As noted in my earlier piece about the RIM BlackBerry, push mail technologies have within a few short years grown from being cutting edge to a relative state of maturity.Because of its wide-spread use, it represents another technology that the harried IT manager or professional is expected to know about.
This primer, while not exhaustive, is designed to help the reader gain a broad technical overview on Microsoft's push mail.
Where push mail is concerned, Microsoft started off relatively late. It has since come on par with the RIM BlackBerry - or perhaps even come out slightly ahead where certain features are concerned.
It's worth noting that Microsoft Direct Push is built into Microsoft Exchange 2003 SP2. Pre-Service Pack 2 "push mail" actually involves the sending of SMS (Short Messaging Service) to the handheld to trigger an ActiveSync — an archaic, and stop-gap implementation of push mail at best.
In this blog, we will only look at Exchange 2003 SP2 (and up) push mail, or Direct Push.
No special provisioning is required for Direct Push to work. Only a data connection such as GPRS, EDGE, 3G, or 3.5G is required. An existing account on an Exchange 2003 server - either hosted, or maintained in-house - is obviously required.
Direct Push architecture is based on a client-server model. Depending on encryption preferences specified on the handheld, it communicates with the Exchange server via HTTP or HTTPS. ( HTTP is recommended only when performing diagnostics. I wouldn't deploy anything less than HTTPS on a production setup.)
Unlike with the BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server), you'll need some firewall configuration so that the external devices can connect inward. As a general guide, if you've already configured your firewall for OWA (Outlook Web Access), then no further configuration is necessary.
Because Microsoft Direct Push is built into Microsoft Exchange 2003, it enjoys all the scalability and clustering features that Microsoft has designed into Exchange. According to Jason Landgridge's blog, at Microsoft, it only took two servers to serve Mobile e-mail to 20,000 users in 2005.
Microsoft Direct Push is available only on Microsoft Exchange. No other e-mail server is supported, although Microsoft has licensed the technology to vendors offering client-end implementations on other mobile platforms.
Direct Push offers superior features compared to other push mail offerings on the market For example, with Direct Push, you can
- Synchronize your entire Exchange mailbox if you want. (With the BlackBerry, you can only monitor the Inbox for new incoming mail.)
- In Exchange 2007 paired with a Windows Mobile 6 handheld, you can set flags, view HTML mail, or even perform server-side searches.
Although Exchange 2007 offers better management options, it still lags behind the BlackBerry, which remote provisioning, which allows an executive to activate a new BlackBerry remotely by simply providing its unique PIN number over the phone to the relevant IT personnel.
The recently announced Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 does appear to be on a par with the BlackBerry on this feature, but it won't be out until the first half of next year.
A useability comparison
I have used two different BlackBerry handhelds for more than six months - on both BIS and BES implementations. I've also been using Direct Push now for over a year, on both a Windows Mobile 5 and Windows Mobile 6 device.
I love that Direct Push offers me the capability of accessing my entire Exchange mailbox as necessary. As a mobile platform, the popularity and ease of programming for Windows Mobile means there's no dearth of good software to choose from.
However, Microsoft's implementation of Direct Push using the well-understood HTTP protocol ironically results in its push mail service being less reliable than the BlackBerry's.
Such hiccups might not be a problem for a power-user like myself, but it would certainly cause me to hesitate recommending Microsoft's solution to my CEO.
The BlackBerry, on the other hand, often "just works." Which is better would depend on your exact needs.
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.