Review: "IBM Connections on-premises: Excellent, but SMBs may want to look at the cloud version instead."
Overall Satisfaction with IBM Connections
- The web UI is very easy for most users to get around. The mobile app UI is even better, especially for Blogs and Files. It’s clear IBM has done a lot of work around the usability of Connections. Most users immediately felt at home regardless of which social network(s) they’ve used. Technically savvy users quickly discovered how to customize a Community for their own purposes. After the initial introduction, most users could use the Connections web UI and mobile app easily without IT intervention.
- Ideation Blogs are a great way to brainstorm and share ideas, then vote on those ideas. The concept is great, and hopefully as time goes on IBM refines it with additional administrative control.
- Early test groups loved the mobile app immediately with its super easy file sync capabilities and associated document editing app (even though we did not have IBM Docs).
- Profiles were a big hit right away, making it easy to find, tag (recommend), and follow other people that might not otherwise be connected with in the organization.
- The ability to Tag, #hashtag and Follow virtually anything in Connections provides users easy ways to connect with people and content.
- External collaboration, even though we never specifically tested this, appears to be very clear in Connections, providing customers etc. a secure way to share information with internal teams.
- Search functionality is very good.
- The lack of a note-taking tool became a bigger and bigger issue as time went on. Our pilot users felt Connections was a natural place to take and share meeting notes – including photos, drawings, recorded audio, etc. – and were always frustrated that there was no easy, organized way to do that. We tried using a Blog, Wiki, etc. but nothing really resonated as a good solution for this.
- The Wiki tool is weak, providing rigid structure but with few options. A Community can only have a single Wiki, for instance. Wikis are weak in the mobile app as well; they’re not even easy to navigate. Users ended up ignoring Wikis completely despite our efforts to get them to convert documents like guidelines, policies, procedures, handbooks, etc. into Wiki form.
- The Windows Explorer plug-in was useful but required a lot of manual intervention to setup. For instance, once a user joins a Community in Connections, the Community also has to be manually added to the Explorer plug-in so the user can find, open and edit files with it. We felt this process should be much more automated.
- Tagging is only relevant in the web UI and, to a lesser extent, in the mobile app. However, in the Windows Explorer plug-in, Tags are not usable at all making it difficult to find things that were easy to find in the web UI.
- IBM Docs was not included in the on-premises deployment; it was an additional license so we did not test it. Documents, mainly Microsoft Office files, are still the single most common way our user community creates, shares, edits and presents information. That proved to be a major gap for our users, and slowed user adoption considerably. We considered testing it, but IBM Docs would only work for about half of our users so we found ourselves wondering if we really wanted to support two document editing platforms. IBM Docs also offers no way to work offline as far as we could tell. This also meant we would need to keep licensing Microsoft Office which is not cheap.
- Consulting costs are high because the back-end environment is complex. Installing, administrating and even patching Connections is a fairly complex process. We needed to hire consultants to install our test environment and any major upgrades would’ve required additional consulting fees. Any 3rd party add-ons we looked at were highly technical in nature meaning…you guessed it, more consulting costs.
- Administrating IBM Connections requires editing XML files in a specific, secure way that is typically done in a console. I love consoles as much as the next admin, but when you only use a console once every 2 months it means looking up all the documentation and re-educating yourself. A single change could take me 2 hours to implement. 3rd party admin dashboards do exist, at an additional cost, but IBM really should provide a much easier way to manage the environment.
- The lack of in-person or online training courses, materials, videos, etc. really discouraged a lot of users. The only decent training we could find (marketing videos aside) was a single video series on Lynda.com which, of course, was an additional cost. In the end that video didn’t really help our users much beyond introductory concepts.
- IBM includes reporting, but it’s a massive Cognos system requiring some serious hardware and Cognos expertise. We had neither, and would have ultimately opted for a 3rd party add-on for reporting and statistics.
- An often overlooked concern is eDiscovery. Our contracted eDiscovery service extensively works with various ECMs, but had no idea how they would handle Connections data. The cloud version of Connections offers an add-on for eDiscovery, but as far as we could tell IBM offered nothing for on-premises deployments.
- IBM Connections 5.0 on-premises provided our pilot groups with better overall communications. Communities sprang up around projects, teams, departments, and even topics like new technologies. As the groups expanded their usage, they found posting Status updates, new or updated Files, and so forth really helped everyone keep up.
- Throughout our pilot we kept noticing that despite the availability of tools like Blogs, Wikis, etc., our users tended to primarily use Microsoft Office documents instead. Even "millennials" coming in expected full, native support to view and edit Microsoft Office files from the web UI. IBM Docs appears to be a suitable replacement but adds cost to the solution overall.
- Most of the admins, developers and technical support staff at our organization are heavily Microsoft-centric and find IBM software difficult to integrate, support and find training for.
- The Connections on-premises server environment is a complex one, requiring either extensive in-house skill with IBM technologies or costly consulting. SMBs should look to the cloud version instead.
We have not yet evaluated any particular products in depth; we had fully expected to move forward with Connections on-premises.
However, we have briefly looked at SmartCloud / Connections Cloud which is, of course, very similar but maintained and updated by IBM. We have also briefly looked into Office 365 which has several advantages, being (A) Microsoft Office, (B) broadly available training (live, video, etc.) and (C) enthusiastic support from most of IT and many end users. However, Office 365 is much more expensive.
If you work in a large company with lots of IT resources experienced with IBM tech such as WebSphere, DB2, etc., then I’d change the recommendation to an 8 for IBM Connections on-premises. Users really loved working in IBM Connections despite various gaps they found, and it seems that IBM is very responsive to customer feedback. Many new features in the last few releases were first suggested by customers.
Similarly, if you work in an SMB and are looking at IBM Connections online (or SmartCloud or whatever IBM calls it these days), then I’d probably also say 8 assuming the cloud version is at least as good as the on-premises version. My guess is that the cloud version is probably better, given IBM’s cloud-first strategy, and don’t forget that the cloud version includes IBM Docs.
If, however, you are in an SMB with a budget-constrained IT staff who are mostly familiar with Microsoft and who find it difficult to work with anything non-Microsoft, then IBM Connections on-premises is probably not going to work well in your organization. I’d score it a 4 in that case. Even if it works well for end-users today, as time goes on it seems users discover more gaps with the software. IBM is not quick to put out new versions of their on-premises software, either. The primary reasons I think on-premises is a tough sell in this scenario are the high cost of consulting (which has a side effect of further delaying the introduction of new features), the lack of an office document editor built-in, and the lack of training for both IT and end-users alike.
IBM Connections Feature Ratings
Evaluating IBM Connections and Competitors
- Product Features
- Product Usability
- Product Reputation
- Prior Experience with the Product
- Analyst Reports
- Third-party Reviews
Evaluation Lessons Learned
IBM Connections Support
IBM Connections Customer Support Pros and Cons
Problems get solved
Kept well informed
No escalation required
Immediate help available
Support understands my problem
Support cares about my success
Quick Initial Response
Exceptional Examples of IBM Connections Support
Using IBM Connections
Usability Pros and Cons
Like to use
Easy to use
Technical support not required
Quick to learn
Feel confident using
- Status Updates are brilliant. Always 1 or 2 clicks away.
- Profiles are really great, especially when you need to find or contact someone from the mobile app.
- File sync is super easy, and on the mobile app that's a really big thing to get right.
- Customizing Communities is pretty straightforward and IBM provides a fair amount of customization to help each Community.
- Consuming blog posts on the mobile app is a really immersive experience.
- Customizing notifications for end-users is really nice -- but it had to be enabled on the back-end (by modifying some XML file).
- Ideation Blogs are extremely helpful and easy to use.
- User adoption went very well thanks to IBM's clever implementations of common social concepts such as Liking, Following, Tags, #hashtags, and so forth.
- Wikis are weak. We wanted to see more control, more security, more presentation options, more structuring options, etc. Many wiki solutions offer a lot more flexibility. Even in the mobile app, wikis were not easy to navigate and cannot be edited.
- Working with Microsoft Office files from the web UI was a download-edit-upload process. Users were not willing to do that.
- The Windows Explorer plug-in is not as intuitive as it should be. Communities are not automatically added and Tags are not readily exposed.
- Activities are valuable but quickly get messy. A Kanban-style 3rd party implementation is much cleaner but of course costs extra.
- Software patches on the back-end are cumbersome, time consuming and the process is not entirely clear.
Mobile Interface Availability and Impressions
IBM Connections Reliability
Scaling UP is never an issue with IBM's core technologies like WebSphere, DB2, etc. as long as you have or can find the technical resources to implement it.
Where IBM seems to fail is scaling DOWN for smaller organizations. Connections 5.0 on-premises would have required us to create 7 servers -- yes, they would be virtualized, but still that's 7 OS licenses, 40 virtual CPU cores, 80GB RAM, and a few TB of hard disk space. All to replace Quick which runs on 1 server with 1 OS license, 4 cores, 8GB RAM and 600GB of disk. Granted, there are major differences in capabilities between the two, but how do you get a CFO understand why features like a mobile app, file sync, and social sharing require 10x the back-end resources?