Rein in IM With Low-Cost Management Tools

Friday May 21st 2004 by Drew Bird
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Instant messaging is a versatile tool, but the popular services from Yahoo!, AOL and Microsoft offer little capability for logging. What's an SMB to do? Ban it completely? Allow it to go unchecked? Or invest in expensive management tools? A company called p2pLog offers another option.

Over the past few years, businesses of all sizes have come to realize that instant messaging (IM) is a double-edged sword. On one side, you have an often free communication medium with an immediacy and versatility that e-mail lacks. On the other, you have another potential distraction and an additional security concern — one more point of entry and exit from the company network.

For most small businesses the challenge is not so much in deciding whether IM is a valuable business tool, but rather in deciding whether the risks associated with using it are worth the rewards.

At many businesses, the math has been done, and the decision made. IM, they conclude, is simply too hard to control and manage to be a beneficial part of the communications infrastructure. This is a shame, as with some relatively minor investment, and a little planning, control of IM is not only possible, it is downright simple.

Cost-Effective Control
For many companies that have allowed IM to exist unchecked (you would be surprised at how rarely it is a strategic decision), public systems like Yahoo! Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and MSN Messenger present the greatest challenge. These free products provide little or no capability for logging, thus making it necessary to purchase third-party monitoring software or appliances. For a small or mid-size business, these appliances and software packages can be expensive (in the several thousand dollar range), and are targeted mainly at the larger, corporate market.

Small businesses, educational institutions, and even users with home networks who want to harness the power of IM have to make a harsher choice. They can either ban IM completely, allow IM use to go unchecked, or make an investment in expensive management tools that can often outweigh the benefits of using it.

Enter p2pLog, an IM monitoring and achiving application from Salem, N.H. based p2pLog Software Inc. p2pLog is designed with one simple purpose in mind: to provide a simple and affordable method of logging and measuring IM use.

How p2pLog Works
p2pLog runs on any Windows 2000, Windows XP (Home or Professional) or Windows Server 2003 system. Once installed, enabling IM monitoring for your network is a simple as a few mouse clicks. The p2pLog service scans all network traffic, looking for the software signatures that match IM messages. The fact that p2pLog looks for signatures, and not TCP/IP ports associated with IM, is significant. A number of products including the well-known 'Hopster' make it possible to circumvent simple IM related TCP/IP port blocking on a firewall or proxy server. Using the signatures as a detection method means that p2pLog will detect the IM traffic no matter what TCP/IP port it is sent over.

Implementing p2pLog
In order to monitor all of the network traffic, correct placement of the system running the p2pLog software is critical. In environments with network switches, for example, only managed switches that provide port mirroring or port monitoring can be used. Without port mirroring, the system running the p2pLog software will not receive all of the network traffic, and so would miss all IM traffic from other systems.

p2pLog Software recognizes the potential issues that correct placement can create, and so goes to great lengths to assist you in determining the optimal location for the p2pLog system. There are a number of strategies, but the simplest and most widely adopted is to place the system running the p2pLog software at the entry and access point to the network, and then connect it to a network hub that is also shared by the proxy server and firewall system. In this way, the system running the p2pLog software can monitor all incoming and outgoing traffic.

Using p2pLog
In terms of operation, using p2pLog is about as simple as you could want. Much of this simplicity comes from p2pLog's intention to provide a product that is simple enough for home and small office users, yet powerful and versatile enough for corporate users.

In addition to recording the actual text of the IM conversation, p2pLog provides statistical information of IM usage in a number of different views, such as by user or by IM system. The current version of p2pLog monitors IM traffic from Yahoo!, MSN Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ clients. A representative from the company said that monitoring of additional IM clients would be available as customer demand warranted it.

Information recorded by p2pLog can be viewed in a number of formats including Microsoft Access Jet (Home and Workgroup Editions only) and MSDE or SQL (Workgroup and Enterprise Edition only). Information can also be directly exported into Microsoft Excel or viewed in a straight text format.

Administration is performed through a simple client interface that also allows you to view IM conversations and statistics in real time. The Enterprise Edition also includes a Microsoft IIS based browser administration site. This makes it possible to remotely administer the p2pLog software, and view statistical information of IM use across the network.

How to Get p2pLog
A demonstration version of the p2pLog software is available as a download from the p2pLog Software Inc. Web site. Although there are actually three different versions of the software, the core code is still the same, and so there is only one file to download regardless of what version you want to try. The installation program allows you to specify what kind of installation, Home or Workgroup/Enterprise Edition you want to perform.

There are few differences in the actual operation of the software between the different versions. Perhaps the most significant is the Enterprise Edition's browser-based management tools mentioned earlier. The Enterprise Edition also provides other corporate level features such as generating randomly selected conversations for audit and the capability to automatically extract conversations so that they can be burned to a CD or e-mailed to third-party compliance organization.

How Much?
Pricing for p2pLog is designed to make the product affordable for almost any environment. A Home Edition license for three PCs comes in at $50, and the Workgroup Edition which can be used with up to 500 PCs carries a flat fee price tag of $495. Users with requirements in excess of 500 users, or who want the additional features of the Enterprise Edition will need to contact p2pLog for volume pricing information.

Release 2.2 of p2pLog recently shipped. It includes advanced features such as the capability to terminate an IM conversations based on keywords, content, the time or the user initiating or responding to an IM conversation. It will also provide for the addition of disclaimers to IM messages.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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