Keep mobile users in the know with Mobile Information Server 2002

Wireless computing is becoming increasingly popular for users who are constantly on the go and need access to network resources. Jim Boyce shows you the new features that Mobile Information Server 2002 offers these free spirits.

At the Internet World Wireless conference in mid-February, Microsoft announced the release of Mobile Information Server (MIS) 2002 Enterprise Edition, its flagship wireless access server that provides enterprise network connectivity for mobile devices. Soon afterward, Chuck Sabin, product manager for the .NET Enterprise Systems Group, announced that Microsoft would cut MIS from its product line next year. That might leave you scratching your head, wondering if mobile access is fading from Microsoft’s radar screen. Microsoft’s plan at this point—which is subject to change, of course—is to integrate wireless connectivity into Exchange through Outlook Mobile Access, which is included with MIS, and build access to other network resources into other individual applications.

So, if MIS is a lame-duck product, why should you care about it? Because the product’s sunset is still a long way away, and the end of its useful life is further still. MIS gives you the ability to implement wireless data access right now and build on that foundation for at least two years before you need to think about making a change. Technology years are like dog years—maybe the relationship isn’t equal to 1:7, but two years is still a long time in the world of IT. Plus, unlike many of Microsoft’s other server applications, MIS is actually inexpensive. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll take you on a tour of MIS, with an eye on the technologies involved and how this tool might fit into your enterprise.

Microsoft wireless access in a nutshell
There is no doubt that wireless is the wave of the future, and a not-too-distant future at that. Wireless Internet connectivity is fast becoming widely available and certainly viable. The proliferation of new wireless devices that integrate all forms of communications—including voice, e-mail, and Web data—are fast becoming critical tools for companies that need to service mobile users to compete in today’s tougher business climate.

Microsoft‘s MIS is an application server that gives users access to network resources, such as Microsoft Exchange Server, from wireless devices. With this access, users can:
  • Check e-mail from a cell phone.
  • Have reminders and urgent e-mail messages sent to a pager.
  • Access a calendar on a wireless-enabled PDA while on the road to see what changes have been made by an assistant.

MIS doesn’t install on your Exchange server; instead, it sits on its own server and acts as the intermediary between wireless clients and carriers and the network resources. In smaller organizations, you might install a single MIS server, and in larger organizations you might install multiple MIS servers to provide load balancing and fault tolerance and to service multiple resource servers (such as multiple Exchange servers).

Outlook Mobile Access (OMA) is an application included with MIS that provides wireless Exchange Server connectivity for Outlook users. OMA gives users the ability to synchronize their Exchange Server mailboxes to Pocket PC 2002 devices over wireless connections. MIS also supports Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) devices, enabling users to browse their Exchange Server 5.5 and Exchange 2000 Server mailboxes from WAP-enabled wireless devices over the Internet. MIS also allows Exchange 2000 Server clients to receive notifications when certain events occur, such as new messages arriving in their inbox.

MIS doesn’t stop at providing Exchange Server access. It also lets you make resources on the intranet available to wireless users. For example, the sales department can use its wireless devices to access up-to-the-minute inventory or pricing information from an intranet-based Web site or custom application. With MIS, you control which network resources can be accessed.

One application designed to interface with MIS is Microsoft’s Outlook Mobile Manager. This client-side application expands wireless notification for Exchange 2000 Server users, adding several features. Some examples include notifications about upcoming tasks and meetings, smart handling of large messages to overcome message limits for wireless devices, the ability to create rules to define which messages are sent to wireless devices, and several other very handy features.

MIS is also extensible through custom application development. Admittedly, you’re not likely to see a wide array of third-party applications for MIS, given Microsoft’s decision to eventually drop the product. But the capability is there to create your own custom applications to suit specific needs.

You might think that MIS is going to cost you a bundle to implement, but it won’t. Microsoft licenses MIS on a Client Access License (CAL) basis, with a MIS license listing for just $15. The price goes up to $20 per seat if you intend to use Outlook Mobile Access. This means that you can get up to speed on the technology or evaluate the product without laying out a big chunk of capital. Plus, Microsoft provides a 120-day free evaluation version for download on its Web site.

Preparing for a mobile future
The workplace in general hasn’t changed significantly in the last decade, but what users expect and need has changed enormously. Many users are more mobile and don’t sit in front of a computer all day. Some don’t sit at a desk at all. As companies begin to rely more and more on external Web-based resources for day-to-day operations and management, and continue to migrate their own internal data to platforms that offer Web accessibility, users clamor for expanded access to those Internet resources, to messaging, and to other resources. Greater user mobility combined with the steady growth in wireless Internet access and Web-capable wireless devices means one thing: If you’re not already providing your users with wireless access to the data they’ve traditionally accessed from their desktops, you’ll be doing it sooner rather than later.

To understand how installing MIS and providing wireless connectivity to your network resources can have a positive impact on your organization, you need to take a close look at the resources you’re offering to your users right now. Ask yourself a few questions to see what kind of effect MIS will have on your network and its users, including:
  • Which of your current resources if made available through MIS would benefit your users the most?
  • Are these resources currently available in a media that can be served by MIS, or do you need to develop Web-based methods such as a Web site to serve up the data?
  • Will you need to repackage existing Web content so that it’s more easily viewed on WAP devices?
  • What new resources would users like to access from their wireless devices?
  • Which users, if any, would benefit from features included in MIS?
  • What new hardware and network infrastructure changes will you need in order to implement MIS?

To help you answer these questions, let’s take a closer look at Microsoft wireless integration components.

MIS in a much bigger nutshell
MIS uses Active Directory to store information about users’ wireless access permissions, devices, and other data, so the MIS server needs LAN connectivity to at least one Active Directory domain controller. It also naturally needs LAN access to any resource servers in the network—such as Web servers or Exchange Servers—that wireless users will access through MIS.

There are two versions of MIS: Enterprise Edition and Carrier Edition. MIS Enterprise Edition is designed for companies that want to provide wireless access to their users’ wireless devices. Enterprise Edition sits between the network resources and the Internet. It manages information about which users have been enabled for wireless access and related information such as the devices used by each, the addresses of wireless carriers, and how to format data for specific devices. Enterprise Edition processes the traffic flowing between the Internet and the local network, handling notification, browsing requests, and other tasks related to serving the content to the wireless clients on the Internet.

The Carrier Edition performs much the same function as the Enterprise Edition does but adds a Short Message Service (SMS) Connector tool that allows messages to be sent to the carrier’s Short Message Service Center (SMSC), which ultimately transmits messages to the users’ wireless devices. Both versions support SMTP, so the Carrier Edition is needed only in situations where the users need to receive SMS messages. If the carrier uses SMTP, or all of your users’ devices receive their data through SMTP from multiple carriers, there is no need for Carrier Edition to sit between your MIS servers and your users.

On the hardware side, MIS supports both SMTP- and SMS-capable devices for notification and messaging, as I’ve already mentioned. To synchronize Outlook data on wireless devices, users need Pocket PC 2002 devices with the Server ActiveSync software update installed. To browse resources on the network, users need a WAP-compatible wireless device, and the appropriate hardware needs to sit between the Internet and the network. Microsoft maintains an updated list of compatible hardware on its MIS Supported Components Web site. Support for additional devices has been added to the 2002 edition of MIS.

Load balancing is an issue to consider in organizations where MIS must serve a large number of users. Its integration with Windows 2000 Server and .NET Server means that MIS can take advantage of the load balancing offered by Windows 2000 Advanced Server and Windows .NET Enterprise Server. You can also use round-robin DNS to provide load balancing in situations where you have Windows 2000 Server or Windows .NET Standard Server, which don’t include the load balancing components of their higher-priced counterparts.

Security and ISA
One possible deployment method you might consider is placing one or more MIS servers in a perimeter network (DMZ). MIS can then provide secure communication between itself and the carrier’s services with SSL. However, it’s likely that in many situations, this won’t be the topology of choice. It’s generally not a good idea to place a domain controller in a perimeter network. If the server is compromised from the Internet, the domain’s user accounts and other resources are at significant risk. Even if the perimeter network sits behind its own firewall, you might still need to open additional ports on the internal LAN firewall to support the MIS traffic if those ports are not already open. So a good option is to use Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration Server (ISA) as a gateway to the network.

Microsoft provides an ISA filter for MIS that enables an ISA gateway to stand guard between the Internet and your MIS server(s) behind the internal firewall (or simply behind the ISA server). Using ISA as a gateway lets you reduce the number of ports that need to be opened on the internal firewall and also eliminates the need for a domain controller to reside in the perimeter network. An added benefit is the fact that ISA can perform initial authentication and ensure that only authenticated users actually reach the MIS server. The ISA server receives the user request and uses an LDAP bind to determine if the user credentials exist in Active Directory. The results of the LDAP bind are either “allow” or “deny,” with no real credential information passing through the firewall, providing security for the credentials. Based on this simple check, the ISA MIS filter then allows the client traffic to continue to the MIS server. From behind the firewall, the MIS server then performs the actual authentication to the network resources. All of this ensures that only users with valid accounts get past the ISA server and that none of the actual authentication happens outside the LAN’s firewall.

At a minimum, you’ll need to open port 389 on the firewall to allow the LDAP queries and port 443 for SSL between the ISA filter and the MIS server. The two can also use HTTP on port 80 to communicate, but using SSL naturally provides better security and allows you to close port 80 on the firewall if you don’t need it open for other services. If you need added security, MIS supports RSA SecurID products and authentication mechanisms.

Outlook Mobile Access
Outlook Mobile Access, or OMA, is the component that runs on MIS to provide wireless access to data on your Exchange server(s). Through OMA, users can view e-mail, contacts, calendars, and tasks. It presents the data to users on their wireless devices through a simple menu system. OMA uses several components to make this happen.

The Exchange 2000 Event Source is the component that allows Exchange Server to send messages to a user’s wireless device when events, such as the receipt of a message or creation of a task, occur in the user’s Exchange mailbox. Notifications go out as SMS messages, and users can configure through rules the types of events for which they want to receive notifications.

The Exchange 2000 Data Provider is the component that lets the users browse messages, contacts, and other items in their mailboxes from their wireless devices, as well as perform related tasks including composing new messages, responding to meeting requests and task assignments, and so on. The Exchange 5.5 Data Provider provides the same capability for Exchange 5.5 Server mailboxes. Users connect from a WAP-enabled device to browse the resources.

The Server ActiveSync component enables users to synchronize their e-mail, calendars, and contacts from Pocket PC 2002 devices to their Exchange 2000 Server mailboxes.

Outlook Mobile Manager
Outlook Mobile Manager (OMM), which can be used as a stand-alone component or in conjunction with MIS, greatly expands the user’s wireless capabilities. OMM installs on the user’s desktop computer, not on the server.

By itself, OMM adds the ability to send e-mail, calendar, and reminder data from Outlook to wireless devices that support SMTP notifications. OMM must be running on the desktop computer to generate the notifications, but when it's used in conjunction with MIS, users can still receive basic notifications from the MIS server. OMM adds the benefit of additional control and notification options. For example, OMM looks up the phone number for the sender of an e-mail and includes the phone number in the notification it sends to your wireless device.

OMM also improves and streamlines wireless notifications. It divides large messages into several 140-character SMS messages to enable those messages to be delivered to wireless devices. Without OMM, a message would be limited to a maximum of 140 characters. To further economize, OMM includes a feature Microsoft calls IntelliShrink, which reduces word size by eliminating characters but still leaving the words readable. For example, IntelliShrink would reduce “Mobile Information Server” to “MbleInfrmtnSrvr.” You can also create rules that define which messages should be forwarded. IntelliShrink provides natural language processing, compression, reformatting, and filtering to reduce the amount of data being sent to the wireless device.

Other features OMM offers include the ability to prioritize messages and generate a summary of the day’s events and tasks. You can define up to four personal profiles called Work, Home, Out Of Office, and Do Not Disturb that define custom notification rules.

Wireless and mobility development tools
You can reap the benefits from MIS, OMA, and OMM right away with the features built in to the products. But if you need to extend the range of wireless features beyond what these products offer, you can turn to a handful of development tools provided by Microsoft for that very purpose.

The Microsoft Mobile Internet Toolkit is comprised of tools and resources that are geared to developing applications to support wireless devices. The toolkit includes special Web form controls for generating data for various devices and the Mobile Internet Designer, which integrates with Visual Studio .NET to provide drag-and-drop support for developing mobile-integrated applications. It also includes extensive documentation and tutorials and device adapter code samples.

The Microsoft Mobile Explorer Toolkit is another handy tool that will help you develop applications for wireless devices. The MME includes a cell phone emulator that lets you test your applications for wireless usability without actually requiring that you purchase or have on hand any wireless devices. The MME supports content in WML, HTML, and cHTML formats. You can download one of two versions of the MME, one a stand-alone tool and another that integrates into Visual Studio .NET. You can find more information on all of these tools at the Microsoft Mobile Internet Toolkit Web site.

Now that you have some background in MIS and its related technologies, take a look at your enterprise and how you are addressing the needs of wireless users now, or how you would like to offer wireless support in the future. Look at the data you’re currently offering with an eye on how you can alter it to make it beneficial for wireless users.

Editor's Picks