IBM Lotus Connections: Enhancing productivity with social computing

Get an overview of IBM Lotus Connections and its five features: Profiles, Communities, Blogs, Dogear, and Activities. The technical requirements for the product are included along with simple ways to extend the services outside the product.

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Tony Patton (aspatton@bellsouth.net), Consultant

Tony Patton is a consultant based in Louisville, Kentucky. He works with various technologies, including Lotus Notes/Domino, Java technology, and Microsoft .NET. He is the author of two books focusing on Lotus Notes/Domino development: Practical LotusScript and Domino Development with Java as well as weekly columns on CNet.com focusing on .NET and Web development. You can reach Tony at aspatton@bellsouth.net.



03 July 2007

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IBM Lotus Connections is social software that give you the power to connect with people in your organization, to share ideas, and to collaborate with ease. It represents IBM’s first foray into the realm of social networking. Furthermore, it is just one part of IBM’s vision for putting Web 2.0 technologies to use for social computing.

Collaboration was introduced to the enterprise many years ago in the form of Lotus Notes. Lotus Connections extends the concept even further with a group of integrated collaborative services. It builds on the idea of social software and concepts and Web 2.0 technologies introduced within the spectrum of the Internet.

The core ingredient of the social software concept is allowing people to come together through computer technology. The net result of these gatherings is online communities. The services provided by Lotus Connections facilitate the creation of online communities in the enterprise.

Web 2.0

The central idea of the Web 2.0 movement is using the Web as a platform. This concept has several aspects with its key ingredients being user involvement, a rich user experience, the importance of the data, and a loosely joined Web fueled by Web services.

Blogging and wikis are good examples of Web 2.0 in action. A wiki is a collaborative Web site to which everyone can contribute content. Wikipedia is a great example of a popular wiki. In addition, IBM Lotus Quickr provides a wiki type of environment built with IBM technologies. A blog is often called an online diary, but it has many more uses. A blog is a Web site where entries are written in chronological order and displayed in reverse chronological order. Blogging is one of the services available in Lotus Connections.


The Lotus Connections features

Lotus Connections provides five integrated collaborative features:

  • Profiles. Provides a directory to locate expertise, thus allowing users to easily locate people who can help with problems or projects.
  • Communities. Provides an easy way to collaborate and exchange information. Users can easily create, locate, and join communities.
  • Blogs. Allows users to present content and receive feedback. Subject matter experts can share ideas and receive valuable feedback.
  • Dogear. Allows users to easily save and share bookmarks.
  • Activities. Provides a way to organize and work in a single place.

Let's take a closer look at each feature to explore its functions and any technical requirements for running the feature.

Profiles

The profiles feature provided by Lotus Connections provides a central point for maintaining both personal and professional user data. Users can personally edit their data, and it can be automatically populated using IBM Tivoli Directory Integrator. Actually, the core data can be maintained by enterprise systems such as Siebel and PeopleSoft with this data imported into the Lotus Connections profile. This approach reduces data redundancy while allowing users to add data to their profiles that others can use to locate them. Figure 1 shows an example of a profile.

Figure 1. A basic Lotus Connections profile
A basic Lotus Connections profile

Figure 2 shows the same profile in edit mode.

Figure 2. Editing a Lotus Connections profile
Editing a Lotus Connections profile

The search feature is the crux of profiles. It allows other users to search profiles across an organization by name, phone number, location, job title, and any tags assigned to a profile by a user. Figure 3 shows the search feature accessed from the Search option in the upper-right corner of the profile displayed in figure 1. This feature uses Ajax to provide searching without opening another window.

Figure 3. Searching profiles in Lotus Connections
Searching profiles in Lotus Connections

The Profile feature can integrate with Lotus Sametime to allow real-time communication with a user located through a search.

User profiles can be viewed by other users and can provide access to shared bookmarks, communities, blog posts, and activities that users may have in common. Also, the Profiles function includes a reporting structure if one is used within the enterprise, so you can easily locate a person’s manager and report-to chain.

Communities

The Lotus Connections Communities feature focuses on creating a space for users who share a common interest, thus a unifying property. This may seem like an overlap with the Activities feature, but activities are workspaces where users share a common goal and work toward that goal.

With Lotus Connections, users can create, find, and join communities. The communities can be public or private. Within a community, users can view its members and share bookmarks within the community. The sharing of bookmarks within a community does not duplicate the Dogear feature. Users can keep up with a community through XML syndication feeds (based on Atom). See the "Resources" section for more information.

Figure 4 shows a community focused on Lotus Quickr. The links on the left allow you to view community members as well as bookmarks and feeds.

Figure 4. A Lotus Connections community focused on Lotus Quickr
A Lotus Connections community focused on Lotus Quickr

Creating a new community is a quick and simple process. By clicking the Start a Community button in Lotus Connections, you can enter the data for the community in the form that appears as demonstrated in figure 5. This form allows you to assign a name to the community, define its members, determine if it is public or private, enter descriptive text about it, and assign tags to it. After a public community is created, users can choose to join the community.

Figure 5. Creating a new Lotus Connections community
Creating a new Lotus Connections community

Blogs

Blogs provide a mechanism for posting information that others can read and respond to. Figure 6 shows an example of a blog created with Lotus Connections. It includes recent blog entries and comment links. It also includes links to the blog owner's profile, communities, dogear entries, and activities.

Figure 6. A blog created with Lotus Connections
A blog created with Lotus Connections

In addition, readers can add comments by selecting an individual blog entry. The comments posting area appears for individual entries as demonstrated in figure 7. The blog service allows blog owners to moderate comments.

Figure 7. Users can easily comment on blog posts
Users can easily comment on blog posts

As with everything related to Lotus Connections, the blog creation process is simple. Figure 8 shows the window presented when you create a blog. It allows you to enter a title, description, and the handle that is used in the blog’s address. The Theme option allows you to choose a template for the blog layout and color scheme. A number of templates are available with the system as shown in figure 8.

Figure 8. Creating a new blog
Creating a new blog

After you create a blog, you can choose to edit the blog, view and edit blog data, and customize its presentation. Figure 9 shows the page presented when you edit a blog. It includes two tabs: Create & Edit and Preferences.

Figure 9. Blog options
Blog options

The Create & Edit tab has the following options:

  • New Entry. Create a new blog entry.
  • Entries. View, edit, or delete existing blog entries.
  • Comments. View or delete user comments on existing entries.
  • Links. View, edit, or delete links appearing on the blog. The default templates include a link section.
  • File Uploads. Manage files used by the blog. The default templates often use graphic files for styling the blog interface. You can upload additional graphics and other files to be used. This option is displayed in figure 9.
  • Referers. Provides a list of referring URLs that have accessed the blog.

The Preferences tab allows you to view and edit the settings entered during blog setup. The following options are available:

  • Settings. Manage blog settings entered during initial setup.
  • Authors. Add additional users and designate their access levels.
  • Theme. Choose a different theme.
  • Templates. Customize the look and feel of the blog by editing existing templates or creating new templates. These templates are used when the Custom theme is chosen in the Theme option. Figure 10 shows the list of available templates.
Figure 10. Managing blog templates
Managing blog templates

Complete customization of a Lotus Connections blog requires API knowledge, but you can get a feel for it by editing the Weblog template, the main template for the blog, from the list in figure 10. Any additional templates to be applied to a blog are referenced in the main Weblog template.

Figure 11 shows the Weblog template in edit mode. Notice that the template source includes JavaScript code and HTML as well as custom code, such as the #includeTemplate code that allows you to use another template.

Figure 11. Editing the Weblog template
Editing the Weblog template

Figure 12 shows the creation of a new template generated by clicking the "Add a new template" button shown in figure 10. The new template is a simple example that includes a single line of text.

Figure 12. Creating a new template
Creating a new template

The new template is saved and added to the Weblog template with the line #includeTemplate("test") as shown in figure 13.

Figure 13. Including the new template in the blog interface
Including the new template in the blog interface

Figure 14 shows the result of including the new template as the text appears in the top left corner of the blog page.

Figure 14. The new template applied to the blog interface
The new template applied to the blog interface

Dogear

Bookmarks have been around since the inception of Web browsers, but sharing these bookmarks with other users is a relatively new phenomenon. The Digg Web site demonstrates their popularity. The Dogear feature of Lotus Connections allows users to easily collect and share bookmarks. Figure 15 provides a view of a Dogear list.

Figure 15. The Dogear area of Lotus Connections
The Dogear area of Lotus Connections

The shared bookmarks concept is not new, but Lotus Connections provides a number of options for working with your own or another user’s list. You can easily subscribe to another user’s bookmarks to learn from them, or you can subscribe to a tag, so you can keep up-to-date on a topic and expand the network of people to include in your daily work. Figure 15 includes the My Watchlist area on the page, which shows the blogs that you are watching as well as the blogs that are watching you.

Activities

Activities provide a central location for a common goal. This feature follows the community concept, but it includes the ability to set goals, due dates, and members for activities. It allows you to organize activities according to how you work. Thus, it is an excellent project tool. Figure 16 shows a sample activity for assembling this article in its outline view.

Figure 16. Lotus Connections activity for writing an article
Lotus Connections activity for writing an article

Emails can be sent for certain items in an activity. For repetitive tasks, you can create templates to help maintain a common structure and to help users to be more productive by allowing them to focus on their tasks. This function means that you do not have to type and retype items every time you use a certain activity type. You access it from the Templates link at the top of figure 16.

Figure 17 shows the creation of a new template as a name, author, tags, and a description are assigned to it.

Figure 17. Creating a new Activity template
Creating a new Activity template

The new template is populated with to-do items in figure 18. In addition, activities can include messages that are sent by e-mail, bookmarks, and uploaded files. You can also create a new template from an existing activity by choosing Copy as New Template from the More Actions link.

Figure 18. Populating an Activity template
Populating an Activity template

Technical requirements

Lotus Connections is installed on a server with the services accessed by users and their Web browsers. It has the following minimum hardware requirements:
IBM-compatible x86-32 processor; 4 GB RAM; 4 GB hard drive space.

It supports Red Hat Enterprise Linux Enterprise Server V4.0 and Microsoft Windows 2003 Server (Standard or Enterprise) as the server operating system. Microsoft Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 XGL are supported on client machines. Users can use Microsoft Windows Internet Explorer (6.x or 7.x) or Mozilla Firefox 2.0 as a browser. They can choose to use other variations of the Gecko-based browsers, but IBM promises only Firefox 2.0 support.

The following server software options are supported:
(bundled with Lotus Connections with a restricted license for use with Lotus Connections only)

  • IBM WebSphere Application Server V6.1.0.3 (bundled with IBM Lotus Connections)
  • IBM HTTP Server from WebSphere Application Server V6.1.0.3
  • IBM Tivoli Directory Server V6.0.0.3 or Microsoft Active Directory 2003 Service Pack 2 for LDAP support
  • IBM DB2 V9.1 Fix Pack 2 or Oracle 10g 10.2.0.3 as a backend database
  • IBM Tivoli Directory Integrator V6.1 for providing the Activities feature
  • The server file system or IBM Lotus Domino V7.0 as a content repository

NOTE: The IBM WebSphere Application Server, IBM HTTP Server from WebSphere, and IBM DB2 are included with the Lotus Connections product.


Tagging

A big part of the Lotus Connections platform is tagging. That is, users can easily assign tags or keywords to many parts of the Lotus Connections environment. The tags can be used to search for similarly tagged items in Lotus Connections. Also, existing tags assigned to items can be selected to kick off a tag search of similar items. Tags provide a useful way to categorize elements and to search for elements of personal interest.

Figure 7 provides a good demonstration of tags because it includes an extensive list of tags for the blog shown. You can select any word in the tag cloud to locate blogs with the same tag. In addition, you can use the text box above the tag cloud to filter the tag list. Also, the slider control (more to less) allows you to expand or trim the contents of the tag cloud.


Extending Lotus Connections

A key issue with a product such as Lotus Connections is how to extend its features outside of its native environment. One of the more popular trends to fall under the Web 2.0 umbrella is the creation of Web applications using features and content from other applications. These types of applications are called mashups. Mashups draw upon existing Web applications or data sources and combine these resources to create a new application. This concept allows developers to extend functionality as opposed to spending time duplicating what is already available.

Lotus Connections includes a key technology, content syndication, for building mashups. As previously mentioned, it uses the Atom standard for content syndication. With this in mind, you need to use a component on the Web site to parse and format the XML from the Atom feed. Also, you can keep up with Lotus Connections-based content by using a feed reader such as the one included with Microsoft Internet Explorer 7.

The Lotus Connections product makes it easy to use feeds as demonstrated by the Atom and "Add to your site" links shown in figure 15. The Atom link makes it easy to subscribe to a feed and the Add to your site link provides the code to include a list of bookmarks maintained through Dogear on your site.

Furthermore, you can leverage the APIs for the many Lotus Connections features to enhance the product to better meet your needs. A good example is the Lotus Connections Atom API that allows you to work with the Atom feed capabilities included in the product. It can be extended to bring Web data into a Lotus Connections feature to customize its presentation.


Conclusion

Lotus Connections provides five features to foster social computing both inside and outside the enterprise. The power of the Profiles, Communities, Blogs, Dogear, and Activities features allows people to increase productivity by easily locating subject matter experts and collaborating with them and others online. Lotus Connections integrates with existing products such as Lotus Sametime to further boost productivity.

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