Chat It Up With JabberNow

by Joseph Moran

Jabber, Inc.'s instant messaging appliance lets small businesses add secure, encrypted chat to their business productivity arsenal.

JabberNow appliance
Instant messaging, once considered a productivity-draining distraction, has started a second career as a powerful collaboration tool in businesses that require constant contact. While there's no shortage of free instant messaging (IM) applications available, they don't provide the features and secured communication that businesses need.

Enterprise-grade IM systems like Microsoft's Live Communications Server (LCS) and Lotus SameTime offer business-centric capabilities, but their cost and complexity make them a poor choice for small organizations that lack dedicated IT staff.

Jabber, Inc., offers an alternative option, its JabberNow appliance, which the company bills as a turnkey package that you can have up and running in less than 15 minutes. And, except for a fairly significant inaccuracy in the product's meager printed documentation, we found that claim to be fairly accurate.

Get Set to Jabber
JabberNow's attractive metal chassis measures a scant 8.75-by 3.75-by 6.75-inches, which makes it small enough to be tucked away on a rack or shelf in an equipment room. You can keep the quiet and cool-to-the-touch appliance almost anywhere in an office without fear of any distracting heat or noise.

When you plug the JabberNow into power and your LAN switch, it automatically requests an IP address from your network's DHCP server — a small LCD display on the appliance displays the unit's assigned address, along with other status information such as how long the device has been up and how many users are connected.

Once JabberNow gets an IP address, you access the appliance with your browser to configure the device, and this is where we encountered our roadblock. Although the included quick-start card specifically instructs you to access the JabberNow using the http:// prefix, this produced no response from the device. It turns out that you must use a secure https:// prefix, (which makes all login and message communication to and from the JabberNow SSL-encrypted) a fact the quick-start card failed to mention.

Once we got in, the appliance walked us through a setup wizard to configure the rest of the network settings. Before doing anything else, Jabber, Inc. strongly recommends that you replace the appliance's dynamically assigned IP address with a static one so that clients will always be able to find it.

You can also specify host and domain names for the device (i.e., jabber.mycompany.com), and if you want your JabberNow to be accessible from the Internet — or you want to be able to reach it internally by name instead of IP address — you need to make sure the appliance has an entry in your company's or ISP's DNS server.

Account Management
Once we got past the initial hurdle in the JabberNow's setup, things went smoothly. Upon finalizing the network settings you can start creating your users, but the appliance also makes it possible — and in fact quite easy — for users to create their own accounts.

The device includes an e-mail template that you can customize and send along to your users. The e-mail provides the links they'll need to find the device and set themselves up. When a user first accesses the JabberNow through a browser, he or she can view a built-in video tutorial that outlines how to perform basic tasks like logging into the device, adding contacts, and joining "rooms" for group conversations. After the video (which you have the option to skip), JabberNow prompts you to create a new account and download the client software.

If you'd rather have a single individual create all your accounts, you can disable the JabberNow's self-registration feature (the administrator account also has the ability to block access to the IM system by disabling accounts). Our test unit came with a 25-user license and a $2,495 price tag, and the pricing heads north from there and tops out $7,995 for 200 people.

The Key to Communication
If you plan to use the JabberNow for in-house communication only, you don't need to perform any additional network configuration. You can be up and running with it as soon as you've created the user accounts and installed all the clients.

But if you want your system to be available to outside employees (like those who travel or telecommute), you'll first need to configure your firewall to enable outside access to a handful of ports the appliance uses.

JabberNow's client software is capable and simple to use, so anyone even remotely familiar with any of the free IM services should have no trouble with it. After creating our accounts and setting up the software on a handful of Windows XP and 2000 systems, we experienced no difficulties with either the JabberNow appliance or it's client software.

JabberNow admin panel
JabberNow's IM interface should look familiar to anyone who has used any of the many free IM services.
(Click for larger image)

JabberNow's software offers just about all the features you would expect to find in an IM application, such as customizable availability messages and the ability to send canned hotkey responses — "Leave me alone— I'm working!"— along with a variety of other configurable options.

You don't necessarily need to use Jabber, Inc.'s IM client with the JabberNow appliance since there are several third-party applications that support Jabber's XMPP protocol, including Trillian Pro (not the free version, however) and Google Talk. You can also use one of the forthcoming AJAX -based IM clients like Meebo or KoolIM (both of which are available but still in the alpha stage).

JabberNow also has a server-to-server feature that lets you set up a secure TLS-encrypted link with another JabberNow appliance — at another office or organization — as well as any XMPP-based IM system (which at this point consists only of Jabber products).

If you want your employees to be able to exchange messages with AOL Instant Messenger users you can configure your JabberNow as an AIM gateway, but that requires you to go through the somewhat involved process of obtaining a server certificate from an issuing authority that's trusted by AOL.

A Kinder, Gentler Administration
The JabberNow requires little-to-no administration or maintenance, which is pretty much the point of the product. As a general rule, you won't need to access the appliance except to perform infrequent operations such as changing network settings, shutting down or restarting the unit, adding or changing accounts or enabling/disabling certain connectivity features like the server-to-server or AIM gateway options.

JabberNow admin panel
JabberNow doesn't require much in the way of maintenance, but you make any necessary changes through the administration panel.
(Click for larger image)

The JabberNow doesn't have any provision for a company-wide contact list (for that, you need the company's higher-end Jabber XCP product) but that shouldn't be a major problem for small organizations.

The appliance automatically creates daily and weekly snapshot backups of the device's configuration, user accounts and messages, but these backups are only held for five weeks, which may not be long enough for some organizations.

If the regulations governing your business require long-term message archiving (or you just like to save stuff forever), there's an optional $999 plug-in that offloads archived messages to an external server. You can also opt for a $495 Active Directory plug-in that lets you manage JabberNow accounts directly from a Windows 2000/2003 server.

Were it not for the error in the JabberNow's quick start card, we probably would have had the appliance up in the promised 15 minutes. The JabberNow should have substantial and accurate printed documentation, especially given that the product is targeted largely at firms without IT people. Nevertheless, it's still a solid product for small organizations that want to host IM with less expense and hassle than a conventional server-based platform.

Price: $2,495 (for a 25-user license)
Pros: Small, quiet, simple installation
Cons: No centralized contact list

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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This article was originally published on Thursday Jul 27th 2006
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