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Legacy and Current Practice – The Reality of Contemporary Collaborative Computing

systems management based typically

Definition : Current practices in collaborative computing within government and industry are still conservative consisting of four main elements: video teleconferencing, audio conferencing, electronic mail, and shared directories.

Despite the wealth of research topics that comprise collaborative computing, current practices within government and industry can best be described as somewhat conservative. While many potential benefits of such an approach are known, the investment in existing infrastructure combined with the comfort of familiar practices offer challenges to those who hope to push the boundary of collaborative computing forward.

Many organizations have a limited scope in terms of what they consider collaborative computing. Specifically, organizational inertia often limits a broader deployment of collaborative computing, further burdened by policy, traditional operating procedures, fear of change and concern over ancillary and support costs. The result is that many organizations’ collaborative computing environments consist of four elements:

  • Video teleconferencing (VTC)
  • Audio conferencing (conference call)
  • Electronic mail (e-mail)
  • Shared directories (file shares and network file systems)

This standard audio and video conferencing typically utilize dedicated equipment and facilities (e.g., specially-equipped meeting rooms) based primarily on ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) and PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). Such designs largely stem from significant legacy investment and interoperability requirements as well as the need to ensure quality and availability via circuit-switched technology. Unfortunately, these traditional VTC systems are typically “video” oriented, usually with an independent, self-contained control system and any support for data display/transfer being limited. Conversely, e-mail and shared directories facilitate collaboration though conventional IT means; thus they represent a trend towards personal computer-based collaboration and a desktop focus. Combined with the current movement towards convergence with conventional computer and network infrastructure, this approach is forcing a re-evaluation of the conventional ISDN/PSTN conferencing approach and a (slow) migration away from ISDN towards systems based on IP. Currently, many current VTC codecs provide support for both protocols (ISDN/IP) and indeed the use of IP telephony, including IP-based handsets is increasing.

As part of the increasing collaborative desktop focus, use of Web-based collaboration is proliferating. Browsing now often forms the interface for a large number of organizations’ information and knowledge management systems. Other current practices include the use of portal technology (both open source and commercial systems), on-line meeting facilitation (both as externally-provided “pay-as-you-go” and dedicated services), as well as content management and configuration management systems. Online meeting systems are typically accessed through portals and offer a number of popular business-oriented collaborative services such as agenda management, distributed presentations, workflow support, task management, calendaring, voting/polling, desktop sharing and the like. Example systems include MeetingZone and LiveMeeting (based on NetMeeting). Such functionality is often tied to content management systems which are used to provide increased knowledge management services (such as meta-tagging, categorization and classification services) to information traditionally communicated through email and/or shared file systems. Similarly, collaborative and distributed software development often makes the use of configuration management systems (including source control systems). While often treated as a given, the importance of “trivial” features such as version control and baselining cannot be underestimated in any collaborative effort.

While groupware has typically been regarded as the essence of collaborative computing, it is necessary to realize that despite the increased web-based collaborative focus, a sole spotlight on groupware is not a realistic view of collaborative computing – especially in the current business climate. In particular, two areas that can have a significant impact on the acceptance of collaborative computing need to be considered throughout the research, architecting, design, development, selection, deployment and management phases of collaborating computing systems. These are: (1) security and (2) source.

In terms of security, issues range from system and network architectures to software and data management. For example, the current preference for many organizations is to use “thin” vs. “thick” clients in order to lessen management and security concerns surrounding software installation and upgrades. Similarly, the use of the “service” industry to provide remotely hosted collaborative functionality (e.g., data storage, online meeting and user presence/awareness servers) are not readily accepted by many organizations. Additionally, the provision of network security often requires far more than firewall and anti-virus solutions; encryption is often hardware-based, and in some cases, a complete physical separation of systems may be required. The idyllic “one big network” often euphemized in collaborative computing and multimedia research can be a major issue in government arenas. Therefore, realizing a “network service” can sometimes prove difficult simply due to the need to demarcate where functionality resides in terms of organizational control and responsibility. This is further complicated by the notion of mobile and ad hoc functionality that moves around the network (e.g., downloadable “applets” that cannot be validated to the organization’s satisfaction). While such issues may seem annoying to many, they play a pivotal role in the potential acceptance and growth of collaborative computing in many domains.

The second issue of “source” refers to the contemporary aversion to custom system (software and hardware) solutions. Most large organizations today are (economically) risk-adverse and rely on the “comfort and safety “of using known technologies, benefiting from recognized reliability and user familiarity (with user interfaces, terminology, workflow, etc). Thus the use of the traditional approach to groupware and collaborative computing (via custom shared, multi-user applications) is not generally accepted. Organizations typically wish to use COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) products from well-known, reliable vendors that are shared via desktop sharing (when and as required). While not necessarily the best method to achieve the ultimate in collaboration, it is a reality with a large number of businesses and government agencies. Typically only select institutions, such as pure research organizations, may be willing to utilize speculative and research-level collaborative approaches in their “business practices”. While a broader spectrum of organizations are increasingly using collaborative technologies and practices, such as chat/instant messaging and even blogging, such diversity is still typically a microcosm of progressive collaborative computing that serves as a motivational example for others to follow.

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