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Evaluating BlackBerry alternatives

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

Research in Motion (RIM) had a tough year in 2011 with a number of outages, lackluster communication with customers and transition in the executive suite. RIM's problems have left many C-level executive customers frustrated with the BlackBerry platform and looking for a better mobile messaging solution.

Companies initially chose the BlackBerry as their de facto mobile standard for its ease of use and because it was the best way to get email on the go. This was in spite of the fact that the BlackBerry was not integrated with Microsoft Exchange Server.

The landscape is quickly changing. From an end user perspective, the iPhone, Android and even the Windows Phone are providing better functionality than the BlackBerry. Meanwhile, IT departments are more than happy to eliminate the single point of failure created by the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and the RIM network.

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Let's compare BES with alternative mobile messaging platforms or client-side solutions that allow enterprises to maintain support for BlackBerry devices.

BlackBerry users don't know and don't care what it takes to get Exchange email on their phone and what it takes to send messages to other users. IT admins are all too familiar with BES and its role as a bridge between Exchange server, the RIM network and the BlackBerry device.

One of the drawbacks imposed by BES is it forces IT to over-engineer their Exchange infrastructure to support the additional load created by BES. This includes paying close attention to the rate at which device usage is growing to make sure BES does not overload Exchange. In addition, BES requires a SQL Server (or SQL Express) database to keep track of the device state and licensing information for end users. Finally, BES and SQL cannot be installed on an Exchange server, which creates a need for additional server hardware or virtual machines. This translates into additional capital and operational costs.

BES also imposes a significant impact on Exchange's storage subsystem. When designing an Exchange server, one of the first calculations that must be made is IOPS (input/output per second). This determines how many disks will be required to support the load of a given number of users. Users of the Exchange 2010 Mailbox Server Role Requirements Calculator may have noticed a box called the "IOPS Multiplication Factor," which calculates the additional overhead that BES causes. On average, this overhead is three to four times the load of a single Exchange user.

As an example, an Exchange system for 10,000 users, of which 2,000 are BlackBerry users, would require IOPS of 16,000 mailboxes or more. This also translates to increased hardware and operational costs.

Enter ActiveSync

Microsoft ActiveSync technology allows mobile devices to synchronize data with an Exchange server. It has been around for a long time, but is not as widely deployed as BES because more business class users have chosen the BlackBerry device. This has changed in the past two years since iPhone and Android licensed ActiveSync from Microsoft (See ActiveSync Logo Program).

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In addition, the Windows Phone is enjoying a bit of resurgence. Now users have more choices when it comes to the types of devices that can connect to Exchange. Generous ActiveSync licensing also makes moving away from BES an attractive option. Typical Exchange server licensing provides the required licenses to support ActiveSync clients for an entire enterprise.

Furthermore, independent software vendors like AstraSync and NotifySync have created ActiveSync clients that run on BlackBerry devices, giving people even more choices when it comes to how they connect to Exchange. However, not all ActiveSync clients are created equal. It is not uncommon for the ActiveSync protocol to be implemented incorrectly by a product vendor. This can create increased loads and downtime. When determining which protocol to support, the ActiveSync Logo program is a good place to start.

There are a number of solutions that can be utilized to replace BES, not all of which require abandoning BlackBerry devices.

Mobile Fusion was announced last year, but has not shipped yet. It is scheduled to be available in March of this year. Mobile Fusion is a mobile device management (MDM) platform that aims to extend the asset management, configuration, security policy and centralized management functions of BES to all mobile operating systems. However, Mobile Fusion appears to introduce the same single point of failure that plagues BES, and may just end up being too little too late overall for RIM in the MDM space.

Recently RIM and Microsoft announced a new service called the BlackBerry Cloud that enables BlackBerry devices to use Office 365. RIM will be hosting services in their data centers that integrate with Microsoft servers to provide wireless messaging to subscribers of the BlackBerry Cloud. IT admins should perform their due diligence before moving to a system that has multiple single points of failure, requires them to work with two different support organizations (Microsoft and RIM), and relies on a second cloud service (Office 365) which has experienced its own downtime and customer satisfaction issues. [Also see: "Developers welcome RIM's BBX roadmap"]

As mentioned, several vendors have written client software for BlackBerry devices which allows them to use ActiveSync. This is not recommended as a long-term solution for eliminating BES, but does provide a short-term stop-gap option. Installing software on the devices essentially adds another layer of complexity which could increase support costs. As a short-term solution, however, it is worth considering.

There are several MDM platforms, such as Zenprise, Mobile Iron, AirWatch or Good Technology, that can serve as a replacement for BES. Zenprise, Mobile Iron and AirWatch do not attempt to add any extra mobile support to Exchange server -- they simply integrate with Exchange and ActiveSync. The Good Technology platform, meanwhile, appears to impose an additional load on Exchange Sever much the way BES does. This can be attributed to the fact that Good Technology has created a container for the email client which alters the way the ActiveSync protocol is implemented. There is even less information available about how Good Technology impacts Exchange server. The generally agreed-upon number is a two to three times greater load than a normal Outlook user.

Migrating to ActiveSync devices is a very good alternative because it imposes the least amount of impact on the end user and lowest operational cost for IT departments. Also, migrating off BES frees up Exchange Server to support more users as a company grows.

RIM has become the de facto standard over the years when it comes to enterprise mobile messaging. However, the use of middleware to enable BlackBerry devices to access the Exchange server is a costly and overly complex solution that introduces a lot of risk factors. With new technologies emerging that offer better functionality and better service levels, many companies are considering a move away from BES.

When planning a migration off BES, consider the alternatives described above. Choosing the one best aligned to your environment will enable your organization to maintain support for BlackBerry devices, provide maximum uptime and functionality for users, and lower overall costs for mobile messaging.

Azaleos is a provider of managed services for Exchange (and other Microsoft UC servers), and Lee Dumas a Microsoft Certified Architect.

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