Lotus Notes and The World Wide Web - A New Partnership?
By Craig W. Borysowich, Senior Network/Workgroup Technologies Consultant
Both Lotus Notes and the World Wide Web have been around for several years, and have been described as diabolical enemies in some circles. Both have features that can separate them into two distinct tools for specific jobs. However it is the similarities of the two environments that can bring them together to become a very powerful tool. The future for Lotus Notes working with the Web will produce a strong medium for bringing automated working environments to everyone everywhere. Whether you have the power of a Notes Client or just a browser for the Web, Notes can become the back-end for any Web site to optimize it's performance, accuracy, and provide a wealth of information to the general public with the benefit of workflow automation.
With the concept of the World Wide Web starting at CERN in 1989, the wide spread acceptance of Web technology did not explode until 1993 with the release of the Mosaic Browser from NCSA. The release of this free browsing tool prompted an explosion of Web servers typically running on another free software package called HTTPD. Web servers are springing up everywhere around the world. More browsers are now available and new server software is being released with more functionality. The main language used in the Web is HTML (Hyper-Text Mark-up Language) which also evolved and expanded to support newer features. Secure versions of the protocols were created, and then online commerce was feasible and allowed secure credit card and direct to bank transactions. Today Netscape is one of the most popular software houses for Web servers, Web browsers, and secure commerce servers.
Lotus Notes originated in 1985, and was starting to raise the eyebrows of many corporations by 1989. In 1993, Notes was looking like a viable application platform for automating work processes, and moving towards the paperless office. This is where the fight begins between the Web and Notes. Notes has developed and enhanced a rich function language resembling the Lotus 123 Macro language. The database engine has also become richer with more features and functionality, but it is still a small step away from being a true relational database.
I describe the World Wide Web as a document and information distribution service. That is the core of the Web, but now with e-mail integration, and the ability to fill in forms online, the Web becomes a little more interactive. Some recently released server packages allow for online discussions to take place between a group of users. Web sites are becoming like our older electronic bulletin board services, with e-mail, information bases, chat sessions, and file-bases. The Web brings together a group of documents with "hyperlinks" that give the user access to related information on another document. Thus a document that mentions a related news article could be highlighted and hypertext linked to the actual news article for the reader to get the contents of that news clip. Notes has been described as an automation tool for business. While it pulls together databases of information and integrates e-mail, there are some powerful functions that can take over internal and external workflow processes. Though the language is a bit rustic today, there are links to C and Visual Basic that allow for some robust application opportunities. Rapid Application Development and Deployment becomes a reality with the standard Notes client software. Notes provides the documents and hypertext links seen on the Web, but it also gives you "views" which are sorted and segregated listings of the documents available. These views and documents are then collected topically in a database for easy location of high level topics. Through the use of macros and common Notes functions, the documents can be passed between users and become part of an automated process to bring the document to a final status in the database.
The World Wide Web has 7 core functions:
Global - Anybody can get access to the Internet from almost anywhere. No public information source has been effective without easy accessibility.
Public Access - The only requirement to connect to the Internet is access to a computer that is hooked up to an Internet service provider. Walk-in access to the Internet is becoming more wide-spread everyday - even outside of developed countries.
Document Centric - Everything on a Web site is document centric. Documents link to documents, which link to forms, which link to other servers. The document provides the information to the public and lets them move to more information or other information quickly.
Multimedia - A buzz term for some time now, but the Web provides the mixing of text with graphic images, video clips, and audio clips. These different media formats can be seamlessly integrated with text and even provide links to other pages or images.
Hyperlinks - The Web is so-called because of the millions of hypertext links that exist between the billions of documents available on the Web. These links help you drill down to finer more detailed information on a particular topic. Other popular sites can also be linked together creating a new method of advertising. An online magazine can build in hyperlinks throughout it's pages that transport the reader to the Web site of the supporting advertisers.
Client-Server - The Web is a model of true client-server architecture. Every user has a copy of the client software that allows them browse and view contents of the server. The servers are run and owned by systems operators that make content and security available to the users.
Fielded Forms - The Web (with HTML 3.0) has support for forms that contain user entry fields which can be e-mailed to a user for processing. Information can also be gathered through selection lists, and radio buttons.
While Lotus Notes can offer document capabilities, multimedia, hyperlinks, fielded forms, and Client-Server architecture out of the box, Notes also has 7 features that go beyond the power of the World Wide Web:
Storage - Notes provides a structured method of storing documents in an organized manner. Sorted views of information allow the user to access documents in any number of ways.
Authoring - The Notes client has the ability to create documents, not just fill in forms. Those documents can be text and media rich with the structure and design determined by the user, not the system operators.
Security - Through passwords, user authentication, and encryption, Notes can secure information right down to the field level if necessary. A user can be limited access to a database, a view, a form, or even certain amounts of information contained on the form. Security extends to the server level with a server being limited to talk to only certain users, or even set to only talk to certain other servers on a network.
Active Servers - More functions in Notes are left to the server which off loads processing cycles from the client PC. The workflow processes and tracking are all handled at the server level, while the client is left to be used as a viewer but also has the ability to perform server level operations on databases running locally.
Search Engines - Notes contains a built in search capability that can locate topics based on user input of a word to find in any database on any form and will return a prioritized list of documents containing the information required. The list is prioritized with the documents containing the word most frequently first and scaling down to documents that may only contain the word once or twice.
Application Development - Notes includes a development language for creating applications and workflow automation routines. This language resembles the @function macro language used in Lotus 123.
Desktop Suite Integration - All of Lotus' applications can run standalone, but also have a close link to Notes through field exchange, OLE, and DDE. Third party products also provide the same integration to Microsoft's application suite.
On the World Wide Web, you can come very close to the functionality of Notes by combining many of the Internet functions. However, after combining all Internet functions, a site can become quite unmanageable. Just monitoring your connection to the Internet requires a well designed firewall to block out unwanted traffic and hackers. This firewall has to be monitored for breaches and maintained. Next you set up a Web server, which has to be updated and maintained, and portions of that server can require password security, but this will add to the complexity of maintaining the Web server. You can also add E-mail functionality by incorporating an SMTP server
which has to be maintained and hold an up-to-date listing of e-mail addresses and passwords. Discussion databases can be added with a news server which needs regular maintenance, and has to be secure from prying eyes. You can add online conferencing functionality by adding an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) server, which has to be maintained and controlled for channel usage. If some chat channels need to be secure for certain meetings, then passwords and access lists have to be maintained as well. File transfer can be added by including either a Gopher or FTP server which will also have to be secure and maintained. Maintaining registration of these sites that are available for public access on indexing services throughout the Internet for all of the above servers will also have to be managed. All of these processes can become an administration and manageability nightmare very quickly - especially on large sites with many visitors. Most of the tools available for creating and maintaining Web pages work on a page by page basis. Changing a logo, or a basic form design, can require the repetitive alteration of many pages of a Web site. Even when you've added all of these functions together, the World Wide Web is still not a reliable groupware collaboration tool. No real-time tracking or monitoring of processes occurring on the Web is available today and most information is travelling the Internet insecurely for any one to tap into.
The creation and maintenance of web pages can also be a nightmare as all pages are separate files. Any modifications have to be done on a page by page basis. A simple logo change can take hours of work with only a few hundred pages. Notes can reduce the administrative adjustment of page content by allowing for form changes to alter the whole database, and only form content becomes a page by page task, the way it should be.
Lotus Notes however can provide all of this web functionality plus the tracking and monitoring of processes that are completed or in progress. All of the common features between Notes and the Web can be translated through Lotus' InterNotes products for relay of information between the Web site and the Notes server. Thus the Web can bring public and world wide access to Lotus Notes, and Notes can bring the control and monitoring of workflow to the Web. The need for this integration and coexistence is bolstered by the acquisition of Collabra, another groupware software maker, by Netscape. Notes also has built in searching capabilities which have to be provided by
external engines on the Web. The application development side of Notes allows for complete customization of internal programs, and the ability to manipulate and present information to the user's preference.
Thus the World Wide Web can bring global access and easy connectivity to a Notes server by distributing information from Notes to common Web browsers. Public access points in almost every country means that a Notes server can reach long distances within a short time using an existing infrastructure. The Web has to overcome the issue of being a flat-file collection of documents tied together with only the tethers of hypertext links. Many of the limitations of the Web become apparent when you start trying to maintain a site containing only a hundred pages. Full text search capabilities are missing from Web servers to search itself never mind searching outside the local boundaries. It becomes impossible to follow links backwards to determine if removing a page affects one, two or even a dozen pages of your site. It is possible that a Web page deletion will affect other web sites that might have set links to your site. Moving a page to a new name or location will change it's original URL (Uniform Resource Locators), with nothing in the web site to track those URL changes and pass it to other pages and other sites. A lack of authorization features forces some companies to setup Web servers in isolated environments which defeats the defined purpose of the web which is to tie information together on a global scale.
Notes on the other hand can bring many functions to the World Wide Web, and solve some of the problems in the world of Web site creation and maintenance. Using existing views and translating to HTML can give a user easy to follow streams of information that help get to a document of interest. Doclinks and external hyperlinks are maintained automatically in Notes. An alteration to the design of a form in Notes will translate a change made once to all of the pages based on that form, which can dramatically decrease the amount of time spent to make many changes to a Web site. The integration of suite products built-in or available through 3rd party software gives Notes the ability to work closely with common word processors and spreadsheets to create a more powerful and familiar editing environment.
Lotus can make information on products and services available to the public and the outside sales force so that with a simple dial-up connection, the sales rep can print out accurate description sheets and pricing on demand. Notes forms can also be made available for entry on the Web. Lotus Notes has the ability to bring filled forms back from the Web and process them into workflow operations. An outside sales rep in Egypt could fill in his expense statement on the Web through a local Internet provider in Cairo. The Notes server will take in the expense statement, and forward it to the sales manager for approval via digital signature. Once approved, Notes will take the information and pass it along to accounting who will fill in the accounts to be debited, check the content, and post the transaction to the accounting system. Notes then updates the PC or Mainframe based account records with the proper debits, and triggers a cheque to be issued or an automatic deposit to be requested.
The requirement for these advanced groupware processes are increasing. Companies are not looking to just post passive Web sites for public reading. They are looking at empowering the public with surveys on service levels and product satisfaction, job postings and applications, real-time conferencing and online retail. Companies are also looking internally and seeing the Web as an excellent tool to move information back and forth between employees and other corporate locations. Then they look outside again and see the ability to integrate information with their partners, vendors and suppliers. This kind of integration usually involves more than just basic Web capabilities. With Notes and other groupware applications looking to the World Wide Web for public distribution functionality, they bring a new frontier of capabilities to companies and individuals alike. Lotus InterNotes Web Publisher can push a Notes database with over 300 documents to a Web server in less than 5 minutes. Internet News groups can be made available as Notes databases through InterNotes News. New releases of the Notes client will integrate a Web browser to test internal sites and surf external sites. The ability to retrieve documents from the Web is a recent addition to the InterNotes Web product. Groupware and the Web are an excellent match. Lotus Development has just released RealTime Notes which gives Notes users the ability to conduct live real-time conferencing with whiteboard functions. The development capabilities and languages will be highly advanced in Notes version 4 opening the door to both transactional and relational applications.
As time goes on, we are operating more and more in a world where companies are outsourcing operations, creating partnerships with vendors and suppliers, and focusing on their core business. Employees are looking for information and responsibility empowerment with the capability to access corporate information while travelling or working from home. A groupware product will not live for long as an internal, corporation centric tool, but the Web will also not last as a flat base of linked documents. Bringing these two technologies together will make all of these integrations and data exchanges possible and certainly facilitate the chance of moving toward a paperless environment. Lotus could do itself a big favour by acquiring a world wide web server technology company in the near future.