From Workplace cynic to believer

Notes and Domino have been a part of my working life for more than 10 years. So when I first heard the Lotus Workplace announcement way back when, I was not exactly in love with the idea. I was one of many in the Lotus community concerned that Workplace would be the death-nail to our beloved Notes and Domino.

That being said, I needed to keep up with what was going on with this "future direction" product that was going to put a detour -- or worse yet, a roadblock -- on my company's products and services. So I recently attended the IBM Lotus Workplace 1.1 hands-on workshop, led by what I'll call "The Dragon Slayer team," Mark Hicks and Margie Virdell. Mark and Margie are two very technically savvy engineers who live and breathe Workplace. Note that they are not marketing execs, and there were no Lotus marketing people there.

The workshop provided a detailed look at Workplace 1.1, the kind of thing you could never get from a marketing event like Lotusphere or a two-hour product launch. I gained appreciation for the" technical preview" product. (Apparently, this is IBM-speak for "not really a stable product, but we are calling it version 1 anyway.")

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And, to my surprise, by the end of the workshop, I was convinced that Workplace is a good thing. Here's what I learned in those two days:

Workplace is a platform

Workplace is a J2EE application server that runs application portlets. The portlets, which IBM refers to as products, include Workplace Messaging (like iNotes mail), Workplace Team Collaboration (like Sametime and Quickplace), Workplace Collaborative Learning (like LearningSpace on J2EE steroids) and Workplace Web Content Management (this is the former Aptrix product).

Workplace is sold under different licensing and cost structures, depending on which products you buy. You can run any or all of these products, and they are "auto-magically" integrated through Workplace's built-in People Finder. However, before you even get near Workplace, there is a very long list of things to do.

Workplace is a beast

A considerable effort is necessary for preparing a Workplace installation. The skills required go beyond, in most cases, a single-person setup. Installation and setup experience with WAS, WPS, DB2, an HTTP server and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) is required.

For the LDAP directory setup, we are talking about advanced skills. To all the Domino administrators out there, this means far more than "load LDAP." It means really understanding how an LDAP directory works and ensuring it is properly configured prior to running the Workplace installation.

Also, there are more than 20 configuration screens during the install, so make sure you read the installation guide and the release notes during your planning phase. With Workplace, gone are the days of popping in the Domino CD and having a server up and running in about 15 minutes.

Workplace is a 'great start'

What I took away from the workshop is that Workplace 1.1 is a great start to the future platform. The crucial next step for Lotus is to deliver Workplace 2.0 with the functionality it has slated for this release.

Number one on my list is the forthcoming Workplace API, which the company said will ship after the projected June 2004 date. This should provide the developer community with an easier method for creating custom Workplace portlets.

Following that, in the second spot, is supporting Oracle 9i as an alternative to DB2. This will prove that IBM is sincere about making Workplace an open platform. Beyond that, Lotus is planning to deliver a Java implementation of instant messaging (right now Workplace 1.1 loads the necessary Sametime server components in seven command windows).

Note: If you are using Workplace 1.1, do not close these DOS boxes if you want instant messaging to work.

Additional server OS support, numerous bug fixes and UI enhancements are also expected.

Workplace is good news

For starters, the Notes/Domino server has been around for more than a decade, and we have to face reality and accept that it is now a legacy system -- a great legacy system, but legacy nonetheless. Workplace is good news for the Lotus community because it is breathing new life into a platform that may have reached its growth potential.

Let's face another reality: Do you really want to load any more tasks on your Domino application servers? I cannot name a single customer I work with who would say, "Yes, let's load another task!" to this question. If anything, they would like to take some of the load off Domino if it would improve performance and stability without taking anything away from their collaboration and workflow applications.

From what I witnessed at the workshop, Workplace offers the capability to lift Domino applications to the next level while relieving burden from the Domino server. It does mean tacking on additional complex systems to the equation, but it seems reasonable to say that we've already reached the "complex" level with the applications Domino is now serving.

Is now the time for Workplace?

If you are interested in Workplace, my advice would be to wait for Version 2, which is due out in June 2004. The number of enhancements coming in Workplace 2 will provide a slightly easier installation, better functionality and a more open platform on which to develop. Plus, while not directly stated, I got the impression that upgrading Workplace 1.1 to 2.0 may prove impossible to us mere mortals.

For everyone out there who is making or planning to make the move from LotusScript to Java and J2EE, this is your chance, especially once the development API is available later this summer.

Scott Lemieux is president of Stone Pond Software in Portsmouth, N.H., which specializes in delivering complex data integrations using Lotus and non-Lotus technologies.

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