The use of Really Simple Syndication (RSS) in the enterprise looks set to explode over the next few years, as an increasing number of people discover the convenience of targeted information pushed to the desktop. RSS is fast, effortless and avoids adding more messages to already brimming e-mail inboxes.
As far as the enterprise is concerned, RSS is a probably a good thing, as there's a case to be made that RSS can make employees more productive. That's assuming, of course, that users are subscribing to work-related feeds and not just those containing the latest football news or showbiz gossip.
But there's a catch. Several, actually. In large organizations where more than 500 or so people are using RSS feeds, all those RSS clients checking for updates every five minutes and pulling in new data which could include large video files can seriously degrade network performance. Whenever users install their own RSS clients it means multiple, unapproved applications for the IT department to manage. There are also serious security risks when all this data comes in to the network, as RSS feeds can contain attachments with all their associated nasties.
That's why a small, but increasing, number of organizations are coming to the conclusion that the best way to reap the benefits of RSS and control the problems it can cause is to install an enterprise RSS server and corporate RSS clients. It's analogous to replacing public IM network usage with an enterprise IM system.
A simple enterprise RSS server sitting inside the firewall is relatively easy to set up and can be put in place for as little as $10,000 to $20,000, depending on the number of clients that will be used. Once up and running, this can have an immediate positive effect on bandwidth consumption in two ways. The feeds to which employees are allowed to subscribe can be limited to those relevant to their jobs, and media files and other large files can be blocked.
In addition, all the content is brought in to one repository the corporate RSS server and then delivered to individual clients in a controlled manner. Overall, there is less data to be distributed because there are now no football and showbiz gossip feeds, and the data that does need distributing can be more efficiently from the RSS server. Since all the feeds being brought in to the network now goes through the RSS server, it is also far easier to scan them for viruses and other security risks.
But how can you be sure that implementing your own corporate server really will make employees more productive? It's actually quite hard to measure this. Benefits are likely to come from employees having more timely information, not missing important news, and getting the information they need sent to them quickly rather than having to go out to multiple Web sites to collect it for themselves. There's also a benefit in users being able to get information (such as internal announcements) in a way that avoids clogging e-mail inboxes.
RSS vendors go a stage further, claiming that in addition to individual user productivity gains, the "RSSed" organization is a more efficient one because the use of RSS fosters collaboration among users. If you know who else is subscribing to a particular feed in your organization, the argument goes, you are probably working on related tasks and should therefore get in touch. Groups of employees rating or discussing the contents of feeds can also help make an organization more productive.
The evidence suggests that organizations should take these benefits with a pinch of salt. "We are actually not seeing many users doing this sort of second-order collaboration at all," said G. Oliver Young, an analyst at Forrester. "At the moment, enterprise RSS is just being used to aggregate content more efficiently. Vendors are certainly talking about enabling 'collective intelligence,' but I don't see any evidence that companies are realizing it," he said. "I think we need users to gain much more familiarity with RSS and how it works before these sorts of benefits start to accrue."
At $20,000, a simple server is unlikely to break the bank for a large enterprise. But how do you justify the expenditure when productivity gains are hard to measure? "It is difficult because like [with] most Web 2.0 initiatives, we are talking about worker efficiency and productivity gains, which are quite small. We are accruing a little benefit to a large number of people," said Young. It's more likely that you'll be able to make a good case by looking at bandwidth costs and the way implementing an RSS server can reduce network congestion far more cheaply than by increasing LAN capacity or buying a packet shaping device, he said.
The three key vendors in the enterprise RSS space are Attensa, NewsGator and KnowNow. Of these, Attensa is the smallest, while the other two are roughly the same size. "The big difference between KnowNow and NewsGator is that KnowNow tells a good story about 'RSSing' back-end solutions getting information from these systems and serving it up using RSS," said Young.
As an example, Young cited a bank that uses an RSS feed to alert analysts when something in its order processing system is flagged as needing attention. This has proved to be more far more effective than e-mail alerting, he said. "RSS is not just about displacing e-mail, but about separating content going through various channels. Each channel has its own strength, and if you can match content with the right delivery channel, then you'll improve your efficiency," he said. This type of implementation is more expensive than installing a simple RSS server, and at the moment is very much the exception rather than the rule.
For companies that want to test the water, NewsGator offers enterprise RSS on an ASP basis. This makes it possible to try the system out without installing anything in-house. "This is really very attractive and a great way to get started," said Young.
It's still early days for enterprise RSS, and Forrester estimates only 7 percent to 10 percent of large companies are using it at the moment. But that's likely to change, especially if the benefits of RSS become widely accepted. "In five or six years I would imagine that almost all companies have some form or enterprise RSS in place," Young concluded.