Business-class mobile messaging is not a do-it-yourself project. It would be good if a mobile connection to the Internet meant that my mail server could hunt me down wherever I am and toss my mail to me. Instead, I’ve had to settle for using my phone as a modem and, later, forwarding new mail headers to my phone as text messages. But none of my tricks worked reliably.
Luckily, there are two mobile e-mail vendors well equipped to handle this task. Both Good Technology’s GoodLink and BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) from Research In Motion (RIM) use push technology to deliver new e-mail to a reachable handheld using common wireless networks. Other messaging-related data, including calendars, address books, and folders, is kept in sync with in-house servers using the same push technique.
GoodLink Server and BES software augment existing Microsoft Exchange infrastructure (RIM also handles Lotus Notes), forming an end-to-end solution that connects Exchange, the GoodLink or BlackBerry server, the handheld, the wireless carrier, and Good or RIM subscription services in an intricate pipeline.
Good and RIM have done a lot of work to make this rocket science easy for customers to roll out and manage. The result is a pair of solutions that are, in basic structure, almost indistinguishable (the pair were in litigation, but it is now settled). Both do exactly what they claim and do it efficiently with a minimum of administrative or user overhead.
RIM's service traditionally uses the company's own BlackBerry client devices (see our review) giving Good an opportunity to promote its service on other hardware including the Handspring Treo 600 (reviewed here). This difference is getting more negligible, as RIM is getting its client software on other devices, including a recently-launched Siemens phone, and has clients for devices including Palms.
I have tested the full GoodLink and BlackBerry solutions in the lab and in the field, and present a review of RIM's BES software here, with the GoodLink review to follow.
RIM by a nose
Though both products are very good, RIM's BES wins the day in essential features and overall architecture. The installation process for BES is cleaner and more automated than that for GoodLink Server and RIM gives administrators more powerful, finer-grained control over users, security, and services.
RIM sent a BlackBerry 7230 handheld with a copy of BES Version 3.6. I installed BES on a dual-processor Opteron server from MSI, running Windows 2003 Server, and chose Exchange Server 2000. I used Microsoft Virtual Server to let BES run independently from Exchange without complicating the test environment.
Regardless of device, it’s the guts of the client that make BES (and GoodLink) worth carrying. It takes considerable science to turn an unreliable wireless network into a conduit for reliable messaging. Rather than try to teach your Exchange server to deal with wireless devices, both products use vendor-hosted operations centres to manage the communication. Device presence, front-line security, push events and sync queuing are handled by the off-site centres.
For BES, the device registration and authorisation process (called "provisioning") is handled on-site and is completely automatic. To add a handheld device to your wireless messaging network, you dock it at either the user’s desk or a dedicated shared management station.
If you use BES with the proprietary BlackBerry handheld, the product has complete control of the client device, so its security policies apply to the entire device rather than just the messaging client software. This method has its advantages: for example, if a unit goes missing, an admin can send a priority kill command that erases all data and disables the device. Installation is also easy. BES uses a unified installer; when you choose a “typical” configuration, it’s load and go.
BES also includes three significant features: MDS (Mobile Data Services), wireless reconciliation and server-based attachment processing:
- Mobile Data Services establishes an independent conduit through which arbitrary data can be pushed to and exchanged with clients. In its simplest configuration, MDS allows users controlled access to dynamic intranet services that are not only repositories for files and documents, but also interactive channels for the exchange of task-specific data. Custom development on the BlackBerry client side is accelerated by the platform’s use of Java and RIM’s free and complete set of development tools.
- Wireless reconciliation is an optional BES feature that gives handhelds the ability to delete and move Exchange messages, files, and folders, and to have those changes synchronised to an Exchange account. This could be considered dangerous, but it’s an option I use consistently. When I delete my old messages, it means I don’t ever want to see them again.
- Handling attachments is important in any mobile email system, and BES’s approach, makes good use of bandwidth, as well as the devices' limited memory and small displays. When you ask to view an attachment, BES tears the file apart on the server and renders it as an XML-based SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) standard document. Through one SVG viewer, BES displayed PowerPoint, PDF, Word, Excel, and text attachments very clearly on the BlackBerry 7230’s anti-aliased color display. Anything that can be rendered as SVG can be delivered this way as small, scalable, easily compressed files that transmit efficiently and are suitable for saving with a message.
May the BES man win
RIM hits a high plane with wireless reconciliation, one-step provisioning, a unified installation process, push-based file and intranet connectivity, multiple authentication models, full admin control of devices, and server-side handling of rich document attachments. A messaging system can only do what its servers and admin tools allow, and BES has a long list of features I look for.
RIM's client technology is powerful and extensible (through Java), and BlackBerry handhelds are optimised for fleet deployment and strong central control. BES is focused on full, efficient remote access to corporate resources, including intranets and large PDF and Office documents.