Checking Out Lotus Notes, Phase2

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The CRN Test Center has liked a lot of the improvements
IBM has brought to its Lotus Notes and other collaboration solutions over the past two years, including the unveiling last year of a new, improved iNotes offering for the Web.

With continued attention given to the prospect of hosted infrastructure -- especially with e-mail and messaging -- we thought it was time to take a look at a hosted Lotus Notes solution to see how it worked. We took a run at using services provided by Phase2 International, Honolulu, Hawaii, to examine its potential for solution providers and their customers. Since we've already liked and recommended Lotus Notes 8.5 for a number of reasons, including pricing and cost, the idea of taking even more cost out of the equation by moving hosting off-site provided an interesting possibility.

Phase2 provides a channel program with no cost to enroll, an assigned account executive, white-labeling to give channel partners the option of providing a solution branded under their moniker, and technical support with integrating custom applications. It provides margin opportunities for VARs, and its program has provided the option of Phase2 handling customer billing or allowing the VAR to maintain control over that touch point.

The company provides a menu of options for subscribing to Lotus-as-a-Service, including Lotus Quickr, Lotus iNotes, Lotus
Connections and Lotus Sametime—all with per-user, per-month
pricing listed in its online store. We opted for a straight-up Lotus
Notes account for $14.99 per month as a list price. Given the power of Notes in calendaring and messaging, this would be enough for many smaller businesses or workgroups.

This is not a two-click or even a three-click provisioning service from our experience, though. After filling out a subscription form and providing payment information, it took almost a full work day for a representative to respond with an online survey to be filled out. It took another day for the account to be provisioned and then it took a little less than an hour to download Notes from the "YouSendIt" service Phase2 uses and get it installed.

The use of YouSendIt to deliver application software, rather than
an internal FTP site, struck us as weird. But if you've ever gone
through the registration process on to have access to its software downloads -- a mind-numbing and often aggravating process -- you'd find that YouSendIt actually made this part of the process easier.

If you're a VAR who would rather leave support as an issue between
Phase2 and your customer, some notes for you to consider. Phase2 service advertises itself as a 24x7x365 operation. Well it is, in the sense that you can send the company an e-mail or leave a voice mail any time. We tried reaching Phase2 by phone but repeatedly only got voice mail. Support staff responded to e-mail requests within a few hours during a weekday.

It also can make some mistakes. During the setup process, a Phase2 service representative sent very detailed, step-by-step setup notes that were great help. However, one e-mail that was supposed to contain an attachment with password information didn't. It took a voice-mail message, an e-mail and a four-hour wait to get that password to complete installation.

Once up and running, the service is fine. Phase2 gets very high marks in an area we think is going to be critical for hosted infrastructure: It provides very granular information about account use, uptime and performance -- detailing in simple-to-find disclosures that it uses Qwest, TW Telecom and AT&T as its backbone carriers. It maintains a Class-A data center in Honolulu -- as the company grows it will have to make significant efforts to offer more geographic depth for reliability and redundancy reasons. And Phase2 discloses that it retains five days' worth of full backup files as a standard but can extend that based on customer requirements.

The bottom line: Our look at Phase2's hosted Notes offering shows a company that gives a solid, basic service that can get a small business or workgroup running quickly with easy-to-manage costs. For a 10-person business, spending $149.99 total for each employee to have a Notes account hosted off-site could allow costs to be shifted elsewhere while retaining the robustness and benefits of IBM's Lotus software. After 10 accounts, though, serious consideration would need to be given to an on-premise Notes configuration for both cost-benefit and control reasons -- at least in our opinion.

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