Businesses must gain control of IM

Messaging is the next frontier for business, claims Symantec.

More than any other means of communication, instant messaging is fulfilling the needs of many in business because of its real-time nature and presence features, yet companies are not taking it as seriously as they should.

Symantec's recent research shows that 39 per cent of businesses don't back up instant messaging and VoIP communications, while roughly the same figure admit to having have either been unable to produce data records of conversations when requested, or they know of other companies that have been in a similar situation.

But 80 per cent said that they were aware of an increased focus on legal and regulatory requirements in their industry sector. Legislation such as Sarbanes-Oxley and the Basel II directive on European corporate governance will put businesses in a tight spot unless they start managing their messaging properly.

Sean Doherty, head of sales development for Symantec enterprise messaging management said that many companies are still at the point of adopting messaging management and control systems off the back of a security incident.

"Many are waiting for a compelling security/leakage event," he said.

This may well be because businesses haven't realised just how important instant messaging is.

"Messaging has become critical by default," he said, not least because of its popularity with staff.

"Employees are aware that email is monitored ... and new recruits don't have an email culture at all," he added. "I might use messaging to get round email, to stop people forwarding comments, for example."

Doherty adde: "Messaging systems are capturing IPR and business processes ... and that traffic flows out of the organisation to servers around the world even if you are IM-ing someone just a few cubicles along in the same building, so those communications can be sniffed outside the organisation."

He said that many businesses have adopted the public systems such as the trading and brokering sector has done with Yahoo Messenger. Some companies won't allow transactions to be made using IM, but because of its real-time nature, the medium has become indispensable for these industries.

IM is becoming a part of business operations as well, he said, with many rolling out corporate services via IM, using it to issue alerts for example.

But businesses are "not budgeting, they're not supporting it," said Doherty.

"When they do own up to it in the business they want to offer the same service and support as they do email."

Things are changing however.

Doherty said he is increasingly finding himself in meetings with people with titles such as messaging and communications director.

Many businesses are starting to look to third party security companies, such as Symantec, with its IM Manager solution, and using them to support the public IM systems currently in use.

This then helps them migrate to full corporate managed messaging platforms, such as Microsoft's Live Communications Server. "The biggest driver in that market is Microsoft," he said.

Even with a managed solution, security remains an issue, however. "IM worms continue to be a menace," warned Doherty.

"Hackers are putting lots of R&D into new threats. They are looking to it as a medium to penetrate organisations."

One of the big factors to this is the real-time nature of IM.

"Peak infection occurs within 20 minutes on average," he said.

Couple this with the 'six degrees' effect, where within relatively few messaging steps, an IM worm can radiate out from one infection to the 480m users - and growing - of instant messaging users.

There is a cultural impact too, of adopting a managed approach to IM, and thus gaining control of staff communications. Part of the attraction of IM is the very fact that it is often unmonitored, and as a means of communication, informal. Just as email once was.

As businesses roll out increasing methods of controlled communications, people will be looking for alternative methods where they are not subject to such scrutiny: where they can relax.

As these communications mechanisms fan out, how will we all cope?

"Maybe we're getting to the point where messaging saturation becomes an issue," said Doherty.

"I can manage 700 to 1,000 emails a day. I can handle maybe 40 active buddies. I can deal with 20 to 30 voice mails. But beyond that, I need to take control.