Convea 5.0: Bridging the Groupware Gap

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (17-Mar-2003)

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At the core of all successful businesses—regardless of industry—there exists a common necessity that connects everything. It has nothing to do with a new operational methodology; it has nothing to do with ground breaking technology. Actually, it's an essential part of daily corporate life we don't often consciously think about: teamwork.

At one point in our careers, we have all encountered that frustrating moment when months of project planning come to a standstill because everyone on the team seems to be going off in a different direction. You begin to shake your fist at the sky for all your woes and nothing gets done. Brooding in a solitary corner, the lights of the office having gone dim, you realize the lack of an effective interrelationship among your team has doomed a once promising project.

Teamwork is a marriage of the three fundamental C's: communication, coordination, and collaboration. But, as important as these are, why are they so frequently overlooked? If server response time is slow, we add hardware. If software is lacking functionality, we retrofit and recode. So why, when there are weaknesses in the way a company's employees work with one another, do we accept these deficiencies as a matter of fact? It's because we assume there's no better way.

For years, software makers have been trying to solve this problem by developing a suite of tools known collectively as "groupware." In many cases, however, expectations have fallen short. The vision of grouping information and people into a large shareable pool of knowledge has evolved into a radioactive creature that has crawled its way up from the depths of a company's sub-basement—scatterware is born.

Perhaps trying overly hard to lasso the moon, many developers end up snaring a lame duck. The solution either doesn't meet end-user requirements or is so large and all-encompassing that only a fraction of its functionality is used. There has been very little middle ground.

This is where U.K.-based software maker Convea Ltd. comes into the picture. Its recently released Convea 5.0 groupware portal seeks to bridge the gap between what companies have been expecting and what has been delivered so far, and they were able to accomplish this with a relatively small footprint.

"Teamwork is a core value in business and it needs to be a natural part of the workday," said Alal Miah, CEO and co-founder of Convea Ltd. "The problem with products we see on the market today is that there is a mismatch of applications. Every component has a different look and feel, but Convea places core applications into one design."

Convea GUI

Convea 5.0's Windows-like graphical user interface (GUI)

A Modular Web Solution

Over the last decade, the IT development world has been trying to migrate traditional n-tiered client-server applications to the Web. As developers, we understand the need to create platform independent systems with little to no deployment overhead, especially in a geographically dispersed workforce.

"From an end-user's point of view, they don't see any reason to move to a Web-based solution," Miah said. "Convea delivers the advantages of Web-based systems in a very familiar Windows-like user interface."

This is the appeal of Convea. It possesses all of the technological advantages of a Web-based system, while still maintaining a desktop application look and feel. It helps maintain a sense of unity rather than disorient users by forcing them to jump from one application to another. In doing so, non-technical users will feel much more at ease, and more inclined to accept a new system, without having to tackle an awkward learning curve.

At first glance, Convea resembles a super-charged Microsoft Outlook client. But that's where the comparison ends. Convea bundles 19 interrelated modules in an intuitive and almost self-explanatory design. In addition to the tools we've come to expect from communication and collaboration suites—e-mail, calendar and scheduling, file and contact managers—Convea also contains modules for online conferencing, knowledge management, user polling, and discussion groups.

Convea Knowledge Base module

Convea's Knowledge Base module

Convea's modular approach sidesteps an unfortunate trend in the industry where developers have taken the term "software integration" to an inflexible extreme by building a house of cards; removing one piece may cause the whole structure to collapse in on itself. By allowing you to piece your solution together like Lego building blocks, Convea enables you to add and remove modules without adverse effects on the rest of the system. This makes Convea highly integrated yet still flexible enough to customize application and content to corporate standards (it also supports corporate branding by allowing you to implement your own theme or "skin" to the GUI) or narrowed down to employees' specific needs based on user profiles.

Groupware Features

Coupled with the standard personal information management tools, Convea includes several features to support knowledge management, employee collaboration, and project coordination:

Although a solid solution as it stands, there are several additional initiatives under way to build upon the existing Convea 5.0 modules:

Convea is also about to release a free online service where users can build their own Convea trial site for evaluation purposes. This will give potential clients the ability to test the full functionality of the Convea suite without having to install any software onto internal company servers.

The Convea Backbone

At the forefront of many IT professionals' concern about implementing a packaged solution is the idea that the solution will someday come to the end of its lifecycle. Perhaps the software maker has no future plans to support the product line, or worse, the company goes out of business.

I've always preached the importance of implementing non-proprietary solutions (see "Buying an Intranet-in-a-Box") for this very reason. Portable solutions contribute to both application and data longevity because they grant you the flexibility of moving content outside the vessel containing it and onto a different system without relying on the original environment.

Convea takes this to heart by using industry standard Web technologies—ASP, DHTML, XML, SQL—without the need for any special client set-up or plug-in. This not only makes deployment a non-issue but also makes it possible for in-house developers to design customized applications to meet company specific needs and launch such applications within the Convea environment.

"Convea uses Microsoft's IIS to handle all the Web requests and data is stored in a SQL database," Miah said. "Although at present, Convea is optimized for MySQL, a universal database configuration is being tested and will be made available soon with support for MS-SQL Server, DB2, Oracle, and Sybase. We are also in the process of setting up a certification program that lists third-party programs and modules that have been tested and configurable into the Convea environment."

Although Convea is currently only supported within a Microsoft-centric environment—Windows NT/2000 server with an IIS Web server and IE 5.5 or higher—it's technically possible for it to run on a non-NT/2000/IIS platform with the use of Sun ONE Active Server Pages (formerly known as Sun Chili!Soft ASP). Convea is, however, taking their product beyond the Microsoft world in order to support a larger market and a wider range of platforms by planning to release a Linux/Apache-based version of Convea later in 2003.

As with most systems, especially those tasked with storing and maintaining large amounts of corporate data and internal knowledge assests, security is of utmost importance. Convea can be set up with Secure Socket Layers (SSL) and IP/domain restrictions in order to control user access and ensure that sensitive company information is not compromised.

"Convea's security is unique and non-standard," Miah said. "It does not use standard sessions, does not use cookies to store any sensitive information, does not expose any URLs, and does not leave any history behind. We have built a custom loading mechanism that eradicates the local storage and caching of any personal and sensitive material."

Convea administrators are able to control system behavior through the same interface by accessing the Administration modules. Administrators can manage users, groups, and profiles; customize which modules are to be accessible by the end-user community; view reports on site usage; and configure security options.

Convea Administration module

Convea Administration module

Final Thoughts

Convea is complete and well-rounded in its simplicity—a virtue missing in today's software industry. Unlike some groupware suites, it doesn't try to do everything for everyone. This is its strength, not its failing. We have learned, perhaps by experience, that jack-of-all-trade tools end up doing a lot of things, but no one thing very well.

Convea features no-nonsense delivery of core groupware functionality for small- to medium-sized businesses without forcing users to battle the sniffling and sneezing effects of "creeping featuritis." Convea does, however, lack some of the more advanced features required by large-scale enterprises such as support for advanced knowledge taxonomy; multibrowser support for Netscape, Opera, or Mozilla users; advanced conferencing with presentation and whiteboard sharing; and more detailed usage logs—to name a few. The good news here is that many of these features, and more, are currently under development.

Small- to medium-sized businesses who may find it unfeasible to implement a Lotus Notes or Microsoft solution may wish to consider Convea 5.0. Not only does it leave a much smaller footprint, but it's competitively priced considering all you get in the package.

Although the cost varies depending on specific client-by-client requirements, its basic recommended retail price is £499 (about $800 U.S., plus VAT) for a single server installation and 50 user licenses. However, at the time of this article, Convea was running a promotional campaign that lowered this price to £199 (about $320 U.S., plus VAT) for a single server and 100 user licenses.

Going against the grain of the software industry's Mad Max-like thirst for financial survival, Convea has recently announced its "Silver Link Initiative," which provides its software to charitable and non-profit organizations free of charge.

"We don't see it as costing us anything because these institutions most likely could not buy something like this anyway," Miah said. "However, they require IT solutions just like everyone else except they may not have the money to invest in these types of tools."

In summary, Convea 5.0, having only been released in January of 2003, has come a lot closer to meeting corporate groupware needs than many solutions that have been around for years. It does a good job of offering core functionality without bogging down the system with unnecessary features.

Copyright © 2003 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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