Mobility

The state of push: Understanding the BlackBerry

Push mail technologies has within a few short years grown from being cutting edge (some call it frivolous) to a state of maturity. Perhaps due to its success, a number of copy-cat variants have flooded the market, making understanding them harder for the IT professional. Today, I hope to cut out the fluff so typical of the marketing collaterals to give you a better idea of the technical underpinnings behind the pioneer of the ubiquitous BlackBerry handheld.

Push mail technologies have within a few short years grown from being cutting edge (some call it frivolous) to a state of maturity.

Perhaps due to its success, a number of copy-cat variants have flooded the market, making understanding them harder for the IT professional.

Today, I hope to cut out the fluff so typical of the marketing folks to give you a better idea of the technical underpinnings behind the ubiquitous BlackBerry handheld.

Push mail technologies have within a few short years grown from being cutting edge (some call it frivolous) to a state of maturity.

Perhaps due to its success, a number of copy-cat variants have flooded the market, making understanding them harder for the IT professional.

Today, I hope to cut out the fluff so typical of the marketing folks to give you a better idea of the technical underpinnings behind the ubiquitous BlackBerry handheld.

Preamble

The BlackBerry is brought to you by the folks who started the push mail revolution. It's essentially an end-to-end solution for the delivery of push mail to their proprietary BlackBerry hardware.

In fact, the question "Do you have a BlackBerry?" is synonymous with "Do you have push mail?"

Of late, RIM has also licensed the BlackBerry client-side technology to be implemented by third-party handset manufacturers.

Provisioning

Provisioning at the Telco is mandatory for push mail functionality. If used on a foreign network (roaming) where BlackBerry support is not present, the BlackBerry device will only be usable as a normal voice-capable handset.

So even though it is highly unlikely that your BlackBerry-toting CEO will enter a region with no BlackBerry support, it might make sense to just check in advance!

Architecture

The BlackBerry relies on a NOC (Network Operating Center)-based architecture. There are a few geographically dispersed NOC located worldwide, each serving different territories. All device-bound push mail data packets go through the NOC's store-and-forward mechanism.

The presence of the NOC has been a key point of contention by detractors who spoke out against perceived insecurities as well as the NOC being vulnerable to failure. To an extent, the single-point-of-failure concern has materialized a number of times, though proponents argue that the overall uptime is still very high.

To be fair, RIM's unique architect actually gives a more reliable and data efficient push than most competing technologies.

There are two main ways to deploy the BlackBerry; via BIS (BlackBerry Internet Service) or the BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server). BIS is meant for small outfits without a centralized mail server or individuals.

The BES setup consists of hosting a stand-alone server behind the corporate firewall. Three versions of the BES are available, enabling organizations deploying Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes, and Novell GroupWise, respectively, to push mails to the BlackBerry handhelds.

Scalability

I've seen it quoted that support for handhelds exceeds 2,000 devices per BES. To my knowledge, scaling beyond this figure will require careful manual partitioning of user accounts across servers.

Features

As noted earlier, the BlackBerry supports Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes. as well as Novell GroupWise via the three versions of the BES.

It's important to note that even though the BlackBerry "supports" various Microsoft Office attachments such as Word docs and Excel xls files, the e-mail attachments are first processed by the BES before transmission to the BlackBerry. So what you have on the BlackBerry is actually a "view" or "snapshot" of the file as opposed to the original contents.

Once past the initial provisioning, end-to-end traffic from the BES to the BlackBerry is heavily encrypted without fear of encryption being accidentally "turned off" by the user.

Many argue that the BlackBerry is considerably easier and friendlier than competing devices. In fact, the term crackberry have been coined to refer to users who behave as if they are addicted to their BlackBerries.

Management

Very comprehensive BlackBerry device management is possible using the BES - you can actually remotely push and install software from the management console.

At the moment, it's probably the best in the market where centralized management is concerned.

So what's it all mean?

Various players are constantly improving and refining their various push mail technologies. What I have stated above, to the best of my knowledge, is accurate at the time of writing.

That might yet change with the next release of the BES or the next version of the BlackBerry handheld's OS. Still, I hope it serves as a useful primer for you to get up-to-speed and looking in the right direction in the endless endeavor to "keep up" with the state of push mail.

About

Paul Mah is a writer and blogger who lives in Singapore, where he has worked for a number of years in various capacities within the IT industry. Paul enjoys tinkering with tech gadgets, smartphones, and networking devices.

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