Microsoft plans to release Real-Time Communications (RTC) Server 2003 by the end of third quarter 2003. In addition, the company will release a free RTC Server add-on for Windows Server 2003, an RTC Server software development kit (SDK) for programmers, and a new version of the Windows Messenger Instant Messaging (IM) client. Microsoft designed this sweeping set of products to supply enterprises with the logging, security, and manageability features they need to roll out a new generation of IM solutions companywide. RTC Server's history is convoluted (the product was originally scheduled to ship as part of Windows 2003), but diverging schedules and a desire to supply companies with a more complete solution led Microsoft to separate the RTC Server functionality from Windows 2003 and ship it as a separate product. Here's what you need to know about RTC Server.

IM in the Enterprise
Once considered the plaything of teenagers eager to keep up with their friends online, real-time communication through IM has evolved into an important business process. At large corporations around the world, employees are using IM clients for impromptu text-based and video-based conversations and to share files. However, today's IM clients lack a few features that are crucial to the enterprise. First, IM conversations are ephemeral; IM software doesn't include the logging or backup functionality that email clients provide. Second, IM clients lack the security required for enterprises to trust these applications for transmitting private business data and correspondence over the Internet. Finally, because today's IM clients are designed for individuals, they're not manageable. To address these needs, RTC Server provides enterprises with an IM server platform that includes a server product, a Windows 2003 add-on, and a new IM client.

The New Server
RTC Server is a real-time communications server that installs on top of Windows 2003. Today, real-time communications refers largely to text-based IM capabilities, but it can also encompass audio and video chat, file transfer, and presence functionality. Presence functionality is limited to determining whether others are online, but Microsoft plans to expand this capability to identify how a person has connected (e.g., through a PC, a handheld device, a smart cell phone, an Internet kiosk) and where, physically, that person is connected (e.g., in the office, in another city, halfway around the globe).

The Windows 2003 Add-On
In addition to the server product, Microsoft will release a Windows 2003 add-on for other servers in the enterprise. The add-on will relay presence information to RTC Server, which will let enterprises buy a minimum number of real-time communications servers and use other machines on the network to host custom applications that run on top of RTC Server, Microsoft says, and use RTC Server services to determine whether users are online. Some companies, including Reuters, already use this capability to deliver custom real-time communications capabilities to thousands of workers worldwide. Microsoft will also supply the RTC Server SDK so that developers can create custom applications.

The New Client
Windows Messenger 5.0 will be the client for RTC Server, according to Microsoft. This new version of Windows Messenger will integrate Internet-based Microsoft Passport IM capabilities with Microsoft Exchange Server IM capabilities and real-time communications capabilities, giving users in Microsoft-based enterprises three different popular networks with which to connect.

Recommendations
In today's enterprise, face-to-face meetings, phone conferences, and even email can be prohibitively expensive, time-consuming, hard to set up, or unnecessary in situations in which a quick verification is all that's necessary. In many cases, enterprise-based IM is the solution. A lingering question is how much RTC Server will cost. The add-on for Windows Messenger, the RTC Server SDK, and Windows Messenger will be free, Microsoft says, and will ship late in third quarter 2003.

RTC Server is not the only solution, but it will be a compelling product for Microsoft shops. Enterprises must begin to examine secure and manageable IM solutions. Whether RTC Server is the right choice for your organization will depend largely on your situation. And if you have some aversion to your workers idly chatting the day away, get over it: Increasingly, enterprise IM is a requirement, not an option.