The BlackBerry Connection

The pick of the mobile email crop

You know a device has reached the mainstream when you notice it in the hands of most people around you in the airport or a restaurant. Research In Motion's (RIM's) BlackBerry devices certainly pass this test, and their popularity has increased recently because of lower costs for both the devices and connections. Many of these ubiquitous BlackBerry devices connect to corporate Exchange Server systems (although RIM offers solutions for Lotus Domino and IMAP/POP messaging systems as well), so you're likely to find yourself needing to support BlackBerry users—if you don't already. To keep your messaging environment running smoothly, find out why your Exchange users are hopping on the BlackBerry bandwagon and familiarize yourself with the device's network, server, and desktop options.

The Device
Users like the BlackBerry's simplicity, the speed with which they can process an Inbox and deal with urgent messages, and the ability to receive email anywhere that their network provider offers connectivity. You can't get a more compact or straightforward email device, and because the BlackBerry is so small, users can easily use it to check email anywhere. Also, the BlackBerry is much easier on batteries than is the Pocket PC (the BlackBerry's primary competition in the mobile-email market; see the Web-exclusive sidebar "The Competition" at http://www.exchangeadmin.com, InstantDoc ID 38319, for a discussion of some of the BlackBerry's limitations compared with a Pocket PC). Even during constant use, a typical BlackBerry's charge can last as long as a week.

The BlackBerry's built-in keyboard is small but sufficient for responding to or sending urgent messages. And many users find that using their thumbs to operate the keyboard is easier than using a stylus to write or tap out characters. The BlackBerry's editor is rudimentary in the extreme (i.e., no formatting, no spell checking, restricted cut-and-paste functionality, a limited character set, and no movement within text) but includes an autotext facility to help users compose text more quickly. New users typically need some time to become accustomed to the unique BlackBerry interface and to learn the shortcut keys before they can take full advantage of the device.

The Networks
In North America, three wireless networks—Mobitex, DataTAC, and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS)—are available to connect users' BlackBerry devices to your Exchange server. In Europe, telephone-network providers typically sell the devices and handle BlackBerry services, and the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM)/GPRS mobile-phone protocol has expanded the BlackBerry's scope throughout Europe. For example, the BlackBerry devices that O2—a major European cell-phone provider—supplies for its Irish GPRS network include roaming capabilities in many European countries; I've managed to use my device in Italy, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands. (See the Web-exclusive sidebar "Roam if You Want To" at http://www.exchangeadmin.com, InstantDoc ID 38320, for more details about the BlackBerry's GPRS roaming options.)

GSM, a slower predecessor of GPRS, supports Short Message Service (SMS), so users can address messages to a cell-phone number to send text messages to that phone. Composing an SMS message on a BlackBerry is much easier than doing so on a typical cell phone. BlackBerry devices also support PIN-to-PIN communications, so users can address messages directly to another device's PIN instead of to an email address. PINs are strings (e.g., 200212F5) that are difficult to remember, but users can record PINs with other contact information. The big advantage of PIN communication is that it works over the base network, so you can get messages to users when your Exchange server is down.

Email communications across the carrier networks are always encrypted and PIN messages are scrambled, but SMS messages are in plain text. Of course, if Exchange is down and you absolutely need to get a message through to someone, you might not mind that the text is relatively insecure.

The Server
BlackBerry Enterprise Server channels messages from registered users' Exchange mailboxes through a relay server on the wireless network to the users' BlackBerry devices. The server product runs on Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 3 (SP3) or later, but I recommend you use Windows 2000 (or NT 4.0 SP6 at a minimum). BlackBerry Enterprise Server can connect to mailboxes on Exchange 2000 Server SP1 or later systems (SP3 is best) or Exchange Server 5.5 SP4 systems. You must install either Exchange 2000's Microsoft Management Console (MMC) Exchange System Manager (ESM) snap-in or Exchange 5.5's Microsoft Exchange Administrator on the BlackBerry Enterprise Server host system. Details about BlackBerry users reside in a database, so the server must also run Microsoft SQL Server Desktop Engine (MSDE), Microsoft SQL Server 2000, or SQL Server 7.0. MSDE is adequate when you need to support only a small user community (i.e., less than 1000 users), but SQL Server is a better option for larger communities (especially if you already have a SQL Server license). The BlackBerry Enterprise Server installation program looks for MSDE or SQL Server; if the application can't find a suitable database, it offers to install MSDE. You can apply MSDE SP1 after installation, although doing so isn't strictly necessary. BlackBerry Enterprise Server and Microsoft Outlook use incompatible versions of Collaboration Data Objects (CDO) and Messaging API (MAPI), so don't install Outlook on the host server. If you need to install an email client on that system, use Outlook Express or Outlook Web Access (OWA). In addition, you need to apply a CDO hotfix before you install BlackBerry Enterprise Server (see the Microsoft article "XGEN: Exchange Server 5.5 Post-Service Pack 4 Collaboration Data Objects Fixes Available" at http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=289606 for details). You must open port 3101 on your corporate firewall to support the Server Routing Protocol (SRP), which lets BlackBerry Enterprise Server communicate with the external wireless-relay server.

BlackBerry Enterprise Server runs as a privileged Windows service associated with a specific account and mailbox, which the server refers to as its service account. When running, the server uses the permissions that you allocate to the service account to access mailboxes and retrieve and send messages. You must create the service account and assign the necessary permissions before you install the BlackBerry Enterprise Server software. The BlackBerry service account has the same Service Account Admin permissions as the Exchange 5.5 service account does. Exchange 2000, however, runs under the special Windows LocalSystem account, so you must add the BlackBerry service account to the local Administrators group and grant the account View Only Administrator and Administer Information Store permissions for each Exchange 2000 server that hosts a mailbox for a BlackBerry user. Setting the correct permissions is crucial; otherwise, BlackBerry Enterprise Server can't access user mailboxes. Fortunately, BlackBerry Enterprise Server's installation guide explains the process well.

As long as its service account possesses the necessary permissions on the target servers and as long as it can establish a MAPI connection to mailboxes on those servers, one BlackBerry Enterprise Server can support mailboxes from as many as four Exchange servers. (These requirements mean that when running with Exchange 5.5, BlackBerry Enterprise Server can access only those mailboxes inside the site to which the BlackBerry service account belongs.) Of course, if your MAPI connections are slow or have high latency, the BlackBerry server can't fetch and relay messages as quickly as you might like. Therefore, large organizations tend to have multiple BlackBerry Enterprise Servers distributed around the network.

Small organizations can simply use the BlackBerry Desktop Redirector, rather than BlackBerry Enterprise Server, to relay messages from users' mailboxes to their BlackBerry devices. However, the Desktop Redirector requires each user's PC to remain online so that the software can access and transmit messages, so BlackBerry Enterprise Server is more efficient when you're dealing with more than a few mailboxes, especially if your BlackBerry users have laptops rather than desktop PCs.

After you assign a BlackBerry device to a user, you need to register that user with your BlackBerry Enterprise Server to establish communications. Figure 1 shows some of the information that the BlackBerry Enterprise Server user database holds. This information includes statistics about the number of messages that the user's device has sent and received and the number of pending messages that haven't been delivered because of a network outage or because the user's BlackBerry is turned off. (You can purge pending messages from the BlackBerry Enterprise Server to prevent a user from receiving a flood of new messages when the user's device becomes available.)

BlackBerry Enterprise Server monitors user mailboxes for new messages. The server is multithreaded and can monitor hundreds of mailboxes for messages to send and receive. When a message arrives in a user's mailbox, BlackBerry Enterprise Server uses a mixture of CDO and MAPI calls to copy the message, converts the copy to plain text, then sends the first 2000 bytes to the user's handheld. If the user needs to read more of the message, he or she can ask BlackBerry Enterprise Server to send more information. Typically, BlackBerry Enterprise Server transmits messages through the corporate firewall to a network provider­operated relay server, which then transmits the messages to users' devices. (For details of the interaction between BlackBerry Enterprise Server, the network, and the handheld, see "BlackBerry Enterprise Server Day to Day," January 2003, http://www.exchangeadmin.com, InstantDoc ID 27220.)

BlackBerry Enterprise Server administrators can generate an All Points Bulletin from the server to one or more users. Typically, this message advises users about a problem, such as an Exchange server outage or the need to take down the BlackBerry Enterprise Server system. As Figure 2 shows, you select which servers will generate the message and which users will receive the message, then create the message subject and body. An All Points Bulletin doesn't use Exchange; instead, BlackBerry Enterprise Server addresses the message to users' PINs. Because BlackBerry Enterprise Server sends the All Points Bulletin directly to the wireless network, delivery is extremely fast.

The Desktop
When not attached to users' belts, BlackBerry devices live in cradles linked to PCs. The connection between the cradle and the PC provides power to recharge the device's battery as well as a channel through which BlackBerry Desktop Manager, which you install on the user's PC, synchronizes the device with the user's email account.

Synchronization compares items in the user's Exchange email account to the same items on the handheld and gives priority to the email-account version. BlackBerry Desktop Manager also uploads new items that a user creates on the handheld (e.g., contacts). Of course, synchronization works well only when users perform it regularly—ideally, at least once a week. BlackBerry Desktop Manager's Intellisync options control how the handheld synchronizes. If users run into trouble, you can click View log to see the results of the most recent synchronization operation.

BlackBerry Desktop Manager's Redirector Settings, which Figure 3 shows, let users create filters to determine which messages BlackBerry Enterprise Server will send to the handheld. In most situations, you can advise users to set the filters to pass along only messages for which they are a To or Bcc recipient, although some users might also want to see messages for which they are a Cc recipient. Users can also create custom filters, as Figure 4 shows, to configure specific instructions for messages to or from specific people.

By default, the filters won't forward distribution list (DL) messages unless Outlook has expanded the list or unless the list is a personal DL. Users can customize their filters to receive messages sent to DLs, but accepting the default protects users from receiving most spam (unsolicited commercial email—UCE—generators often use DLs to target users). By default, BlackBerry Enterprise Server doesn't forward messages that don't match a configured filter, but users can override that setting.

By default, BlackBerry Enterprise Server monitors only the user's Inbox. If a user wants to check other folders, he or she can use the Folder Redirection filter (available on the Redirector Settings dialog box's Advanced tab) to instruct the server to watch specific folders. For example, a user might want to configure this option when he or she has created Outlook filters that refile messages as they arrive in the user's Inbox.

Get Connected
From a mobility perspective, the BlackBerry is an excellent email solution, letting users stay in touch with their Exchange-based email and calendar wherever a supported wireless network is available. Although the device isn't likely to replace all the other mobile devices on your Exchange users' belts, getting to know the BlackBerry a bit better will be well worth your time.

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