HipChat and Slack alternatives

Chitchat

© Lead Image © Yanik Chauvin, fotolia.com

© Lead Image © Yanik Chauvin, fotolia.com

Article from Issue 190/2016
Author(s):

HipChat and Slack are in when it comes to communicating with customers or colleagues, but data security is out. InspIRCd, Rocket.Chat, or Mattermost are better alternatives.

When you want to communicate with colleagues over a distance – whether between offices or between cities – email is always an option, but not the best if you just need a quick answer to a simple question or need some face time. Most companies have established real-time communication through the use of some kind of chat service, and employees often use these same systems for chatting with customers.

Two services have become particularly popular in recent years: HipChat [1] and Slack [2]. Although they are easy to use, your data resides on the hosts' servers in the US, which does not have a good record of digital privacy and security. In this article, I present three alternatives to Slack and HipChat: InspIRCd [3], Mattermost [4], and Rocket.Chat [5]. A test team set out to discover whether you need your own client software with these three alternatives and to determine how well each candidate accommodates business use.

Basics

HipChat and Slack are successful for many reasons. First, they are easy to use within a web browser, which means it isn't necessary to install a client (although HipChat does have a desktop client if you want it). Second, the software provider normally hosts both services, so you don't have to run your own infrastructure, and there's no need for troubleshooting. Finally, both systems also provide useful additional features, such as formatting for code, automatic link previews, or the integration of photos in ongoing chat sessions.

However, hosting is what worries most companies. Anyone who communicates with colleagues over a chat service can't be sure that internal or confidential information doesn't also use the same channels. With HipChat, the data ends up directly on Amazon servers. It's pretty similar with Slack. Companies who want to protect sensitive data could feel uncomfortable about placing their data on servers in a country where data privacy has a rather tarnished image, and you have to address the inevitable question of how to prevent company data from being leaked.

InspIRCd

Much has changed in the technology of real-time chat over the past 15 years. Some chat software builds on the IRC protocol, which does without encryption, whereas others are web based and provide TLS out of the box. InspIRCd's name reveals that it is an IRC server, although that's no proof of added value: Almost all IRC servers are related, and rarely are they easy for administrators to operate.

The IRC protocol is one of the oldest communication protocols of the Internet. Although it is documented in detail in an RFC [6], no established IRC servers are actually based on this RFC. Instead, over the years, many admins thought it was a good idea to expand the protocol with more and newer functions; thus, a zoo of inflated IRC servers has developed.

InspIRCd claims to be different. It isn't a fork of the UnrealIRCd [7]; rather, it is a completely new development programmed in C++. The developers promise that InspIRCd therefore doesn't suffer from the bugs and limitations that make life difficult for administrators with other IRC daemons.

As early as the installation process you might become dubious of InspIRCd, because you won't find it in any server distributions. Neither SUSE, Red Hat, Debian, nor Ubuntu have packages. The developers only provide an installer for Windows. Anyone wanting to use the service on a Linux distribution will have to fire up the compiler. Although it's feasible, it's not exactly convenient.

Bundles of Features

A look at InspIRCd's list of features gives more reason for doubting its ease of use. On the program's wiki, the developers compare their work with other popular IRC servers and determine quite succinctly that InspIRCd can do pretty much everything that has ever been invented in terms of functionality with IRC servers. Basic configuration is pretty easy in the beginning, but you need to do plenty of reading of the relevant documentation to use the advanced features (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Configuring InspIRCd is a test of patience for administrators and requires reading a lot of documentation.

InspIRCd incorporates all its functionality in very little code, so compared with UnrealIRCd, it manages with fewer than half of the lines of code. However, it still supports SSL encryption if the client provides the necessary prerequisites. InspIRCd can also be combined with additional services. For example, if you are in need of a bot that manages certain channels, you can link it with InspIRCd.

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