A year after revealing a major upgrade of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server was underway, Research in Motion this week finally fleshed out what the new version will do, and put a delivery date on it.
For attendees at RIM’s annual BlackBerry conference, Wireless Enterprise Symposium, it’s welcome news.
The BES (pronounced “bez) is the locus of an enterprise BlackBerry deployment. All communications funnel through the BES, it works with the back-end mail servers Exchange or Lotus Notes, and provides some tools for administering and managing BlackBerry devices, users and the BES itself.
The upcoming release of BlackBerry Enterprise Server 5.0, codenamed Argon, is a critical piece in RIM’s effort to make its software and smartphones a foundation for next generation mobile applications. For that to happen, enterprise BlackBerry administrators need to move visibility into the BES. They also need tools to simplify and automate deploying and managing scores of mobile applications, including line of business programs. Finally, they need improvements in BES to make it more reliable and scaleable if it’s to be the linchpin for mission critical mobile business and communications.
All of these requirements are being addressed in BES 5.0.
“This is a major step forward,” says Raymond Gayoso, senior systems engineer for Fidelity Investments in Boston, which has 15,000 BlackBerry handhelds deployed. BlackBerries may start out as mainly e-mail devices, but over time, Gayoso says, they become increasingly important to business users, who see and demand ways to use it beyond scheduling meetings or responding to an urgent e-mail. “As people do more and more business on them, we need the reliability of 5.0,” he says.
At the conference, RIM executives said the current software build of the 5.0 release is already running at 10 different customer sites worldwide, part of an “early adopter” testing program. The regular beta test will start “in a couple of months,” says Alan Panezic, RIM’s vice president for software product management. RIM hopes to release 5.0 by year-end, but that will depend on the quality of the code, Panezic says.
The Argon release includes a completely new management interface to the server, called BlackBerry Administration Service (BAS), with a Web-based console instead of the current Windows32 desktop application. The starting page of the console has an almost haiku-like simplicity: users select categories and click their way down into more detailed information and actions. Administrators will be able to assign users to more than one user group, with different roles (such as “security administrator” or “senior help desk”) and attendant permissions, and different software configurations and IT policies, attached to each group.
The process of activating BlackBerry users and their devices will now be able to be monitored from start to finish, showing the status of each activation. Similarly the new BAS will have a much more fine-grained security model, allowing administrators to allow or disallow a wide range of device features and behaviors.
Another key change is what RIM calls Unified Application Management, giving administrators much more control over deploying, securing, and managing applications, from RIM or from third-party or enterprise developers. In this new model, applications and information about them are “published” to a BlackBerry repository, which is then used to bundle applications together for user groups to schedule and control their distribution to devices.
Reliably pushing applications to the handhelds “has been a challenge for us,” Panezic told his audience. That has just been greatly improved with the release in April of the latest BES Version, 4.1.5, which lets administrators wirelessly distribute software updates to the devices. Argon will add to this a set of features that make this process more reliable and effective for large numbers of devices. The 5.0 release can check for software dependencies, juggle the software loading order to keep the installs in sequence, check to be sure the device has enough memory for the new software, and support event-driven updates, triggered by the user changing to a different cellular carrier, for example.
Argon will also let administrators deploy applications to lots of users in stages, 100 users at a time for example.
Other changes in Version 5.0:
* BlackBerry Monitoring System improvements, based on using a BES Monitoring Agent running on the device to provide real-time data, and alarms, on a range of critical trends, such as the sudden queuing of e-mails.
* Improved device activation diagnostics, allowing administrators to search and review activation status.
* Automated and manual failover of the BES.
More visibility and controls for the BES is a major attraction for users. “[I want] better monitoring of what’s happening in the BES,” says Jill Belben, lead staff support analyst, management information systems, at Florida Hospital, in Orlando. “And more ability to get detailed reports.”
The Web-based management console is especially welcome. “Whenever there’s a new service pack or BES upgrade, we have to manually upgrade the consoles on PCs,” says Fidelity’s Gayoso. The browser-based interface eliminates all that.
Automating deployment and updates of the BlackBerry client software is another welcome change. “Pushing out that software to devices today is all manual,” says Mike Ferguson, staff support analyst at Florida Hospital. “That can take a couple of hours for us.”
Argon’s improved security features are a plus for Hector Gonzales, PC support manager for Adventis Health Systems, Winter Park, Fla. “Security granularity is more in-depth, and gives us more options,” he says.
Coupled with the server improvements are other changes, and new directions for the overall platform, which includes development tools and application support. “We’re integrating the Web [with the BlackBerry] in a way we’ve never done before,” said Alan Banner, senior vice president, BlackBerry platform, speaking to a packed conference room on the future of mobile applications. RIM is adding widgets and rich media to the handset software, and exploiting Web services with the goal of making Web applications “first class BlackBerry citizens,” Banner said.
To enable these changes and many others to be leveraged by what are now over 800 RIM software partners, RIM is creating a set of application frameworks, many of them targeted to vertical markets. The frameworks encapsulate functions and features of the BlackBerry software, enabling ISVs and enterprise developers to more easily build applications that exploit BlackBerry capabilities on the handsets and server.
And last month, RIM released a program that blends with the Eclipse development tool set for Java. Eclipse developers can now access BlackBerry APIs and other functions from within Eclipse, without the need for specialized tools. RIM previously released a similar plug-in for Microsoft Visual Studio.