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Microsoft to test instant-messaging server

The software giant is accepting candidates to beta test a new version of Live Communications Server, the company's enterprise messaging product.

Microsoft is expected to reveal plans Tuesday for the first major update of its corporate instant-messaging server.

The software giant will begin accepting applications for a limited beta test of Live Communications Server 2005, with the beta version to arrive in June or July and a final release in the fourth quarter of this year.

Microsoft introduced Live Communications Server last year as part of a broad strategy to turn instant messaging into a corporate IT function. Today, most workplace IM activity happens over public services run by Yahoo, America Online and Microsoft's MSN, giving corporate IT managers little control over privacy or security.

Microsoft and competitors such as hope to bring IM in-house, with corporations running dedicated servers for chat and other real-time communications.

Besides improved security, such an in-house approach would let companies reuse information IM clients collect on employee availability. Such information, collectively referred to as "presence," can allow workers to more effectively choose communication vehicles.

The new version of Live Communications Server will push the presence picture forward, said Dennis Karlinsky, lead product manager for Microsoft, with several new "federation" features that allow IM sessions and availability information to be used outside the corporate firewall.

Businesses maintain an "edge proxy server" to serve as a gateway to other Live Communications Server users, Karlinsky said. Companies can selectively share availability information with other businesses, helping to streamline communications and transactions.

"The main goal our customers have told us about is they want to be able to connect to customers and partners," Karlinsky said. "We want to provide the ability for two or more enterprises to connect in a secure way."

Such capabilities are a good step toward lowering one of the more significant barriers to getting workers to switch from a consumer IM services to a corporate version, said Sara Radicati, chief executive of the Radicati Group, a research firm. Consumer services allow communication with a wide range of people in and outside a single workplace, she noted. Consumer services work for anyone with an Internet connection, and workers seldom want to give up the ability to chat with friends.

"Clearly business have strong motivations--primarily security and privacy--for moving workers to their own IM systems, but it takes a while to convince everybody," Radicati said. "It's always difficult to get people to change their behavior."

Karlinsky said the goal with Live Communications Server 2005 is to have the ubiquity of consumer IM with the safety of a locally managed approach.

"If you look at the benefit of the public IM clouds, it's that you have access to people beyond your organization," he said. "That's the kind of thing we're trying to do in a secure way with federation. You're going to see presence information for selected people outside your company."

'The dream is always to have that full presence information everywhere," Karlinsky continued. "I think this is a big step in that direction."

The new version of Live Communications Server will also include a number of under-the-hood improvements, Karlinsky said, including a 50 percent to 100 percent increase in the number of simultaneous users a single server can handle.

New clustering and failover capabilities will allow IT administrators to link multiple servers for better reliability. And remote workers will be able to connect to their Live Communications Server setup without having to establish a VPN (virtual private network) connection.