and workflow products that integrate into Exchange Server use their own repositories to hold information about an application's documents. Sometimes the repository also stores document data, but usually NTFS directories store documents. These products can store content in public folders, but only MAPI or Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP)4 clients can access documents in Exchange Server public folders (and IMAP4 has limited access). Thus, many vendors develop-ing applications that integrate with Exchange Server give products a document repository. Developers build an information service provider to map the application's repository to Outlook.

When Outlook starts, it consults a profile to determine the set of information services it will use during a session. Users can manually select a profile; if a user doesn't select a profile, Outlook uses the default setting. The system stores profiles in the HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\WindowsNT\CurrentVersion\Windows-MessagingSubsystem\Profiles Registry key. When you connect Outlook to an Exchange Server system, Outlook uses a profile to find the name of the server and the mailbox to connect to. The profile also gives Outlook the names of one or more .dll files to load to connect to the information service. These .dll files contain the code necessary for an information service to respond to the MAPI function calls Outlook generates.

To examine the .dll files Outlook calls, go to the Outlook Tools menu, Services, select an information service, and click About. Screen 1 shows details about the Lotus Notes information service provider, nwnsp32.dll. When you install the Lotus Notes client 4.52 or later, your system loads this .dll. Outlook can use nwnsp32.dll to browse the contents of a Lotus Notes mailbox. However, accessing another email system's mailbox and being able to work effectively with the contents of the mailbox are not the same. Be sure to test standard options for compatibility before implementing this solution.

Add-In Manager. When you add a third-party product to your Exchange Server environment, you need to merge the product's options into Outlook's menus. Outlook's Add-In Manager (which Screen 2 shows) lets vendors provide Outlook with an extension configuration file, which adds an item to Outlook's menu and describes to Outlook the function associated with the menu item. For example, a user selects a menu item that calls to process a .dll. The extension configuration file enables Outlook to interpret that .dll and initiate that menu option's function. Go to Outlook's Tools menu, Options, and click the General tab, Add-In Manager to reach Outlook's Add-In Manager. For a Web site that specializes in add-in options for Exchange Server and Outlook, go to http://www.slipstick.com/exchange/add-ins/outlook.htm. (Many of these add-ins are useful Outlook calendar extensions.)

MAPI and Outlook's Add-In Manager let vendors create a seamless integration between their product and Outlook. This integration simplifies using new features for users who already know Outlook. Also, this integration lets you move items between information services, so you can use a drag-and-drop operation to quickly refile a message Exchange Server receives into a document management application folder.

Complete Third-Party Solutions
Third-party document management solutions offer functionality that Exchange Server add-in products can't provide. These applications improve four important areas in which Exchange Server is limited: access control, document versioning, document reservation, and electronic signatures.

Access control. Exchange Server provides folder-level access control. You give a folder permissions, and the contents of that folder inherit those permissions. You can't create a folder containing an item that has read-only permissions for most users, but has writeable permissions for a specified group of users. Exchange Server requires separate folders for documents with varied permissions. This requirement makes viewing all the documents relating to one subject impossible, because you must spread them across multiple folders. Third-party products offer more flexible access control.

Document versioning. A magazine article going through the editorial process moves through several versions from the author's initial text to the editor's final copy. Most plans, designs, and proposals endure similar routing cycles. If you store a document in a public folder in Exchange Server, the folder retains only the document's most recent edit. The folder doesn't keep any other versions unless a user explicitly saves another version as a separate item in the folder. Some third-party products provide automatic document versioning, which keeps all of a document's changes and lets you roll back to a particular version.

Document reservation. Exchange Server prevents users from making concurrent edits only if users are connected to the same public folder replica. Conflicts occur when users apply concurrent edits to different public folder replicas of the same document. Screen 3, page 179, illustrates a conflict message Exchange Server delivers when users simultaneously change one document. Exchange Server can't resolve the conflict automatically, so it sends the notification to tell users to resolve the problem. Screen 4 shows an open Conflict Message window. You can see that two users edited a document almost simultaneously. The users must manually decide which changes to save. This example demonstrates the limitations of using public folders for collaboration. To prevent such problems, use a third-party document management system that offers document reservation. Document reservation prevents multiple users from simultaneously editing a document.

Electronic signatures. Some document management products have another feature that Exchange Server doesn't offer: electronic signatures. Electronic signatures let users register their opinion about a document. Screen 5 shows electronic signatures users have added to a document in Exchange Server. Approve and Disapprove are the most useful signature types for workflow applications, but signature types range from Initial, which shows the user has seen the document, to Sign Off, which prevents users from applying further changes to the document.

Choosing a Solution
Document management systems vary greatly in scope and complexity. For example, if you work with large, complex documents, you need a product that focuses on document management. Documentum and PC DOCS are examples of companies that specialize in high-end document management solutions.

As you consider document management alternatives, keep in mind your sites' geographical locations. Some products are available in only certain markets, which causes problems when you must deploy a solution around the world.

Some features will be more important to you than others, but knowing which features are available helps you shop for a document management product. No groupware product is perfectly suited for everyone's needs.

The Future of Exchange Server
The groupware market segment will evolve quickly in the next few years to meet companies' varied demands. In the next year, Microsoft must develop the next major release of Exchange Server and synchronize it with Windows NT 5.0. Microsoft will be watching Lotus Notes to make sure that Exchange Server's base functionality is comparable to Notes' features. Notes' success is partly a result of applications independent software vendors (ISVs) developed. Exchange Server needs companies such as Eastman Software, Keyfile, and Compaq to develop applications that give Exchange Server's market share a similar boost.

Contact Information
DOCSFusion
PC DOCS * 781-273-3800
http://www.pcdocs.com

DOCSOpen
PC DOCS * 781-273-3800
http://www.pcdocs.com

Document Management Extensions for Microsoft Exchange
80-20 Software
http://www.80-20.com

Document Manager for Microsoft Exchange
Eastman Software * 978-967-8000
http://www.eastmansoftware.com

Enterprise Document Management System 98 (EDMS 98)
Documentum * 925-463-6800 or 888-362-3367
http://www.documentum.com

Keyflow for Microsoft Exchange Server
Keyfile * 800-453-93453
http://www.keyfile.com

Work Expeditor for Microsoft Exchange
Compaq * 800-345-1518
http://www.compaq.com

WorkFolder for Microsoft Exchange
Eastman Software * 978-967-8000
http://www.eastmansoftware.com