As a veteran IBM Lotus Notes developer with 20 years experience, I am often asked: “Why are you are still using Notes?” There are so many choices for developers today! The short answer is the capabilities that Notes offers are still great. The versatility that the platform offers still attracts me.
Lotus Notes: Pioneering Early Collaboration and Productivity
First, let’s take a quick look at why IBM Lotus/Domino came to be so widely used in the organizations ranging from government agencies to small businesses.
Lotus Notes/Domino has been around since the early 90’s before the term ‘blog’ was even in popular use. Antiquated, online ‘user groups’ were soon replaced with ‘nested’ discussions in rich text. Lotus Notes was instrumental in transforming ‘bulletin boards’ and ‘chat groups’ into true online collaboration workspaces.
The Lotus Notes ID was one of the first uses of authentication certificates for connecting to online data sources with encryption before HTTPS was even invented. Also, for the first time, the creation of rich text databases with variable length data records became available to developers.
Notes ‘replication’ allowed for keeping multiple ‘replicas’ of databases up-to-date on various servers and local desktops — no other database application at the time had anything close to that.
In addition to that, Lotus Notes applications/databases are encrypted and can only be used by those authorized by their Notes ID and the certificate keys stored in the Domino Directory.
All things considered, Lotus Notes was indeed a pioneer in the burgeoning online world.
This is one of the reasons why twenty-some-odd years later, Notes — and its server counterpart dubbed ‘Domino’ — still boasts a user base of millions around the world.
Enter Microsoft Outlook
Sometimes in business, a solid distribution channel is everything. Almost every PC sold in the last 20 years had Outlook pre-installed as part of Microsoft Office. Those users whose PCs didn’t have a trial or a full version of MSOffice on it, typically installed the suite for the sheer convenience and value of it.
Of course, every Mac user had AppleWorks and then iWork, as well as Apple Mail to use as the default office suite and email client.
In contrast, Lotus Notes had to always be purchased separately and installed in addition to whatever software suite you had on your PC.
Between two similar products, the one with a better built-in distribution channel wins every time. Microsoft’s Outllok has long eclipsed IBM Lotus Notes as the standard office collaboration tool, even if the latter offered a lot more functionality, such as the ability to run applications that could be easily built by even those without any development experience.
The State of Office Productivity Apps We’re In
Fast-forward to 2017. There are a lot more contestants in the field of office productivity, offering entire suites that work on every device to accomodate the current landscape of technology, trending more and more towards mobile devices every year.
For a lot of organizations entrenched in IBM Notes Domino, it’s hard not to look at alternative options when looking at their IT infrastructure and needs. Not only are there a lot of choices, but the user experience is a real consideration.
Let’s Talk About Migrations
There are all sorts of reasons why a company may be looking at migrating off Domino, sometimes as simple as getting a new C-level executive who hasn’t had experience working with Lotus Notes Domino before.
No matter the reasons, the important part is to carefully examine the benefits and dangers of migrating to a different platform.
Pros of Migrating off Domino
Common and familiar
One pretty common reason for wanting to migrate off Domino is also its biggest plus: familiarity.
More and more users are familiar with MS Office or GSuite. This in turn impacts two important employee metrics: onboarding speed and overall degree of efficiency.
Not having to learn the basics of how to send an email or set a calendar appointment for a new employee means one less hurdle to overcome on the way to getting proficient in their job. It also means having a greater degree of expertise in their current productivity suite down the line.
In the current IT landscape the SaaS model rules, and there are amazing software tools available for any aspect of running virtually any kind of business. A SaaS’s usefulness shines especially if it easily integrates right into other software tools you are already using.
If your company is running on IBM Notes Domino, you may not have easily available integrations with a large majority of software applications out there.
This in turn can likely impact your company’s agility now and possibly in the future.
Dated and clunky
That is how a lot of admins and users out there feel about Notes in comparison to other tools they know and use.
Let’s be honest. IBM Notes is not the brand new groundbreaking platform it once was. Even with all of its updates and patches, its UI can feel somewhat antiquated compared to the simple clean UIs that are the current standard in application design.
Now, IBM has brought Verse to the table, which delivers all the goodness of the old Lotus Notes with all the collaboration tools one might want and an intuitive modern interface.
Some administrators find Notes Domino not so easy to administrate. This again comes down to familiarity. Those who have spent the time to learn the controls often prefer the simplicity of the controls, as well as the fact that all the options are laid out right there, and not in an obscure menu three levels down. Those who have not, can find it overwhelming at first.
Better user satisfaction plus better admin efficiency equals better productivity for the company.
Better Central Management
Other platforms come with a better central management right out of the box. IBM Notes Domino does not. You have to spend the time to set it up and configure it. This can be a real consideration for some, especially with minimal IT staff available.
Cons of Migrating off Domino
If we look at the last twenty years in office productivity software, we will see an interesting landscape that is fairly unstable.
There are typically large shifts in products out there for other products: user interfaces, structure etc When we’re talking about Microsoft or Google office products, it can be a volatile environment from year to year, where your current productivity suite you’ve invested in and built infrastructure around may disappear if doesn’t fit their vision.
By comparison, Lotus IBM Notes has been a very stable and fixed solution that has remained a constant in the marketplace. With IBM’s recent public re-commitment to continuing new version releases and investing in the future development of Notes Domino, it will likely continue to remain the stable offering it’s been for the last twenty years.
In simple terms, it means protecting the investment the company has already made into the platform.
The more widely a technology is used, the larger attack surface. This means higher succeptibility to attacks, and more effort on part of the bad guys to come up with ways to compromise it for whatever nefarious gains they may be after.
MS Office is notoriously a constant source of attractions for hackers, with office macros allowing malicious scripts that may run in office to trigger cryptoviruses or locally stored malware.
By comparison, while some maintain that IBM Domino is built more securely, and others say that it’s simply not big enough anymore to get enough malicious attention, the outcome is the same. IBM Notes Domino poses currently less of a security risk for an organization than MS Office.
Ask admins with equal proficiency in both MS Exchange and IBM Domino, and they will tell you that Domino server is easier to administer than Exchange. As I’ve mentioned earlier, it comes down to familiarity and proficiency, but in and apples to apples comparison Domino server is easier.
The Perils of Migration
Any migrations between technologies are fraught with risk.
If we’re talking about migrating IBM Notes specifically, it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind:
1. No mailbox and other productivity tool (calendar, contacts, etc) migration is ever a 100% accurate between platforms. Data, settings, history, files and attachments, the text layout or any number of things could be lost or corrupted.
2. You’re moving not just the mail client, but also the applications built in the client, to a number of applications within the new suite. If you’re moving to Microsoft, you will need Outlook for email, Sharepoint for team collaborations, etc, and all are separate applications.
What this means is that you will have to redesign apps to fit a different framework.
For most companies, this will mean completely retooling and redesigning their whole workflow, while also making sure that all the needed clients also work properly on assorted devices.
No Magic Button
When it comes to migrating applications from Domino, it becomes a lot more complex than “simply” migrating Notes.
A Domino application is written either in Java or in Lotuscript. Rewriting Java for knowledgeable Java developer is not too terrible of a project. Re-writing Lotuscript is a whole other ballgame, starting with finding developers actually proficient in Lotuscript, and the project itself is no trivial effort.
In a typical organization with legacy Domino applications, over the years that environment becomes a tangle of code to decipher.
You don’t really know what parts of the apps are still working or needed, which ones aren’t, not sure which is doing what. And there is no simple view or dashboard you could just look at for that.
A number of software tools have been created to assist in assessment and migration of Domino data: DOCOVA, panagenda, Structure4Notes.
While Structure4Notes can simply migrate your Domino databases into true SQL, which helps extract your data, there is no magic wand out there that can automatically rewrite code.
Migrating Domino applications is a very specialized skill set, not readily available on the market, and thus can be rather expensive.
The most important thing in making your decision is to understand WHY you want to migrate. Migrations are a very expensive headache that has to be balanced with a very careful cost benefit analysis in the immediate, near and long term scope.
The second most important thing I’d like to leave you with is: talk to experts specifically with this skill. Not all IT consulting firms claiming to have experise in the subject have the necessary knowledgable teams able to perform this type of a project in an efficient manner. The ecosystem of true Domino experts is a fairly small and easy to navigate if you look in the right places. We are always happy to assist or refer to the right companies we know from our 20 years of experience in this space.