To me, a mobile connection to the Internet means that my mail server hunts me down wherever I am and tosses 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. Business-class mobile messaging is not a do-it-yourself project.
Luckily, there are two mobile e-mail vendors well equipped to handle this task. Good Technology’s GoodLink and Research In Motion’s (RIM) BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) 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 mail 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. Both do exactly what they claim and do it efficiently with a minimum of administrative or user overhead.
But RIM 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.
Connecting to Exchange
I tested the full GoodLink and BlackBerry solutions in the lab and in the field. Good Technology sent a Treo 600 PDA provisioned to connect to an Exchange server at Good’s site. I worked with the complete set of GoodLink Server documentation, which covers the product’s processes in substantial detail.
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 GoodLink and BES 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.
GoodLink Server and BES handle the device registration and authorization process — called provisioning — on-site. 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. BES handles the entire provisioning process automatically; GoodLink requires a couple of additional steps for each device.
With authentication tied to the device, whoever carries it has authentication, making PDAs popular targets for thieves. GoodLink Server sets security policies for the GoodLink client software, requiring the use of passwords and defining the frequency with which they must be renewed.
BES has complete control of the proprietary BlackBerry 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. GoodLink Server can erase the GoodLink messaging client’s data remotely, but this doesn’t affect the device’s ability to operate as a phone or to examine content that has been copied out of GoodLink.
The Paths Diverge
The installation process for GoodLink Server is onerous, requiring several manual steps and the navigation of strict rules about which software may run on which servers. In contrast, BES uses a familiar unified installer; when you choose a “typical” configuration, it’s load and go.
BES also includes three significant features that GoodLink Server lacks: MDS (Mobile Data Services), wireless reconciliation, and server-based attachment processing.
MDS 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.
GoodLink offers a less robust MDS counterpart, called GoodLink Forms. GoodLink Forms integrates with the GoodLink client’s asynchronous delivery mechanism: A submitted form is delivered when the user is in range, and the server’s response is queued and sent as any other message. It is easy to use and highly functional, but its scope is far more limited than that of MDS.
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 synchronized to an Exchange account. GoodLink supports synchronization of Outlook e-mail, calendar, contacts, tasks, and notes between devices and Exchange, although this feature wasn’t available in the hosted implementation I tested. Wireless reconciliation 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 another point of differentiation, and one I consider significant. GoodLink downloads binary e-mail attachments in their entirety and launches a separate client viewer. For the Treo 600, Good Technologies sent me a trial edition of Documents To Go from DataViz that views (and, remarkably, edits) Word and Excel documents.
As nice as this is, I prefer BES’s approach, which makes much better use of bandwidth, limited memory, and the devices’ 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 colour 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.
BES’ Extra Efforts
Both Good Technology and RIM have effective solutions for pushing messages to wireless devices. Good sticks to the basics and does them well, but RIM hits a much higher 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.
The issue of handheld devices is another factor as is the considerable differences in the way these vendors sell their solutions. But a messaging system can only do what its servers and admin tools allow, and BES has a long list of features I look for that I don’t find in GoodLink.
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