Bantu Hooks Up Small Business Network

Friday Aug 1st 2003 by Christopher Saunders
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The U.S. Dept. of Commerce adds the Bantu's brand of enterprise instant messaging services to a Web portal designed to aid smaller manufacturers across the country.

Uncle Sam wants instant messaging (IM), and has tapped Bantu once more to get it.

This time, the Washington, D.C.-based firm is working with the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The effort entails deploying enterprise IM as part of a Web portal being set up to support the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a NIST initiative that offers business consulting to small and mid-sized manufacturers throughout the country.

The portal, 360vu.net, enables NIST's network of MEP consultants — about 2,500, in more than 50 help centers nationwide — to exchange files and cooperate on helping their clients. But until the portal's creation, MEP consultants had little in the way of formalized tools to help them share best practices and collaborate on client projects.

"The organization is very dispersed," said Rick Korchak, the IT Practice Area Manager for NIST's MEP. "We have MEP Centers in each of the 50 states and Puerto Rico, and each of those centers is sort of an independently operating organization. In the past, the approach everyone took to clients was kind of haphazard, and varied depending on the area or state. We wanted to help integrate everybody, so everyone feels like they're part of the system and up-to-speed delivering these products and services."

Korchak said instant messaging was a critical need from the onset.

"Everybody wanted some kind of IM capability on 360.net," he said. "They wanted to be able to talk to each other and share knowledge. That become one of the first needs that the practitioners out there really articulated, and one of the first things we wanted to get up and running on the system."

NIST and YellowBrix, the contractor for the portal, brought in Bantu to add those capabilities. The resulting IM system offers portal users the ability to create contact lists, supports group chat sessions, and adds presence indicators throughout the portal -- showing whether the consultant who uploaded a document is online and available to take questions. Because of its basis in Java, the IM client supports multiple platforms without requiring IT provisioning.

"It works well for people to keep in touch," Korchak said. "Several of the MEP Centers across same state lines will be working with same group of suppliers, like for auto suppliers or John Deere suppliers. Everybody can work together, as long as they're logged on to 360.net, they can instantly message each other and share information.

The work stands as only the latest in a string of government contracts for Bantu. The company also powers the instant messaging portions of Web portals deployed by the U.S. Navy, Army, and Air Force — handling upwards of millions of registered users in all. The company also recently launched IM as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's DisasterHelp.gov — a portal designed for the nation's 4 million "first responders" like fire, law enforcement and emergency medical services personnel.

"We are focused on the government as one of our key customers, and we're focused on providing technology which meets their requirements," said Larry Schlang, Bantu's president and chief executive. "The government likes to work with providers who have government experience, who understand government needs and requirements, and who can provide a mix of technology and solutions in the way in which they're used to doing business ... Given our track record, we've really established that credibility with them."

At the same time, what's emerging as Bantu's specialty — provided embedded IM and presence within corporate portals and intranets — is becoming an increasingly sought-after feature in enterprise IM systems. IBM already offers presence from Lotus Instant Messaging that can be tied into WebSphere Portal. Later this year, Microsoft will deliver presence to portals based on SharePoint Portal Server 2003, using its Live Communications Server (formerly the "Greenwich" Real-Time Communications Server.)

Adapted from InstantMessagingPlanet.com.

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