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Lotus Notes/Domino

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Like the Apple Macintosh, Lotus Notes is a product which steadfastly refuses to die however often the doomsayers predict its imminent and certain death.

Lotus Notes was groupware before the term groupware ever existed. It was the first widely-available application to support distributed working through the process of replication, and, as many people agree, still does this better than any other product on the market. The Notes Server (now renamed Domino) is the most widely used email server software in the world1, and the Notes mail client is resistant to all those so-called 'script-kiddie' viruses because it has execution controls built in which prevent malicious code from executing.

It has a built-in development environment which allows extensive customisation and the development of some really sophisticated applications, which in turn has led to a thriving developer community, actively supported by the programmers of Notes and Domino, Iris Associates. Domino's built-in web server, originally based on Apache, is stable and secure, and renders Notes-rich text content (which is editable using a simple graphical interface in Notes) without HTML coding.

Technically, Lotus Notes is based on an object store - it's not a relational database, although it can access relational data using various connectors (or natively if the data is in IBM DB2).

Bad Points

The Notes client is often clunky, and not as intuitive or easy to use as competing software from Microsoft and others. Many end users didn't care that the software provided unparalleled workflow capabilities, world-leading distributed working and a stable, secure platform for groupware development. They liked the drag-and-drop, touchy-feely Outlook client.

The new (at time of writing) interface in R5 is more snazzy but ultimately still a more cumbersome product than Outlook - and it alienated many traditional Notes users by hiding their familiar Workspace .

In these days of weekly product updates, people are also less happy to accept that product enhancements are available every four months.

Good Points

The good points of Notes are legion. From the very beginning it's had public-key encryption, replication for distributed working (including selective replication to save space on laptops), execution controls, digital signatures and robust email

Domino web servers, and Notes mail, were immune to Melissa, Code Red, Nimda, BadTrans - and remain immune to each new incarnation of the 'script-kiddie' viruses, because they are engineered to prevent unauthorised access. Improved developer tools have made it easier to provide very slick applications and websites. And content managed websites, the new hot topic, have been core functionality since 1995. Organisations as diverse as Symantec and the Central Office of Information use Notes workflows and Domino servers to publish dynamic content to the web. You can tell a Notes database, it has .nsf in the URL.

Given the ease of web-enabling Notes applications, it's perhaps not surprising that many Domino web applications look like old-fashioned Notes databases. Twisties, a device for expanding and collapsing categories, rear their ugly heads everywhere. But with careful design a Domino website can look as good as any - and it won't get hacked by the some tiresome fourteen-year-old.


In 1973 the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (CERL) at the University of Illinois released a product called PLATO Notes, designed to tag a bug report with the user's ID and the date and make the report secure so that other users couldn't delete it. The system staff could then respond to the problem report at the bottom of the screen. Secure communication between authenticated users was the basis of PLATO Notes.

In 1976, PLATO Group Notes was released. This expanded on the original concept , adding the ability for users to...

  • Create private notes files organised by subject
  • Create access lists
  • Read all notes and responses written since a certain date
  • Create anonymous notes
  • Create director message flags
  • Mark comments in a document
  • Link notes files with other Plato systems

In the 1980s the invention and development of the personal computer made the mainframe-based architecture of PLATO less cost-effective. Group Notes began to metamorphose into many other 'notes type' software products. Ray Ozzie, Tim Halvorsen, and Len Kawell worked on the PLATO operating system at CERL in the late 1970s and were impressed by its capabilities. Halvorsen and Kawell took what they learned at CERL and pioneered a PLATO Notes-like product at Digital Equipment Corporation.

Meanwhile, Ozzie worked independently on a proposal for developing a PC-based Notes product. Initially unable to obtain funding for his idea, Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation, eventually recognised the potential and decided to invest Lotus's money in the development of the product.

In July 1984, Ozzie and Kapor began working out an innovative deal which led, five months later, to the incorporation of Iris Associates Inc, under contract and funded by Lotus, in order to develop the first release of Lotus Notes. This, in effect, was a distributed organisation - before distributed organisations were invented - to build a groupware application - before groupware was thought of. True 'cutting edge' stuff.

In January 1985, shortly after Iris Associates started up, Tim Halvorsen and Len Kawell rejoined Ozzie, followed soon after by Steven Beckhardt. All brought extensive knowledge and vision to the company, as well as career-long interests in collaboration and messaging software and the product soon began to grow in capabilities.

By now there was a stable vision of Notes including: online discussion; email; phone books; and document databases. However, this vision had two problems. First, networking as we know it now, didn't exist at that time. Therefore, the developers originally had to sell the idea of Notes as a personal information manager (PIM) with some sharing capability. Second, PC operating systems were immature at that time, so they had to write a lot of system level code to develop the Name Server, databases, and networking.

Apple Computer had recently released the Macintosh, with a new easy-to-use graphical user interface. This influenced the developers of Lotus Notes, and they gave their new product a character oriented graphical user interface. In 1984 Lotus Notes provided functioning virtual communities, and it is thought to be the first true client/server application.

With the benefit of five years of history and two years of intensive development behind it, even the earliest releases of Notes were very stable and well engineered. It helped that the developers themselves used the product to communicate with each other and remotely with Lotus - the distributed working features which are still its most distinctive characteristics took shape here. Faced with the problem of synchronising data with remote sites over very low bandwidth links, the developers invented replication, a mechanism whereby two instances of the same database can be synchronised with the absolute minimum of traffic.

By August 1986 the product was substantially complete. Lotus evaluated and accepted the product and in 1987 bought the rights to Notes. The head of global accountancy firm, Price Waterhouse, viewed a demo of Lotus Notes before the first release. He was so impressed by the product that he bought 10,000 copies - at that time the largest PC sale of one product. Price Waterhouse predicted that Lotus Notes would transform the way we do business, and they were right.

Lotus Domino and R5

Notes was steadily updated, release 1 (R1) being superseded by releases up to R4.5, the interface steadily developing from character-based to graphical with the growth of Windows and the Macintosh operating system. In the mid 1990s it became apparent that the server component had untapped potential to back-end standards-based client software, including web browsers and email clients. The branding of the server changed to Lotus Domino, and began to include features like IMAP, NNTP (news), POP3, SMTP and other web standards.

Release 5 brought a complete change to the Notes user interface and extensive updating of the Domino server software. It now included a very capable web server, which built on the access control and execution control features of Notes to offer a very simple way of producing secure, authenticated applications on the web.

Notes and Domino are now a widely used and trusted set of tools on which business applications can be built. The Domino object store is flexible enough to be used for contact tracking, document management (using Domino.Doc, a companion product) and any kind of workflow.

Internet Growth

The growth of the Internet has also prompted a change in direction for the Notes client. Lotus have rebuilt much of Notes' functionality, including replication, into a web-based version called iNotes. This lets you use a web browser for mail, and take your mail offline. Offline webmail is an unusual concept, but it's very attractive to companies who don't want to manage complex client software. All the user needs is a web browser and an internet connection to get access to all the collaborative features of Notes.

In Summary

This entry was written by a Researcher who has spent the last ten years building websites using a variety of tools, managing a variety of server applications, and fighting a legion of bugs. Lotus Domino is that Researcher's favourite tool, because it generally does what you expect, and even when it fails it does so predictably and with meaningful error messages.

1Source: IDC.

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