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Aaron’s blog on Networking, and Enterprise Technology

A second look at Lotus Notes

There is still alot of bad blood about Lotus Notes.  Some people have absolute frightful feelings about it.  Usually stemming from the Lotus 4.5/5.0 days.  Don’t get me wrong, I completely sympathize with those users.  Those versions of Lotus just didn’t cut it.  The learning curve was high, and the interface was counter-intuitive.

I was a part of this thinking.  I used Lotus back in the 4.5/5.0 days (circa 1999-2001).  I then became an Exchange Administrator for the last 8 years (Exchange 5.5/2000/2003).

Enter Lotus 8.0+.  If you haven’t looked at it, really keep an open mind on the new version of Lotus.  Not only did they remake the entire user interface, but they have also implemented features that they should have had years ago, like “Message Recall”, “Single Object Storage” (IBM calls it DAOS), or storing the user’s contacts on the server, instead of just the local workstation.  Also, you can now store your contacts on the server, and have instantaneous out-0f-0ffice messages, rather than waiting the default 6 hours.

If you still feel like Lotus is still in the Stone Age, check out the new features of 8.5.

Some of my favorite features of Lotus vs Exchange/Outlook:

  • Scalability – It’s easier to scale in Lotus.  Clustering is super-easy.  You practically need a PhD in Windows systems to achieve good clustering, and maintaining it.
  • Reliability – Exchange, everything is in a single database.  the larger the database, the more prone to corruption.  If the database is corrupted, email stops.  Period.  Lotus, everything has it’s own database, including mailboxes.  One database gets corrupted, only one mailbox is affected.
  • Client Managability – The policies you can push out meet or exceed what Active Directory can do with Outlook. Whether it is archiving, client configurations, inbox size management, etc.
  • Server Managability – Domino uses SNMP standard to manage from 3rd party packages.  Exchange uses WMI, which is a proprietary protocol, and usually requires proprietary systems to manage.  Analysis and Reporting (both scheduled and on-demand) are available in the Domino Admin client.
  • Security – Lotus security is built-in, out of the box.  It uses x.509 certificates for authentication and encryption.  You have to enable that in Exchange, and is still a nightmare.
  • Migration – ohhhh. this is a big one.  Everytime Microsoft releases a new version, there isn’t a way to do an in-place upgrade.  First, you have to upgrade Active Directory.  Then, install new servers, and plan a migration.  Domino, most of the time, you can just do an in-place upgrade.
  • Platform – This is easy.  What platform do you think Exchange needs?  Domino/Lotus runs on AS400, Linux, Mac, and Windows.
  • Licensing – No need to expand.  Anything to get out of the Microsoft Licensing nightmare.  One user license is all you need for Lotus.  You can install the server as much as you want, to support the user licenses.
  • Chat – Built-in to Lotus, available if you want.

I’m not going to go more into it.  There are alot of features that I like about the new version of Lotus, but the list can just go on and on.  Check it out for yourself.

For those that refuse to check it out, simply because of past experience, you are allowing your pride and stubborness to prevent you from really seeing the greatness of Lotus.

Do I think it is for everyone?  No, certainly not.  But I do want those that hate Lotus to give it a chance.  If you still hate it, no problem.  But, stop saying Lotus is the worse thing in the world, without giving the new version a chance.

Are there things that I still think they can enhance?  Absolutely.  Probably my biggest rant, is the caching of read/unread status.  Sharing multiple mailboxes is a huge headache because of this.



17 responses to “A second look at Lotus Notes

  1. David Leedy August 20, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Great post!! I really like your thoughts Exchange vs. Domino. I’m a Notes person myself and only have an impression of Exchange. It’s nice to see a comparison from someone who’s actually used both.

    • Aaron Paxson August 20, 2009 at 9:51 am

      Thanks David! Now, there are things that Exchange does better than Notes in some areas. But, overall, I believe Domino 8.5 is the winner when looking at the overall picture.

  2. Aecio F. Neto August 20, 2009 at 11:44 am

    Agree totally about what you said regarding 4.5 and some later versions.
    Notes client interface has always been non-standard. Read non-standard as not similar to the MS way to go…

    Well, just to contribute with your terrific explanation: IMHO all bullet items above are true for most comparison of the email feature of Domino and Exchange in any of their versions. I.E.:
    a) since version 3 (the oldest one I had used), Notes has personal mail files instead of a huge one for everybody;
    b) Domino server clusters have always been easy to deploy since this feature was added. An experienced Domino admin knows that some caution are needed for failover, balancing, etc. But it is truly simple to start it.

    It is important to make it clear that all these favorable benefits are native from Domino since R4.6, R5 or R6.
    Version 8.5 is indeed an amazing milestone and – this is very important – we are just talking about mail support! Application and workflow fast development would be for another post…

    P.S. Notes is so powerful (IMO) that user mail file is just a specific application built on top of its collaborative framework. So, all sort of improvements are changes can also be done in this application. Nice, right?

  3. Ian Randall August 24, 2009 at 2:08 am

    Nice comparison of Domino and Exchange from the perspective of a System Administrator. The enhancements to the user interface for most users is most obviously evident in the Mail & Calendar functionality of the Lotus Notes client and to this same functionality through the Web browser interface.

    However, many users also use other collaborative applications (in addition to email & calendar). The enhancements to the Lotus Notes user interface are also evident in many of these other applications.

    One huge advantage of the Lotus/Domino environment over Exchange and other collaborative software is the full backward compatibility of the Lotus Notes environment. This means that when upgrading to a new version of Notes there has never been need to modify any of the existing applications so that they will run in the upgraded environment (unless you specifically want to take advantage of new features).

    For organisations that have hundreds or even thousands of custom Lotus Notes Applications, or operate in mixed client environments (i.e. with a mixture of Notes rich clients running on PC’s or Apple Macs, or with some users that access the same systems through a variety of Web browser there is only one development environment in Lotus Notes.

    20 years of full backward compatibility encourage significant confidence in Lotus Notes Developers that this same level of compatibility will be supported by Lotus into the future. When I compare that one factor with other vendors, I don’t have the same level of confidence (if history and past performance is anything to measure these vendors by). Of all vendors, only Lotus appears to have made this commitment to full backward compatibility.

    While Microsoft and other vendors point to Notes with negative comments, about it’s old and tired user interface, I think that the only reason that some of these competitive offerings don’t suffer from the same criticism is that these vendors broke their older code several versions ago, or break it every time a new version of their application is released or upgraded to.

    I wonder how many billions of dollars have been wasted over the last 20 years to simply give people back what functionality they currently have when software was updated? This backward compatibility also allows multiple versions of Lotus Notes to coexist happily in the same corporate network, making upgrades much easier because it’s not an all or nothing decision.

  4. Peter Wilson August 24, 2009 at 4:02 am

    I hope I don’t have to wait for Notes 12 for a simple “Redo” function to match the “Undo” feature that arrived in Notes 7….


  5. Thomas Bahn August 24, 2009 at 9:59 am

    @Pete: Do you know http://www.ideajam.net/ ?

    Undo and Redo: I miss(ed) this functionality, too…

  6. Richard Schwartz August 24, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Can you elaborate on the caching issue with read/unread marks, and the relationship to shared mailboxes? I’ve certainly had plenty of problems with unread marks over the years, but I just don’t see the connection to shared mailboxes.

    • Aaron Paxson August 24, 2009 at 1:47 pm


      When I give 2 users access to another mail-in database, the read/unread status doesn’t get sync’d. Here is my understanding:

      User 1 sees an email with the Subject, “Stuff” from Joe. User 1 opens the email (now showing the read status), and replies. Because the read/unread status is cached on User 1’s computer, User 2 does not see it.

      User 2 sees an email with the Subject, “Stuff” from Joe, and is still unread (cached on User1’s machine). User 2 ALSO replies to Joe.

      Because we can’t control when the cache get’s sync’d back up to the mailbox, this causes alot of issues in my user community.

      I hope I explained this well.

      • David Leedy August 24, 2009 at 2:06 pm

        Unread marks are done at a USER level. So if you have a mail-in db with more then one person monitoring it, the unread marks are going to be reflective to the individual user. While it might not be what you want in this case it does make sense. User1 might read an e-mail but user2 did NOT so it’s unread to him. Don’t think of it as a mail database. It could be a Help Ticket database for instance.

        Technically the unread marks are not cached on the ‘computer’. Notes maintains them per user. So if User1 goes to another machine the Unread marks status will be the same. At least in theory – Unread marks can be ‘finnicky’.

        I’m not sure what the common approach to shared mail is. I don’t do a ton with it. I’d say that the person who handles it should move the mail out of the inbox or you add a status field. Though anything that relies on the user is doomed to fail.

        there is a new method in r8 called “MarkRead”. It takes any username as a parameter. I guess there is the potential where there could be a piece of code attached to the Open of the document and then Mark the document read for say anyone in the ACL. In theory that might solve your problem…

        That’s one of the good things about Notes. Everything is a database. Even the email. If you don’t like something there’s a good chance you can change it.

        Does that make sense?

      • Aaron Paxson August 24, 2009 at 2:15 pm

        David, that is how I explain it to the users (though, thanks for clarifying the cache storage).

        Unfortunately, it doesn’t make them feel any better. They simply say, “Well, Outlook did that, why can’t Notes?”.

        It’s a give and take, I’m afraid.

      • David Leedy August 24, 2009 at 2:36 pm

        I agree. It’s always tough talking to a user about something that’s different from what they expect. Now it’s an opinion of what’s right or wrong when it doesn’t matter since you will almost never convince the user of that anyway.

        If the users access the shared mail from the SAME ID, then that would solve your problem. You could set them up with another location that automatically switches their id to the shared id. A potential advantage of this is that now any replys they send have the shared id’s name on it and not their personal names. Of course they need to remember to switch back and all that.

        Unread marks are just not a good way to determine status. did you know the INSERT key will easily toggle the unread mark on and off?
        The mail template has folders, Quick Flags, etc, for moving mail around. And as noted before unread marks can get messed up far too easily…

      • Aaron Paxson August 24, 2009 at 3:26 pm

        Right now, to allow auto-responses and users to “share” an outgoing email address, we use teammail. But, as we are discussing, has the issue of unread status sync’ing.

        I didn’t want to create the “shared id” simply because I didn’t want the user to do anything manually. If there is a way to specify an ID automatically when accessing the database, that will solve all my problems!! I can then, setup an agent for auto-responses.

        David, thanks for the fantastic discussion and advice!

  7. Richard Schwartz August 24, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    David has indeed done a great job explaining.

    There is no way to specify an ID that is specific to a database. There is a way to bind an ID to a location document, so when users are in their own mail they would select the “Me @ office” location (or some such), whereas when they want to use the shared mailbox they would switch to the “Shared mailbox” location (or some other appropriate name). But this is an extra user action, which you don’t want.

    The most effective solution to this would be to (a) modify the QueryOpen code to set a field that “claims” the message for current user (if the message isn’t already claimed!), and put a hide-when condition on the standard “Reply” action that hides it for everyone except the user with the current claim. You could also provide things like a prompt to “Release Claim” if the user closes the message without replying, so that someone can decide not to reply after opening (which you would have to remember to do manually in Outlook if you are relying on unread marks), a single-step “Claim and Reply” button as a shortcut from the view level, and indicators at the view level to show what messages have been claimed and/or replied to by whom.

    No, it’s not out of the box functionality… but really neither is Outlook (especially if you set it up in cached mode, which I think most organizations and users prefer). Yes it’s a pain in the butt having to explain to users who like Outlook that it really doesn’t do the job as well as Notes, because from their perspective Outlook always (or nearly always) was good enough for the job, but I think most users understand how critically important it is that you’re not relying on users manually resetting an unread mark to assure that there’s no confusion about which work items are still outstanding. And when it comes down to it, it’s a heck of a lot easier to build a truly bullet-proof work queue management system on top of standard Notes mail functionality than it is to build such a thing on top of Outlook.

    That said, David’s description of unread marks in Notes as “finnicky” is being more generous than I would be. Unreliable in the long-run is what I’d unfortunately have to say.

  8. Dan Holzrichter August 25, 2009 at 8:13 am

    A few other things:

    1. live mailbox moves. This is one thing that has taken MS forever to fix. When you move a mailbox in exchange it has to be taken offline . (this is supposed to be changed in the new version)

    Want to replicate large amounts of data like in Notes and then just switch users over to a different replica in another data center? Yeah, so do I. It’s not a hypothetical process. We used to do it all the time for server consolidation and for acquisitions. (This may work in 2010 but we’ll have to wait and see.)

    2. MAPI over a WAN. Try running blackberry servers in a central location with servers that are dispersed. Even with plenty of bandwith (OC3), the latency of MAPI causes problems. Time to buy more BB servers.

    3. Database maintenance. If you want to compact a database you need to take it offline. Get ready to spend your evenings and weekends doing maintenance that should be automatic. (What version did online compact com with V4?)

    4. Administration tools. It just amazes me how bad the tools are from MS when comparing them to Notes/Domino. Want a visual display of your servers like in Notes? Get ready to pony up some cash for another tool since it’s not included. Also, learn powershell since doing things from the GUI is slow even when run on the server and is dreadful when you are running it remote (try opening up the smtp settings for servers that are not local and see how long it takes. It’s not like changing settings in the domino directory…)

    There are some areas that are much better with exchange:

    1.account management. Notes id’s are great for security, encryption, etc, but it’s still easier in exchange especially for people using windows (which is still nearly everyone.)

    2. Powershell integration. The best thing they put into exchange 2007. Not too hard to learn and very powerful. Almost makes up for the fact that you can’t create agents or copy/paste like in domino (almost).

  9. Atilla Öztürk August 28, 2009 at 6:23 am

    Nice article. Compressed though, but it gives you some rough information, how Lotus changed itself since the nightmare versions nearly 10 years ago.

    Of course there much much more advantages compared to MS Exchange/Outlook.

    But we need to add three residing big advantage in Notes vs. MS Exchange/Outlook – Pendant:
    1. Backward Compatability of Applications and collaborative databases
    2. Great Application Development Platform (and now enriched with Eclipse IDE & ‘XPages’)
    3. Replication

    For serious Companies with no further interests in feeding the MS Hog, Lotus 8.5 is the “Eierlegende Wollmilchsau”
    ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eierlegende_Wollmilchsau ).

    Biggest Con of Lotus for me: IBM’s marketing & PR strategy for Lotus is sluggish…


  10. Ken Hawkins November 18, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    I’m just wondering when IBM will release production code. Lotus Notes has been a beta for like 20 years now. I am currently using 8.1 and it still has many of the same bugs that were there in version 4. I have yet to see the “enhancements” in the interface that were refereed to. I have been in the IT industry for 25 years now and have used many different platforms. Lotus Notes/Domino are, by far, the worst. It reminds me of a grade school programming project. There are TONS of totally stupid things that make no sense.

    Why have preferences located in 4 different areas? Why must I delete the messages that are in a folder before I remove the folder? Any junior programmer should be able to do better or look for another job.

    There are some nice features in Notes but who cares. I spend more time trying to work around the poor programming that any nice feature gets lost. I would describe Notes as a bug with some usable features.

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