CGIAR staff frequently use online tools to communicate with colleagues and partners around the globe. Many of these tools have made a significant, positive impact on the way staff work by facilitating communication and information sharing.

Until recently, some CGIAR Centers used Microsoft’s Live Communications Server (LCS) version 2005, an internal instant messaging (IM) system that integrates other IM applications (MSN, AOL and Yahoo) using a single client. LCS wasn’t deployed widely in the CGIAR mainly because the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) conversations between Centers didn’t work properly. This was due to the different security levels and network environments across Centers, as well as some limitations with LCS itself.  In addition, the implementation of LCS incurred monthly costs for server maintenance and per-user licensing charges.

Consequently, the decision has been made to remove LCS from the CGIAR’s portfolio of services come September 2009 and explore alternatives.

As the Technical Coordinator of the ICT-KM program, I’ve been working with a group of CGIAR IT managers over the past few months to research possible cost-effective alternatives to replace LCS.  The objective is to find a tool (or set of tools) that:

  • doesn’t incur high licensing and server maintenance costs
  • has a user management that can be integrated with CGIAR Active Directory, which presently has over 8500 users
  • allows users to make calls to landlines and mobile phones at low rates given the high cost of communications between Centers and with CGIAR partners and to a much lesser extent within Centers

With these requirements in mind, we started exploring GTalk and Skype, both of which are applications in the cloud.

While a system-wide decision is yet to be made, I would like to share the information I’ve collected so far about these tools and present a comparison table.

Google Talk (GTalk) gtalk1

In mid 2008, the CGIAR tried out Google Apps as a suite of collaboration tools. The ICT-KM Program gathered the feedback from users and published it in the CGIAR Google Apps Case Study Report. Then, in January 2009, it was decided to implement Google Apps Education edition to replace the CGXchange BEA Aqualogics infrastructure and take advantage of the collaboration tools in the Google Apps package:  Docs, Sites, Calendar, Google Talk, etc.

GTalk Downloadble Client

GTalk Downloadble Client

Google Talk is a free web-based application for instant messaging and voice over internet protocol (VOIP), offered by Google Inc.

Instant messaging between the Google Talk servers and its clients uses an open protocol, XMPP, allowing users of other XMPP clients to communicate with Google Talk users.

GoogleTalk allows users to sync their “screenname,” so to speak, with their e-mail account so they are alerted when they receive new mail, thereby eliminating the need to frequently check their accounts.   email_alerts
The first beta version of the program was released on 24 August 2005. At first, it was only possible to use Google Talk via the Gmail interface, but now users can download  a program to keep in touch with contacts and that’s available for Windows systems only.
Although the Google Talk program has room for further improvement, it allows for a bit of flexibility that other IM programs don’t. For example, most other lite or express IM versions require the use of JavaScript and other scripts to run from the web.

One of the advantages of Google Talk is that you can access it either through your personal Gmail account or your Google Apps account (if you are in the CGIAR), making it easier to keep in touch with contacts.
GTalk in the mail page

It also works with any operating system through the web, whereas some other popular programs do not always allow users to sign in over the web depending on the type of computer and Internet connection used.

Google Talk also allows the Google Talk Gadget to be added to personal website or blogs simply by pasting some code in the site’s HTML.

Google Talk also allows the Google Talk Gadget to be added to personal website or blogs simply by pasting some code in the site’s HTML.
In summary, you can use Google Talk through the downloadable client, Gmail or the Google Talk Gadget. Please note that the features in these three approaches are not the same and this may create confusion. As such, it would be useful if Google could incorporate the same features in all the options they offer.

For more information about Google Talk, click here.


skype1, another popular VoIP software with IM functionality, is already more widely used than Google Talk in the CGIAR. Skype, which has been owned by eBay since 2005, is free to download and has more than 443 million users around the world as of March 2009  (according to EBay).

One of the main differences between Google Talk and Skype is that the latter allows users to make free PC-to-PC calls as well as low-cost long-distance or international phone calls to landlines and mobile phones over the Internet.

Skype uses a peer-to-peer protocol and offers voicemail, chat, videoconferencing and an expanding array of additional services. Skype is not a replacement for ordinary telephones and cannot be used for emergency calling.

Source: Skype

Source: Skype

While Skype was originally intended for personal communications, the service also offers significant appeal as a low-cost, long-distance service for businesses, particularly for companies that need to communicate internationally.

There are some 3rd-party Skype solutions for business such as  Skip2PBX and VoSky Exchange to name a few that offer the possibility of integrating Skype with their PBX systems. However, Skype has begun testing a connection to corporate VoIP systems (Skype For SIP for Business Users), something that enterprises have been asking for years and which is currently undergoing beta testing.

Although Skype is a great tool for making competitively priced calls to landlines and mobile phones, I feel it needs to improve its online presence indicator – sometimes, online users are shown as being offline when their status if set to online. I’ve also received some instant messages several days after they were sent. In short, the IM feature is not always so ‘instant’ after all.

For more information about Skype, click here

Comparison between Google Talk and Skype

See the Google Talk and Skype comparison table


In my opinion, Google Talk is more enterprise-oriented than Skype, has a good level of security, requires less bandwidth, collaborative features that work well with the implementation of Google Applications Education Edition (CGX 2.0), and integrates with our Active Directory through third-party tools, to name just a few advantages.

Skype, on the other hand, is an application with many interesting features that Google Talk doesn’t have at the moment, such as the ability to establish a conference call with up to five people at a time and the ability to make phone calls to mobiles and landlines worldwide at low rates. However, this software requires more bandwidth than Google Talk and it is blocked in some CGIAR Centers as a result.

In summary, there is no single tool that does it all. At the moment I use Google Talk mostly for work-related purposes since it’s directly linked with the Google Apps CGX 2.0 collaboration workspace and with external partners or friends that have Gmail accounts.

I mostly use Skype for personal communications or when I need to make international phone calls or send a text message.  I hope Google introduces a feature that will allow users to make phone calls to landlines and mobile phones at low-rates with Google Talk. Google is working on  Google Voice, the next version of Grand Central (presently in private beta), which will allow users to make international calls, conference calls and send text messages. However, it’s not known if Google Voice will be integrated with Google Talk. If that were to happen, we would have a real killer application at our disposal.

Keep a look out for the full report on the ‘Selection of a communication tool in the CGIAR’ – to be published soon!

Until the next time, the question still begs: GTalk, Skype or both?