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BlackBerry server upgrade to face stern tests

An inside look at BES 5.0
  • John Cox (Network World)
  • 20 May, 2008 08:22

The next major release of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server will pose a test not only for customers but also for its creator, Research in Motion.

The first details of BES 5.0 were unveiled at last week's annual user conference , the Wireless Enterprise Symposium. The software includes major rewrites of existing components and the addition of important new ones, introducing a vast array of new features designed to automate and simplify deploying and managing tens of thousands of BlackBerry smartphones, and especially the growing number of applications running on them. The magnitude of the changes means changing the ways enterprise IT staff work with BES.

But at the same time, RIM faces its own challenges with the release, code-named Argon. Apart from how good the new features are, enterprise users will judge RIM as it has asked to be judged: on whether the company itself can be a responsible, reliable strategic mobility partner on a much greater scale than before. And that judgment will be determined in part on how RIM manages the entire introduction of 5.0, including the inevitable glitches and stumbling blocks.

Yet in the main keynote speech for the conference, RIM President and Co-CEO Michael Lazaridis made no reference to 5.0 or its implications for customers, 5,000 of whom were sitting in front of him.

Users are likely to start forming their conclusions over the next few months, as RIM juggles the recent April release of BES 4.1.5, the planned US summer release of 4.1.6, the launch of the 5.0 beta test in early summer, and the scheduled fourth-quarter shipment of 5.0. Users will have to be on at least Version 4.1.3 in order to migrate to 5.0, according to RIM executives.

The BES (pronounced "bez") is the linchpin of an enterprise BlackBerry deployment. All communications funnel through it, as it works with the back-end mail servers Exchange or Lotus Notes, and provides some tools for administering and managing BlackBerry devices, users and the BES itself. ISVs do a brisk business in supplying management tools. The upcoming Argon release will have to surmount a range of limitations in today's BES that make large-scale BlackBerry deployments increasingly complex and burdensome.

BlackBerry pain points

Users are keenly aware of the pain points for administering even small BlackBerry deployments. One example is creating and managing numerous software configurations, which are essentially collections of applications associated with a BlackBerry user or a group of users. Currently, this entire process quickly becomes cumbersome as the number of applications and their possible combinations grow, says Justin Bortnick, support manager for the BlackBerry users at a BlackBerry applications vendor, who spoke on condition that his company not be identified.

Application downloads and subsequent updates can consume hours of manual labor in case of problems, because administrators end up sifting through a voluminous database of entries to find and remove one or two problematic entries, Bortnick says.

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With the current 4.0 release, "you can't push applications to larger groups," Bortnick says. "And there are no reporting tools to tell you about failures." It took one of their customers over three months to distribute applications to 2,500 BlackBerry users, he says. Reliably pushing applications to the handhelds "has been a challenge for us," acknowledged Alan Panezic, RIM's vice president for software product management, during a presentation last week.

All of these requirements and many more are being addressed in BES 5.0.

"This is a major step forward," says Raymond Gayoso, senior systems engineer for Fidelity Investments, which has 15,000 BlackBerry handhelds deployed. BlackBerries become increasingly important to business users, who quickly want to do more than schedule meetings or respond to an urgent e-mail. "As people do more and more business on them, we need the reliability of 5.0," he says.

Pain relief in 5.0

The Argon release includes a completely new management interface to the server, called BlackBerry Administration Service (BAS), with a Web-based console instead of the current Windows32 desktop application. The starting page of the console has an almost haiku-like simplicity: Users select categories and click their way down into more detailed information and actions. Administrators will be able to assign users to more than one user group, with different roles (such as "security administrator" or "senior help desk"), attendant permissions, and different software configurations and IT policies attached to each group.

Another change is an improved BlackBerry Monitoring System, which in 5.0 will use a BES Monitoring Agent running on the handheld to provide real-time data and alarms on a range of critical trends, such as the sudden queuing of e-mails

That's good news, users say. "[I want] better monitoring of what's happening in the BES," says Jill Belben, lead staff support analyst, management information systems, at Florida Hospital, in Orlando. "And more ability to get detailed reports."

The Web-based management console is already a hit. "Whenever there's a new service pack or BES upgrade, we have to manually upgrade [all] the [management] consoles on PCs," says Fidelity's Gayoso. The browser-based interface eliminates all that.

Smoothing application management

Another key change is what RIM calls Unified Application Management, a repository-based set of tools to give administrators much more control over deploying, securing, updating and managing applications, from RIM or from third-party or enterprise developers. The April release of 4.1.5 lets software updates now be downloaded wirelessly. The 5.0 release builds on this: It can check for software dependencies, juggle the software loading order to keep things in sequence, and check to be sure the device has enough memory, for example.

Argon will be the first release to support application "white lists" -- only those applications specified in the list can be loaded on the BlackBerry device, which with the BES will block attempts to download unauthorized programs. "Today, it's all or nothing," says Stephen Burchette, messaging services consultant with Roche Pharmaceuticals, a division of the Swiss company F. Hoffman-La Roche Ltd. Roche has 6,000 BlackBerry devices. "We block downloading of all other applications," Burchette says. "But some users need BlackBerry Maps. Today, they can't even do that." With 5.0, he can set up policies to let users download just the applications they need.

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Headaches remain

Users pinpointed two potential headaches with 5.0. Existing software configurations (those bundles of applications) can be carried over to Argon initially. But creating new ones will require that the old ones also be recreated. "There are going to be some growing pains with software configurations [in 5.0]," a RIM manager acknowledged last week to his symposium audience. "The lack of software configurations migrating to 5.0 will be a big pain point," says Frank Lofaro, a sales engineer for the same software vendor as Justin Bortnick, and a former enterprise BES administrator.

The second issue is the continuing lack of any connection between the BES and Microsoft Active Directory. "There is zero interaction with Active Directory," says Bortnick. "We're still looking at that," said a RIM manager during a question-answer session after a 5.0 presentation.

"It sounds like they're saying it won't be there in the initial release," says Lofaro. Part of the problem is simply the size of Active Directory entries for large companies. A company with 50,000 employees could easily have a directory loaded with a half million entries. The BES somehow has to read all that data or import it and read it for its own use. "Administrators will want good response times and that will be hard to do."