Enterprise RSS channels your information streams

Attensa, NewsGator, and KnowNow target feeds to knowledge workers

RSS (really simple syndication) is a favored XML format for individuals to get information from sources such as news sites and blogs. In fact, a recent Pew Internet Foundation survey found nearly one in three individuals consumes RSS feeds. But for enterprises, the most telling response was that 63 percent of these RSS users subscribe to work-related feeds.

That latter finding shouldn’t surprise IT managers. After all, RSS readers are easy to install and use. This technology does a fine job helping workers cut through irrelevant information that floods portals, enterprise search results, and e-mail. But as RSS’s popularity rises, so do risks. For example, precious network bandwidth is consumed when many employees update the same feed. Plus, there are security risks associated with accessing inappropriate feeds.

To get around these issues and give more employees the benefit of RSS, organizations are adopting enterprise RSS solutions. I tested three hot products in this burgeoning area: Attensa Feed Server, NewsGator Enterprise Server, and KnowNow 3 Enterprise Syndication Solution.

As the names indicate, all use a central server to retrieve feeds once and then distribute them to many users -- often directly to a Microsoft Outlook folder. Moreover, sophisticated user management and control allows managers to automatically subscribe users to relevant feeds based on their roles. Yet users can still add their own subscriptions and share articles.

Another trait -- which you also find within enterprise search products -- is the ability to create special RSS taxonomies that match, say, your product lines or business units; this convenience helps users find feeds for those special research projects.

In all, enterprises using these solutions report measurable time savings -- often achieving full ROI in a few months.

Attensa Feed Server 1.1.7

Attensa’s RSS solution includes an Outlook reader that works stand-alone or can pull feeds located on a central Attensa Feed Server sitting behind your firewall. Optionally, enterprises can install Attensa’s Exchange service to bypass the Outlook plug-in and deliver feeds directly to Exchange mailboxes. An AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) Web Reader and mobile clients -- Blackberry, Good Mobile Messaging for Exchange, and Windows Mobile 5 -- complete the picture.

Furthermore, this solution features a predictive ranking algorithm that evaluates users’ feed subscriptions and reading habits, which helps prioritize new feeds.

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After you’ve set up the Feed Server, by specifying a user directory server or manually adding users and groups, you continue working in the AJAX administration Web site and begin adding feeds. You either pick from prepopulated lists or manually enter feed links. However, there’s an added step of then creating category folders and dragging and dropping feeds into the desired hierarchy before there’s a usable taxonomy.

From this point, I simply checked off options on forms to subscribe groups to individual feeds or multiple categories. Similarly, I set defaults for each group, such as whether feeds would be delivered to Outlook and which publishing features were enabled.

There’s suitable reporting, including which users are reading what feeds, the number of feeds in the system, and related statistics.

For end-users, my testing indicated that Attensa for Outlook has minimal memory impact on Outlook. Feed Server works in the background gathering and processing RSS feeds, which were quickly pulled into Outlook using the standard MAPI protocol. As a result, when I signed into Outlook, the latest feeds were immediately available. Moreover, after I subscribed to a new feed, that information was sent to the appliance so the feed was kept current for everyone else who also had it on their personal subscription list.

Attensa’s Outlook plug-in provided the best user experience of the products reviewed. Its clean interface -- with resizable panes and multiple views -- was further adjustable to my working style. For example, subscriptions could be displayed as one large news feed or by categories. In both cases the text layout was easy to read. Additionally, organizations can apply custom style sheets to match corporate branding.

You get several ways to arrange feeds in the order of importance: Predictive Ranking (feeds that would likely interest you based on the streams you read most frequently and consistently), personal favorites, or by date. I observed that Attensa’s analytics techniques did indeed improve feed relevance the more I used the system.

Working with feeds was also a positive experience. An intuitive toolbar attached to each feed allowed me to add tags (keywords), forward articles to coworkers, and publish directly to Six Apart Weblog products, including Movable Type and TypePad. On the security side, Attensa ensured that passwords for my personal premium subscriptions were not available to others. Additionally, I liked the automated timer that updated feeds and deleted any read or unread subscriptions on a custom schedule.

The AJAX Web site and mobile clients delivered a reasonable desktoplike experience. Although you can’t perform certain advanced functions (such as publishing articles), they nonetheless provide access to secure and public corporate information to mobile workers.

Of special interest, Attensa integrates with Salesforce.com. In this case, SFA changes are pushed directly to your mobile device via RSS -- eliminating the step of going to Salesforce.com to get updates on clients or prospects.

What’s more, Attensa’s AttentionStream synchronizes desktop, mobile, and Web RSS readers -- meaning articles read, filed, and deleted are consistent across all platforms. The only problem I found is that this feature currently works only if you have the Outlook plug-in. (An Attensa representative said they are working to implement this from the server so that it will function regardless of the combination of interfaces someone runs.)

Attensa gives you multiple deployment options, from configuring Outlook users with or without a desktop client to a Web interface and mobile options. The Outlook plug-in is laudable for features and usability. And intelligent ranking of feeds is noteworthy.

NewsGator Enterprise Server 1.4.1

NewsGator is well known for its individual RSS aggregators, including NewsGator Inbox (an Outlook add-in) and FeedDemon (a stand-alone news reader). NGES (NewsGator Enterprise Server) offers the same benefits, allowing users to keep up with articles through Outlook and their desktop, while adding mobile devices and Microsoft SharePoint portals to the list.

At the same time, NGES gives enterprises security and centralized management. The server aggregates both internal and external feeds. And because the hardware sits behind your firewall, sensitive internal content is contained. As do the other two products reviewed here, NewsGator integrates with Microsoft Active Directory and LDAP-compliant servers.

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I set up my test environment with Microsoft Active Directory and Exchange to mirror a typical enterprise setting. The important decision for administrators, however, is how to organize myriad available feeds -- from NewsGator’s own, extensive article database to all your private RSS feeds.

Using NGES’s Web Administration site, I found the existing folder taxonomy -- which includes typical departments such as HR and legal -- to be a straightforward starting point, and I customized it to match my organization structure. Within each of these areas I had no trouble adding feeds from public news sources and premium providers, such as LexisNexis, as well as XML feeds generated by an in-house Silk Road Technologies Eprise content management system.

Because I’d tied in my Active Directory server, NGES user management went quickly. After selecting a user group, clicking one button allowed me to subscribe users to a default set of feeds, block feeds and podcasts through a blacklist, and perform other tasks, such as managing log-ins for secure and premium feeds.

Of note, NGES’s developers understand this security part well. For instance, they’ve included their own routines to detect and remove malicious attack code that could be contained within RSS feeds. And in Windows 2003 domains, secure feeds are retrieved on behalf of users without needing to access or store users’ passwords.

The NewsGator server logs and reports activity, such as who uses the system and the most-read feeds. As my testing progressed, this information proved valuable in discovering both feeds of little interest, which I removed, and popular ones, which I made sure were added to every group’s default package.

The end-user experience was just as pleasant. In my integrated setup, an NGES feed folder was automatically created in each user’s Outlook mailbox, conveniently separate from the Inbox. Users could merely interact with the initial feeds or they can add their own.

Reading feeds -- either individually or as a “river of news” -- is easy through a viewing pane. I especially liked the intuitive way NGES allowed me to mark feeds as read, rate their usefulness, and save important ones to a Clippings folder that could be shared with my coworkers.

NewsGator helps you quickly find information from potentially thousands of feeds. There’s a standard category filter to discover relevant articles within a feed or folder -- and a handy search form for locating feeds using keywords. These worked well, but I often relied on the innovative Recommend feature within search; it provided extra precision by ranking results based on what feeds others in my group subscribe to, along with their rating. Last, Smart Feeds pull back content-matching keywords into custom feeds.

Another NGES distinction is its many possible interfaces. Power users have a plug-in for Outlook that integrates feeds from the Enterprise Server, FeedDemon, NetNewsWire, and NewsGator Inbox.

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If you’re not running Exchange or Outlook, a subset of the Web administration interface -- designed for end-users -- provides a comfortable way to manage and read feeds. HTML-capable mobile devices can run NewsGator Go. I especially liked the ability to view feeds through my SharePoint portal sites. NGES synchronizes your actions among all these interfaces. That is, when I marked a feed as read on my PDA, I didn’t have to duplicate this step in Outlook.

NewsGator Enterprise Server balances needs across your organization. It’s easy to administer, especially getting relevant information to casual users through Outlook; in fact, they don’t even need to know what RSS means. Yet power users get their choice of interfaces, such as FeedDemon, synchronized to NGES.

KnowNow 3 Enterprise Syndication Solution 3.1.8

ESS integrates several components for syndicating information from RSS and various enterprise sources. The core LiveServer captures, aggregates, and routes internal and external RSS feeds. ESS’s pleasant Web administration simplifies creating channels, subscribing users and groups to feeds, and managing permissions.

LiveAdapter, a unique feature of KnowNow, automatically transforms data from back-office systems -- such as databases or CRM applications -- into Web events, which are accessed as RSS or HTTP subscriptions. ESS delivers information to subscribers using SpeedReader (a zero-install Web client), plug-ins for Internet Explorer and FireFox, or a Deskbar that sits in the Windows taskbar.

I tested the hosted version of KnowNow 3, finding that its administration side was on par with the other two products. The tabbed interface, which persistently displays a folder tree of categories, is especially intuitive to navigate.

Creating RSS sources from any RSS or Atom feed just involves pointing to the URL and completing a simple form -- with most minor complaints found in the earlier version rectified. As part of creating these feeds, I assigned them to multiple categories -- for example, a travel policy was assigned to HR, news, and finance feeds. Yet you may not have much feed-setup work beyond in-house channels; ESS ships with popular free Moreover channels -- this company also provides premium real-time news and business feeds for a fee -- that are quickly added.

Overall security was almost as good as NewsGator’s --with ESS accommodating authentication for users, groups, or channels. The system also integrates with various LDAP authentication services.

I also valued ESS’s Aggregated channel, where I filtered and combined several individual channels. Filters are especially sophisticated. You can examine content for keywords and then route the feed to particular groups. There’s also a Transformation Filter, which employs XSLT to convert, say, FIXML (Financial XML) format into RSS format. Next, using the Permission tab, I quickly controlled access to my channels at the group or individual level.

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