MS plans to fold mobile server into Exchange, ISA

Microsoft Corp. signalled a major shift in its mobile infrastructure strategy recently when it announced plans to deconstruct its stand-alone mobile access server and integrate the pieces into its other back-end servers.

Even as it released the latest enhancements to the stand-alone server, called Mobile Information Server (MIS) 2002, Microsoft announced MIS will be phased out over the next 18 months. Its mobile access pieces will instead be backed into some of Microsoft’s enterprise servers, most notably Exchange and Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server.

“We thought the right strategy was to have a mobile server, but now we want to make mobile access as pervasive in the platform as Web access,” said Chuck Sabin, product manager for MIS. “What we are changing is how we package and deliver the mobile access functionality. The product functionality is still there.”

MIS provides access from wireless devices to corporate data and Windows-based applications such as Exchange. Since its initial release nearly two years ago, MIS, which supports security, authentication, protocol rendering and data presentation, has been closely aligned with Exchange. Ultimately, however, it was to provide wireless access to an enterprise’s Microsoft platform.

MIS’ elimination means that IT executives will no longer have to deploy a separate server to provide secure mobile and wireless access to back-end data and applications. But it also means that IT executives will find it harder to consider competing products, since mobile features will be built into the servers they already buy from Microsoft.

“Whether or not we can use our current provider for mobile access is a big issue,” said one network manager who asked not to be identified. “And I’m really concerned about the ISA firewall and if we would be locked in. It will take some further investigation.”

What is clear is that the Mobile Gateway in MIS, which provides security and authentication, will be integrated into the next version of ISA. That means IT executives would have to deploy ISA to get those critical wireless services.

Microsoft officials said they would eventually support mobile gateways from other vendors but did not offer a time frame.

“I see this all as jockeying to get infrastructure pieces aligned properly,” said Greg Scott, IS manager for the Oregon State University College of Business. “Wireless has lots of potential but it’s still a ways out.”

Some say the move by Microsoft is inevitable in a world where client devices are rapidly expanding beyond the PC and that other vendors will soon follow suit. IBM, for example, is bundling its Everyplace mobile server with its WebSphere Application Server. It is still a separate server, however, and is not integrated into WebSphere.

“It is critically important that platform providers realize it is a multi-client world and they need to acknowledge that in their basic architectures,” said Jim Kobielus, an analyst with The Burton Group in Midvale, Utah. “Microsoft may be a bit ahead of the curve on this.”

Kobielus said it makes sense to pull the Outlook Mobile Access gateway into Exchange because that means Exchange has authority over the user interface it presents to any device.