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Friday, October 20, 2006

How is Microsoft’s Direct Push better than the Blackberry

I thought long and hard not about the contents of this article, but about the title. While sure to generate some controversy, this is what I believe to be the case. My personal opinion is that the current implementation of Direct Push overall is better than RIM’s Blackberry device where it comes to push mail access on Microsoft Exchange. In fact, I consider Direct Push to be superior to any of the other offerings on the market when it comes to using Exchange as a backend mail server.

As it is, the Blackberry is still very much a de facto standard in the push mail market which it created practically single-handedly. Hence we have this little comparison with it, and the corresponding title – “How is Microsoft’s Direct Push better than the Blackberry?”

Because don’t live in a world of black and white, I have decided to segregate the discussion on the various features into three distinct parts in which I categorize certain features in which Direct Push is superior, inferior, and where it is competitive with the Blackberry. Also, I must qualify that I have previously used both a 7290 and a 7730 with both BIS as well as with BES 4.0/Exchange 2003. I am interested if you have any feedback or comments regarding features that I might have inadvertently missed.

Microsoft might have got into the push mail playing field relatively late. However, with the improvements in Direct Push which is being built directly into Exchange 2003 SP2, it offers superior scalability in terms of the number of handheld clients that can be supported per server. Read here about how Direct Push works if you have not done so yet.

Anecdotal evidence from a Microsoft staffer indicates that they have internally deployed and are supporting over 45,000 (Yes, that’s forty-five thousand) Windows Mobile devices using this technology already. That was end-2005 – probably on a pre-release version of Direct Push and Exchange SP2. These handhelds are supported on a total of two dual-processor Pentium Servers with 2GB of RAM each. I am unsure at this point of the implementation architecture as the link on a public white paper pertaining to it was broken. However, extrapolating from Exchange’s rather heavy-duty requirements itself, it is likely that these two servers are only serving the Windows Mobile devices and do not run the mail-handling portion of Exchange itself. (I have sent in an Email enquiring about the missing white paper – hope I get a reply soon!)

The minimum requirements for the Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) version 4.1 – which is required to link-up Exchange with the Blackberry handheld in an enterprise, is quite different. The systems requirements for the BES is pegged at a minimum of a dual-processor Pentium with 4GB of RAM for a 2,000 device setup. You can find systems requirements page for the BES here.

There is no mention of scalability beyond 2000 Blackberry devices; though I am pretty sure that more devices can be added with some sort of clustering or manually partitioning the clients to be supported per BES. However, even assuming a linear scalability for the BES, 45,000 clients looks set to require over 20 BES boxes. It is clear here that a Direct Push implementation wins hands-down here.

Implementation Cost
You can try to accuse Microsoft of being a monopolist on this, but the fact is that if you already use Microsoft Exchange 2003 SP2 or are planning to migrate to it, the TCO is extremely compelling due to the fact that Direct Push technology is already built into Exchange.

All other push mail solutions that I am aware of on an enterprise level – including the BES, that runs off an Exchange server, all require a separate per-device licensing fee of some sort. With Direct Push on the other hand, there is absolutely no additional cost. This translates immediately into an unbeatable total cost of ownership (TCO) and significantly less complication when it comes to managing the licensing.

True Remote Mailbox Access
There has been earlier complains about Microsoft’s AUTD in which users complain that read status of Emails are not synchronized properly back to Exchange. Happily, this is no longer the case with Direct Push and Exchange SP2. Direct Push now offers complete access to your entire Exchange mailbox, read status and moving of mails into subfolders are synchronized immediately be it reading your mail on your handheld (Handheld updates Exchange) or using your Outlook client at your desktop (Exchange updates handheld).

With the Blackberry on the other hand, you are limited to the most recent 1000 Emails. In this regard, Direct Push offers superior access, giving you the option to synchronize your entire Exchange mailbox if so desired. Every single mail can be made accessible, not just new ones. The best part is that even if you opt not to synchronize your entire mailbox, all folders are nevertheless still accessible to the user while on the road. If you need something, simply select the appropriate folder and synchronize away.

Software Selection
As of time of writing, Direct Push is only implemented either on Windows Mobile or Microsoft Smartphone devices. Inherent to these devices is the ability to run the corresponding Windows Pocket PC/Smartphone software. I have not looked at Pocket PC software for a number of years; but I must say that I was pleasantly surprised at the staggering array of software offerings available when I got my Windows Mobile Pocket PC recently.

The presence of Blackberry applications is certainly no laggard on the Enterprise scene where it is going strong. In fact RIM publishes a Solutions Guide on its website that is available at no additional charge here. The software selection is quite dismal on the consumer end on the other hand. Other than a Bible and a multi-network chat-client, there is hardly any other options for the power-user.

I have previously used and owned a number of rather different handheld devices; including a Palm Pilot Pro, Psion 5 as well as a Rex Pro 5. Believe me when I say that having access to an excellent range of 3rd party software can make or break the popularity of a handheld.

Direct Push offers the option of utilization HTTPS as data transport – implementing industry-standard SSL-encrypted traffic as well as verification against spoofing via the use of signed digital certificates. It has the additional benefit in that no traffic is ever stored on a third-party server or Network Operating Center (NOC), no matter how transitory or temporal. All data travels through the Internet and goes directly through your firewall into your Exchange via port 443.

The Blackberry works on the concept of the messages being stored then forwarded through a NOC operated by RIM. In fact, a large part of the infringement case filed by NTP is based on the premises of the Emails being stored at the NOC. More on this here and here.

It can be argued that the data transiting through RIM’s NOC is heavily encrypted and hence should not be a concern. However, most enterprise would probably sleep better at night knowing that no data will ever be stored on servers that are not their own. With Direct Push, this concern is addressed.

Operating Cost
Direct Push is engineered for very low data traffic requirements. You can even set it to manual synchronization or automated polling with intervals of up to 4 hours. You also have relatively fine control over the exact folders to monitor, how many kilobyte of an Email to download, for example. Additionally, Direct Push also features compression by default, allowing for utilization of data traffic to be kept low.

All the above is implemented by utilization of standard TCP/IP connectivity without the need for special provisioning on the telco level. However, the utilization of standard IP ironically results in its more glaring weakness – the amount of data traffic needed to run Direct Push is heavily influenced by number of factors not always outside your control.

Factors such as poor mobile network coverage, soft-reset, even incoming calls (For those on GPRS or networks where simultaneous data and voice connections is not supported) will result in increased data utilization as Direct Push re-establishes the lost connection. This can be an issue if it happens a lot. I will go more into this later in my planned section on monitoring and optimizing your GPRS traffic.

But because the Blackberry relies on the mobile network infrastructure to broker a connection with the BES, and only transferring data when performing synchronization itself, it faces no such issue. As it is, raw data usage (and cost) is theoretically higher for Direct Push.

However, where I live (Singapore), the Blackberry plans for all the 3 local telcos are structured such that if I opt for a non-unlimited data package, the cheapest metered plan is at least two to three times the cost of a standard 3G/GPRS metered data plan. This is including the cost of the data I will need for 24-hours Direct Push using standard 3G/GPRS.

The higher cost for Blackberry plans is presumably due to recurring licensing costs payable by the telco to RIM for operating the regional NOC necessary to support the Blackberries. Because of this reason, I would consider it to be a tie operating cost-wise.

Ease of Setup/Use
The Blackberry is an obvious win on the consumer level due to their easy-to-setup and highly integrated BIS service. For Direct Push, an Exchange server must be installed with the above-average complexity it entails in terms of either mail forwarding or setting up of the appropriate domain and configurations. There are existing Exchange hosting services on the market, but since they are not directly supported by Microsoft, I have not factored them in the appraisal here.

On the enterprise level, I would consider both BES and Direct Push to be on equal standing in terms of ease of setup. However, having used Blackberry devices before, it must be commented that they are on the most part, rugged with a rock stable operating system. Perhaps it might have to do with the absence, on the most part, of destabilizing third-party software. But the fact remains that once setup, the Blackberry generally just refuses to stop working.

Management Features
Exchange 2003 SP2 does finally offer some basic management abilities such as the ability remotely wipe a lost or stolen handheld or when the password is entered wrongly repeatedly. BES on the other hand, offers a plethora of administration options and server-side control that is fine-grained almost to the extreme. In this regard, Microsoft still has a huge amount of ground to cover – the BES definitely wins hands-down on this.

No other mail servers supported
Well, if you’re using Direct Push, then obviously you will be using Microsoft Exchange instead of with Lotus Notes, which BES supports, for example.