KnowNow gives RSS a business-savvy shine

ESS 3.1.7 combines simplicity of RSS with solid management, data connections, desktop delivery

You'd have to have been living on Pluto to have not heard of RSS by now. You probably use it to keep up with your favorite blogs. You may have even wondered how you could use it in your business.

For a few simple feeds, blogging software probably gives you all the management capabilities you need. But if you really want to exploit RSS for work purposes, you need KnowNow ESS.

ESS (Enterprise Syndication Server) is a scalable platform for managing syndicated content including RSS 2.0 and Atom. With ESS, a business can collect, record, categorize, filter, and provide access control for syndicated feeds from the Internet, locally produced feeds, and even data stores you don’t normally associate with syndication, such as an RDBMS.

I spent some time with ESS 3.1.7, managing feeds of all kinds. As a hosted solution, there was nothing to install: Set-up consisted of configuring a few preferences and I was off. (A licensed version is also available.)

I found ESS to be an excellent system for managing syndicated feeds. The various pieces work together well, and the browser-based set-up and configuration make it easy to get going. The ability to capture, aggregate, and filter traditional RSS feeds as well as data from back-office systems makes ESS a must-have tool for businesses looking to exploit syndication.

A Million Channels

Channels are ESS’s basic categorization unit, and most of the administration activities revolve around adding and managing channels. Channels come in several types; the most basic is a simple RSS channel. Adding an RSS channel is simple: Copy the URL of the RSS feed to the set-up wizard, click the auto-fill button to fill in other data from the feed, categorize the content, and save.

Another type of channel is the aggregated channel, which combines the content of several feeds into one. You can also manage syndicated feeds from Moreover Technologies, which provides custom feeds on specific topics, and from PubSub, which provides real-time blog searches. These last two feeds can be especially important for businesses. Chances are that someone somewhere is mentioning your company on their blog. You can find out what they’re saying about your organization by using ESS to search for and track the latest posts.

Channels show up in the tree-like category menu in the ESS UI’s left-hand pane. Clicking on an existing channel brings up the properties in the right-hand pane so that they can be edited. You can also filter a channel using keywords and control access to a channel by user or by group. ESS ties into LDAP and Active Directory, so your corporate identity infrastructure can be used to manage users.

Turning Data Into Action

Perhaps the most intriguing channel, KnowNow’s LiveAdapter uses RSS to monitor changing data in your company’s databases and other data stores -- an intriguing idea that can turn into a lot of work if you must build custom adaptors for each system.

LiveAdapter, a technology ESS inherits from KnowNow’s LiveServer, makes these links nothing more than a matter of configuration. I easily created an RSS feed from a MySQL database containing dummy customer data and saw that feed show up in an RSS reader right away.

This data-monitoring capability turns syndication into an enterprise alerting tool. For example, suppose you want to be notified when an invoice goes more than 30 days past due. Tie ESS into your financial package with LiveAdapter and you can have an immediate custom RSS feed of this data. KnowNow also includes eLert, a tool-tray (Windows) or browser toolbar (IE and Firefox) extension that watches for changes in RSS feeds and notifies you instantly about the updates.

Data flows in both directions in LiveAdapter. The solution may also be used to update the contents of a database from the data inside an RSS feed, although I didn’t test this.

On the content creation side, ESS’s SpeedWriter component performs the function of a blogging tool without the blog. A SpeedWriter channel has a browser-based editor that allows users to create items in a custom RSS feed; anything you write will be published to the RSS feed for that channel.

This is a great way for a company to create RSS-based announcements and other special purpose lists. One feature absent in SpeedWriter, which many will probably miss, is the ability to include enclosures, such as MP3 or WMV files, to create podcasts and vcasts.

Speeds and Reads

On the other side of the process, ESS provides a browser-based aggregator called SpeedReader. SpeedReader has the traditional three-pane look of an RSS feed reader, with the left-hand pane showing feeds, the top-right pane showing item titles, and the bottom-right pane showing the content of the currently selected item. The primary difference is that the feeds in the left-hand pane are selected from those that ESS provides.

SpeedReader is a handy way for an enterprise to provide a zero-footprint feed reader to its employees. It also functions as a general purpose RSS reader; users can subscribe to any other RSS feed in addition to ESS-managed feeds.

Although ESS’s Web-based administration is easy to use and intuitive, I have some complaints. For example, when you’re adding a new channel, there’s a sequence of buttons along the bottom of the wizard that offer a lot of competing choices: Should I save? Validate? Click Next? It wasn’t clear.

In another instance, when configuring the database link, the system presents a pane inside another pane. Both panes have Next buttons. You have to push the Next button on the inner pane for things to work, and often you have to scroll down to see it.

I don’t want to give the impression that KnowNow ESS’s administration is horribly complicated. Anyone who has used server-based configuration wizards will find ESS an easy system to use, and its ability to link to back-office data sources and make them part of an alerting system could provide all the ROI you need to justify its role in your infrastructure.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Scalability (15.0%)
Interoperability (20.0%)
Security (10.0%)
Manageability (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Setup (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
KnowNow ESS 3.1.7 9.0 10.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 7.0 9.0 8.5