Mobile messaging platforms scope out challenges ahead

Connectivity limitations, security, synchronization speeds keep mobile platforms tethered

Remember when mobile messaging was as easy as finding a pay phone to call the home office?

Those days are long gone. The proliferation of devices, OSes, carrier networks, protocols, client/server software, and middleware has created a complex mobile messaging landscape. As a result, enterprises face major deployment hurdles such as security, synchronization, management, and network coverage limits. Only a few standards have been accepted to help them solve these problems.

Can software be the answer? Maybe. Just a couple of years ago, Research in Motion’s BlackBerry (devotees call it “crackberry”) was the only real mobile messaging solution in town. Today, the number of vendors rushing to develop mobile messaging solutions is increasing, varying in scope from Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle to device manufacturers Nokia, Palm, and Handspring. A multitude of smaller vendors such as Good Technology, Wireless Knowledge, and Seven have also entered the fray.

And these vendors are not just focusing on e-mail but on mobile messaging as a central part of mobile applications such as CRM, ERP, or SCM (supply chain management). People don’t just want e-mail; they want messaging-driven applications.

The biggest challenge facing the industry is the immaturity of today’s mobile data networks, which suffer from bad coverage, low speeds, or both. Most of today’s wireless messaging devices run on a data-only network that is based on the so-called Mobitex protocol, which offers great coverage, in-building penetration, and power efficiency, according to Danny Shader, CEO of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based mobile messaging software providerGood Technology. But this network is costly per kilobit, has high latency, and operates at speeds of single-digit kilobits per second.

Momentum is instead shifting to emerging cellular-carrier-based 2.5G overlay networks, such as GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), and CDMA (Cod Division Multiple Access)-based 1xRTT. These overlay networks offer higher speeds but spottier coverage.

“Wireless, despite all the claims, is still based primarily on scarce resources,” says David Yach, vice president of software at Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM. “We have a wireless world which is slow and unreliable.”

The fact that performance and security demands far outstrip the capabilities of today’s mobile messaging networks is the bitter pill enterprises must swallow when choosing network and hardware form factors.

Slowly synching

Poor network performance, especially over-the-air synching, complicates the use of mobile enterprise devices. Another obstacle is that an open standard for intelligent synching across multiple mobile messaging platforms has yet to catch on. Middleware vendors must write to proprietary interfaces or else settle for least-common-denominator functionality, leaving enterprises with little choice but to purchase an overabundance of technology to get the functionality they need.

But as the mobile-device model matures toward being entirely free of tethers, servers that sit inside the firewall to optimize interactions and device synching are beginning to look like a solid solution. Good Technology found this concept useful when tackling the problem of how to give BlackBerry users the ability to view large attachments on their devices and to enjoy the radically improved experience of over-the-air, two-way synching.

"The question was, How do you do synch at 3Kbps to 5Kbps with 3 cents a kilobyte [costs] and long latency, as opposed to over a USB cable," Good Technology’s Shader says. The solution: a new, highly efficient protocol with compression algorithms optimized for e-mail and low-speed networks that can be managed by a dedicated two-way synchronizing server behind the firewall through which all messages are redirected.

“The more you know about [the nature of the messages], the smarter you can be [about synching],” Shader adds. If multiple internal users send e-mail to one another, for example, there’s a lot of redundancy that can be eliminated.

Server-side processing can enhance the functionality of mobile messaging by delivering capabilities such as format conversions for document viewing. It can also increase efficiency by giving users partial views of e-mails before sending whole messages and by ensuring that new information remains at the top of message threads.

"What we're not seeing right now are common APIs across the back-end messaging systems, ... at least not [any] rich enough to offer a full e-mail experience," RIM’sYach says.

A cross-platform standard would aid greatly in the administration of messaging-related applications such as scheduling, where access to data on the application back end is crucial. SyncML, the most likely candidate for open standardization, is slowly picking up steam but has yet to be universally adopted. Primarily a protocol for data description and mobility across devices and applications, SyncML also supports over-the-air device and application administration. IBM, Nokia, and Motorola are among those behind it; Microsoft is the most notable holdout. But there is hope.

"SyncML is one [possible standard] we're still looking at,” says Edward Wu, Microsoft’s technical product manager for Exchange. Although SyncML can allow you to interface with Microsoft Exchange, an additional front-end server is required to translate SyncML to Microsoft’s proprietary APIs.

“We [aren’t] 100 percent sure we want to go in [SyncML’s] direction," Wu says. "Do we have the tech resources to do it? We would have to rewrite all the code that we've already done.”

Microsoft is planning, however, to bundle mobile messaging access and synch software directly into the next release of Exchange Server, which will work with Pocket PC and Pocket Outlook products.

The big security question

Provisioning secure systems that bridge the corporate firewall is another task for mobile messaging platforms. The easiest way to enable mobiles devices to “pull” messages off the server is to open a hole in the firewall; most enterprises are not willing to do that.

“The bottom line is, you need to be able to pass a corporate security audit," RIM’sYach says. To establish the audit trail that many companies require, messages must pass back through a central server; SMPT or an e-mail redirector, according to Yach, just isn’t enough.

Good Technology’s Shader notes that there are no persistent IP addresses on 2.5G networks. Although you can perform authentication via the device’s Electronic Serial Number, you need a proxy behind the firewall that not only provides encryption but also maintains connections and tracks the coverage state of each device. Shader says the devil of enterprise-level mobile messaging security is in the details that mobile carriers traditionally haven’t focused on: "We get excited about cross-site exchange administration, multilevel password control, role-based administration.”

RIM’sYach notes that messaging-related applications that perform transactions or are protected within the corporate firewall pose even more complex challenges and that the demand for end-to-end security requires going beyond VPNs, encryption, and authentication. “The only viable long-term solution is where the end points themselves are the only things that trust each other,” Yach asserts, citing the example of tunneling directly from a mobile device to a back-end SAP application. “It’s irrelevant what media it goes through to get there.”

Yachnotes that RIM is working on APIs to establish a cryptographic core within BlackBerry so that developers can code applications that are secure from end to end.

Another security issue is whether the 2.5G carriers will enable the provisioning of so-called private APNs (Access Point Nodes). Today’s connections are typically made via a GGSN (Gateway GPR Support Node), which is similar to the way proxy servers are shared among enterprise customers. According to SenthilKrishnapillai, senior technical product manager at Extended Systems, a vendor of middleware and infrastructure solutions for mobile messaging, APNs are similar to a dedicated gateway (a GRE tunnel based on the IPSec protocol) from a particular device to a particular enterprise server, crucial for end-to-end security.

“I think that’s going to start the fire, once we get private APNs in place, for mass deployment of these devices for enterprise applications and messaging,” Krishnapillai adds.

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.