When contemplating a messaging and groupware solution for the entire enterprise, the choice is naturally limited to one of the big three: Lotus Notes, Novell GroupWise, or Microsoft Exchange. Thanks to rich, customisable feature sets and enterprise scalability, these three heavyweights dominate the collaboration marketplace.
But with an estimated user base of six million clients worldwide, Centrinity's FirstClass Intranet Server has entrenched itself firmly as a viable fourth option for providing low-cost groupware services on a smaller scale.
Growing from its roots as a BBS used primarily in the education arena, the latest release, Version 5.5 Gold, offers the core set of collaboration features found in Notes, GroupWise, and Exchange, but in a package that's much easier to administer and use. Version 5.5 Gold checks in with e-mail, document sharing, calendaring, threaded discussion forums, and Web browser support. Support for Windows 2000 and synchronisation with Palm PDAs (personal digital assistants) also has been added to the latest release.
FirstClass is also competitively priced. Depending on volume, a FirstClass client licence will run anywhere from $US45 to $83 per user. Nevertheless, the real savings will come from the reduced time and resources necessary to implement and administer FirstClass as well as to train end users.
We found it easy to get up and running with FirstClass in a relatively short amount of time. Our test server was running in less than four hours. This makes it well suited for companies that do not want to devote a large amount of staffing resources toward the management of their intranet, as is often necessitated with the likes of Notes or Exchange. The FirstClass server software can be installed on either a Windows NT or Mac OS machine, giving administrators some flexibility when rolling out the solution for groups of Mac users.
Once the FirstClass server is up and running, users can access it using either a special client application, FirstClass Client, or a standard Web browser. The chief benefit to using the client is better integration with OS, allowing you to drag and drop files between the desktop and the FirstClass server, for example. Otherwise, there are no significant differences. Access to the server is controlled via user accounts and passwords created via a built-in administrative utility. The client software is freely distributable and is available for most versions of Windows as well as Mac OS.
In addition to support for dial-up and Internet-based access, the FirstClass server supports a variety of LAN communication protocols, including TCP/IP, IPX, and AppleTalk. In terms of sheer numbers, under Windows NT the FirstClass server supports as many as 1,000 concurrent connections. This number drops to 250 under Mac OS 9. So larger organisations going down the FirstClass path should plan on installing multiple server instances and employing the software's built-in synchronisation tools to replicate data between servers.
FirstClass stores all e-mail messages, discussion threads, shared documents, and other content in groups of hierarchical folders and files known as a Post Office. Like Notes and Exchange, large FirstClass systems can have Post Offices that span across multiple disk volumes.
From the client perspective, all information in a Post Office is presented using a standard folder-based desktop GUI. Documents may be dragged and dropped between your desktop and FirstClass or from folder to folder. Overall, we found the FirstClass client to be quite responsive, even when tested from a dial-up connection.
In addition to file uploads and downloads, FirstClass provides both real-time and asynchronous communication capabilities. Chat sessions can be initiated with other FirstClass users who are connected to the server via the FirstClass Client or a Web browser. Although our tests with the chat utility worked flawlessly, we were a bit disappointed that we could not save transcripts of our chat sessions automatically.
Outside of chat services, FirstClass allows administrators to set up one or more threaded public conferences to gather input on specific topics from FirstClass users. Access to conferences is based on permissions, which means that it would be possible to restrict conference participation to a select group of employees working on the same project. To reduce incoming e-mail traffic, output from list server traffic can be redirected automatically into a public conference.
FirstClass also provides solid personal and group calendaring capabilities. Calendars can be viewed and printed by day, month, or week. And as with calendaring implementations in Notes, Exchange, and Groupwise, we were able to create calendar events and invite FirstClass users to participate in them.
To complement FirstClass' collaboration features, Centrinity ships an Internet Services application with the product. This optional add-on provides you with the ability to send and receive Internet e-mail via support for SMTP, POP3, and IMAP protocols as well as create and serve up Web sites. Depending on the potential load on the server, the ability to install Internet Services on a separate server will be a plus for some sites.
The FirstClass Web server is fairly full-featured. It allows you to create multiple Web sites with support for multiple languages. Web sites can be made up of standard HTML documents as well as FirstClass conferences and folders. Support for CGI programs also is provided, allowing you to add such functions as simple counters and guestbooks. But CGI support is limited to executable programs only, meaning you can't implement Perl-based CGI programs, for example. In our tests, we found that several of our CGI executables, including a rudimentary shopping cart application, terminated abnormally under FirstClass, especially on our Mac OS server.
As pleased as we were with the FirstClass server, we were a bit taken aback by the documentation that accompanied the product. The Administrator's Guide and Reference are well written but awkwardly organised. The documentation also makes references to SoftArc, Centrinity's former namesake, which may be confusing to some readers.
Nevertheless, we feel that FirstClass is here for the long run. It boasts a large number of third-party developers who have developed additional server add-ons, including news wire services, which deliver real-time news and information into FirstClass data stores, and PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption add-ons for e-mail messages and attachments. If you're in the market for a groupware solution for a handful of departments or workgroups don't want to commit the IT resources that Notes, GroupWise, or Exchange requires, FirstClass Intranet Server 5.5 Gold deserves a close look.
THE BOTTOM LINE
FirstClass Intranet Server Gold 5.5,Service Release 5
Business Case: This groupware server is a low-overhead choice for businesses looking to extend collaboration capabilities to individual departments and workgroups. But its lack of scalability when compared to Notes, GroupWise, and Exchange make us question its viability as a true enterprise-wide solution.
Technology Case: FirstClass Intranet Server Gold 5.5 provides a solid set of collaboration features, including e-mail, chat, threaded discussions, and document sharing, and it's easy to set up and administer. Cross-platform client support and a Web interface make the product very accessible.
- Ease of setup
- Solid conferencing and calendaring features
- E-mail and Web server options
- Confusing documentation
- Limited concurrent users per server compared to Notes, GroupWise, and Exchange
Server: Windows NT Server 4.0, Mac OS 7.1 or higher; Client: Windows 3.1/95/2000, Windows NT, Mac OS 7.1 or higher.
100-user licence and server, $US8250; 3000 user licence and server, $US158,700; 10,000 user licence and server, $US447,000. More information is available from the company Web site.