Telligent server spurs collaboration

Blogs, forums, and media galleries integrate with enterprise applications through Web services

There's little argument that Telligent's Community Server can stand up to the rigors of hosting public-facing communities. This product is the force behind some of the biggest and most visible blogs on the Net, including MySpace, the National Football League, and National Geographic. An equal number of clients -- the likes of Dell, GlaxoSmithKline, and Ernst & Young -- use this platform for business-to-business and business-to-consumer communities.

With these uses out of the way, I set out to learn how well Community Server's new Intranet Edition works inside the enterprise as a knowledge management solution.

Intranet Edition differs from the existing high-end (Enterprise) edition by including SharePoint integration via custom Web Parts, but limits single sign-on to Active Directory (Enterprise provides three types of authentication). Otherwise, there are no restrictions on the number of forums, blogs, photos, and files. You also get enterprise search and RSS subscriptions for search results -- and Harvest Reporting Server is included, providing analysis and trending on how people are contributing within a community.

Running on a Windows 2003 server using SQL 2005, my test setup was ready to use in about 30 minutes. That's because, while this application's very deep, the developers created one of the better administration dashboards I've seen. It clearly organizes all the major tasks you do initially and every day, allowing access through AJAX-style menus and forms. This let me quickly customize my site, manage groups, and maintain the three main functions: blogs, forums, and media galleries.

Community Server shined as a social platform. While members can't customize their home page (which is a major feature of Jive Clearspace 2.0), Telligent aggregates essential information up front when you log in, including the latest blogs, forum posts, and activities of your friends.

Community Server's blogs have all the features I'd want to enable community interactions. Comments can be anonymous or authenticated -- plus, posts may be rated and moderated. Administrators control how blogs work by creating groups and assigning rights. Conveniently, once an admin creates the initial roles and permissions, any authorized user (through a subset of the Control Panel dashboard) can quickly establish permissions for their own blogs and manage their content.

Creating this content was easy using a typical rich text editor. Yet two features separate Community Server from Clearspace. First, Community Server lets you use Tablet PC ink for authoring. Second, you can make blog posts through e-mail (using Microsoft Exchange integration) from mobile phones, BlackBerrys, and Outlook. This solution has other helpful features, even if they're not unique, including publish date options and thorough media support; photos, video, podcasts, and virtually any type of file attachment can be inserted into blogs.

Community Server's forums have the expected tools for maintaining rich collaboration discussions. As with blogs, forums can be public or private -- and e-mail lists let you distribute discussions through a Microsoft Exchange server.

Discussions come with some important extras that enterprises should value. For instance, you can delegate moderation of specific forums to someone else. Forum creators can build polls. And to keep things interesting, users may embed videos in forum posts. Additionally, there's strong auditing that lets managers review all moderation actions.

For managing rich media, there's the media gallery. While I consider this feature more important for external communities (you can include material from third-party services such as Flickr and YouTube), it shouldn't be overlooked by enterprises. I envision video media galleries would work well for corporate training or management messages; alternately, marketing departments could create galleries of product photos or other assets that need to be shared. Just like other parts of this application, users can rate and tag media, express their opinion, and sort media according to relevance.

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Naturally, communities are all about the social experience, and this solution has a number of ways to build those relationships. The 2008 version has revamped user profiles where you may include information such as your biography. This area doesn't capture detailed expertise (such as experience with certain applications or running specific types of projects) as you find in Clearspace 2.0. However, Community Server's profile page is the focal point of interacting with others; for instance, a "wall" lets others post notes to you.

Additionally, it's simple to create micro-communities. These groups become your own social circle where members have exclusive access to certain media galleries and blogs. Further, you can micro-blog -- brief text updates that are available only to your restricted groups.

Community Server includes basic search and a more advanced enterprise search engine based on Apache Lucene (a separate install). I found enterprise search provided faster, more accurate results, and it indexed attachments to blog and forum posts.

Another way to make information more accessible is through tags, which are a standard feature for blogs, forums, and media. At minimum, both search applications find pages based on tags. Moreover, Community Server comes with a tag cloud, a pre-packaged widget that displays in the left or right sidebar of your Web pages.

This introduces the topic of extensibility, since Community Server is built around the Representational State Transfer (REST) API. As such, you can write your own widgets or import them from other sources, including Google Gadgets, SpingWidgets, and Widgetbox. As a test, I had no trouble inserting various Google Gadgets into my blogs, including news, maps, and an RSS viewer.

Also built on REST is SharePoint integration, which was still in beta during my evaluation. It looks very promising, despite a few problems with installation and Active Directory authentication (which Telligent is working to resolve). To use this feature, I configured the Telligent-supplied Web Parts on my Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 farm. Afterward, I viewed my Community Server forum threads and replied -- without leaving SharePoint. I had the same good experience working with blogs. Going the other direction, "event receivers" let users see their SharePoint lists and document libraries in Community Server.

Finally, I tried out Harvest Community Server reports. These social analytics, presented as interactive charts, would be very helpful for external communities. You can, say, find unanswered comments, which might indicate a problem with one of your products or bad service in your support department. Yet some of the same 50 core reports can provide measurable intelligence for in-house social networks -- perhaps departmental blogs that have high activity or content that doesn't rouse any interest.

Community Server 2008's social features that are popular on external sites proved an excellent fit for intranets, too. Although the standard installation doesn't have project management, and personal profiles aren't as robust as those in Clearspace 2.0, Community Server 2008 Intranet Edition's SharePoint integration (even in beta) was superior. This fact, plus better overall customization via the REST API, pushes Community Server to the top of our enterprise social software list for now.