The great Office Server smorgasbord Part 2: MOSSing up Groove Server

Office Groove 2007 may seem like a client-only application, but for enterprises with many users, Groove Server is the way to go

Tom works for Fergenschmeir Inc. Fergenschmeir just decided to merge with Widgeteria Corp., where Susan works. The two employees are leading the merger effort, and during an initial call quickly realize they need to be able to share loads of data quickly. So Susan initiates a Groove workspace and invites Tom via e-mail. In just a few minutes, they've got their own library of work documents, messaging, and other collaborative goodies without ever having to call the IT department. That's a powerful capability and it's why our second installment of the great Office Server smorgasbord covers Office Groove 2007.

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At its most basic, Office Groove 2007 is a client-based application that allows Groovers (our term for Groove users) to share documents on their local PCs with others who have access to their Groove space; they can share these docs, chat about them, and synchronize the content so that everyone is looking at the same thing. Fortunately, this rather mundane feature set becomes far more robust with the addition of Office SharePoint Server 2007 (for more, see Part 1 of the great Office Server smorgasbord). Enabling MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server) behind your Groove population allows Groove users to manage Groove spaces by team, as well as make SharePoint's document libraries instantly accessible as Groove data -- with the same security.

Try that in a traditional IT environment and you're spending quality time with your IT staff. They'd have to setup a collaborative Web page, create access for internal users, open VPN connections to external users, and maintain a file server with the right permissions as well -- easily a couple of weeks' worth of work. With Groove and SharePoint, employees and team managers can create this entire setup all by themselves, and they can do it in just a few minutes.

Of course, that doesn't cover areas where the IT staff would really like to be involved. Those would include areas such as user management and auditing, data transmission management, bandwidth usage, backup. and security across firewalls -- probably doable by the end-user population in a small business, but certainly too much complexity for those in large enterprises. That's where Groove Server comes in.

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Curing complexity
We'll start with the bottom line: Office Groove Server is simply a cure for complexity. Running a team collaboration tool on a peer-to-peer basis across a basic network is no big deal. But running one across an enterprise net, including multiple router and gateway hops and with comparatively huge user and team directories, file repositories, and application libraries is another matter entirely. Enter Groove Server, or rather, Groove Servers, because there are three of them in the suite. The big daddy of the trio is GM (Groove Manager), which is designed to manage your entire Groove deployment end to end. Many SMBs can run Groove on a client-only basis, but you're going to want Groove Manager working for you in any deployments above 100 seats. Administrators can use GM to manage Groove accounts, access paths, and enforce fair use and security policies. And instead of backing up Groove document repositories across thousands of individual users via something like shadow copy, GM keeps all client Groove file collections centrally so that you can back up your whole user base off a single box. On a more sophisticated note, GM also acts as a hub for large file transfers. Instead of simply clogging the network at large with whatever honking files your users feel like throwing around, Groove Server steps in and manages the process in an organized store-and-forward manner. On an even more granular level, administrators can even assign bandwidth ceilings for Groove file transfers. It's a good idea to experiment with this feature, however, because the impact on larger networks can be significant.

Although you can configure that store-and-forward transfer relationship from Groove Manager, it's Groove Server Relay that does all the heavy lifting. This package handles Groove talking across firewalls and also takes care of offline communications. It does this much the same as an SMTP e-mail server would. The client Groovers encrypt their data locally prior to transmission, and Relay stores that content, either because one or more users are offline or because two Groovers are talking across firewalls. What's nice is that Relay is highly configurable in this regard, enabling administrators to store Groove data for only seconds or as long as several days depending on their internal policies or that particular Groove team's needs. We felt it could have used a little more configuration muscle on the firewall side. Relay does a good job of enabling communications across firewalls, but it's mostly an on-off operation. In the future, we'd like to see more in the way of controlling specific security features (type of encryption, types of content allowed to pass, and usage auditing, to name three) between two external firewall gateways.

Last is the Groove DataBridge, which does exactly what the name implies. DataBridge acts as an access point for third-party software solutions or custom applications to let Groovers connect their workspaces to different back-end systems. Think accounting systems, CRM, databases, ERP systems, and all the other veins of data your info workers would like to mine. DataBridge is meant to talk to these applications and has its own Web services API to make it happen. That API comes at a bit of an accessibility cost, however; although most of Groove Server is accessible by general IT or end-users straight out of the box, DataBridge will need a developer.

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You're thinking that the combined digital might of this trio is enough to make Office Groove Server self-sustaining. Especially with the DataBridge component, you're wondering why it needs to talk to Office SharePoint Server at all. Well, you're on the money because it doesn't. Groove is a client-led application, which is why the client package discussed above does all the blabbing with SharePoint. Groove Server is there solely to bolster the client.

Herding servers
Installing Groove Server is a mite tricky. For one, it wants multiple boxes and they all need to be running a 64-bit CPU, plus the usual allotment of Windows Server 2003 and the .Net Framework 2.0. You can probably manage a single-box Groove Server install with virtual machines in a test lab. But for production networks, Groove Server wants not only its own IIS server so that you can see Groove Manager, but a SQL Server installation as well. Large networks that wish to make use of Groove Server's store-and-forward feature to manage file transfers will

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also need to install the Groove Relay Server, and yes, this has to be a separate machine as well. Last, managing user directories will require an Active Directory server (preferably, though most LDAP 3.0-compatible directories should work, too). If you consider that most folks who reach this point will have already implemented Active Directory, and that SQL Server and IIS can, in less demanding networks, share a server, it brings the total number of new servers to three for a minimal Groove server deployment.

Once installed, you'll live your Groove Server life in Groove Manager. To start, you need to define a Groove Server administrator and then set up and initial Groove Management Domain. You can define multiple domains later on to organize users, departments, or teams, but you'll need that initial Management Domain to get rolling.

One trick we almost missed was configuring SMTP. Groove relies heavily on e-mail. Groove invites go out that way and when Groove users want to join different domains on the Server, administrative information such as account configuration codes are transferred this way, too. To let that happen, however, you'll need to set up an IIS SMTP virtual server. The Groove Server docs give clear instructions on making that happen, but it's an easy step to miss when you really just want to dive in and start setting up Groove domains. It seems reasonable to wonder why Groove won't work with Exchange Server, and the answer seems to be that Microsoft wanted Groove to be a self-contained application.

Another step you don't want to miss is adding a directory server. Microsoft says any LDAP 3.0 server will do, but the vast majority of cases will see Groove Server talking to Active Directory. There are several ways to manage this integration, but our favorite is automatic data integration since this will automate the dissemination of information between the two users. Enable this, and you'll be able to update information on AD and have it automatically import into Groove Server.

Overall, we think Microsoft isn't kidding: For companies with more than 100 seats that really want to exploit Groove client, Office Groove Server is a must-have. The security and data retention capabilities alone make it worth the cost and effort -- probably. We say probably because once again, Redmond is vague on Groove pricing. This package is only available to companies that already have some kind of software volume licensing agreement with Microsoft and the price varies depending on what kind of agreement that is.

Not cheap, but a good investment
While you're puzzling this out, be sure to get some information on Groove Enterprise Services. For the most part, this is functionally the same as Office Groove Server, it's simply hosted by Microsoft. You'll find the same security, communications, and data retention capabilities as with an in-house version, though you will necessarily come up against limits when trying to exploit DataBridge. This makes Groove Enterprise Services sound like a great solution for SMBs, but Microsoft's data sheets still indicate you'll need a software volume license agreement in place in order to be offered the service.

This somewhat constrictive pricing model aside, if you've got a large user base and they're all looking to feel Groovy, Office Groove Server is recommended.

Installing Groove Server 2007 at present isn't like revving up a well-oiled machine. It's more like pull-starting that slightly rusty lawnmower your father abuses. You'll get it running, but it'll take some hard yanks. Your best bet here is to first read all of Microsoft's documentation, both print and online at TechNet. Before even inserting your DVD, you'll want to pay special attention to planning your deployment, especially if your user count is above 500 and spans multiple sites. Then make sure you're installing the servers in the proper order and in the correct number. Most SMBs with 500 or fewer employees, for example, can probably get away with running Groove's SQL Server on the same machine as its IIS-based Groove Manager. Larger installations may be better off using more server hardware. Testing your Groove Relay connections across separate organizations, too, is a critical step. All this may sound like more Advil munching than it's worth, but for those with lots of teams and dynamic collaboration requirements, don't wimp out. Groove really is worth the effort.

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InfoWorld Scorecard
Management (15.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Features (20.0%)
Ease of use (20.0%)
Security (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Microsoft Office Groove Server 2007 8.0 8.0 8.0 6.0 6.0 5.0 7.0
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