In-Depth

Mobile Information Server: Unfulfilled Promise

Although Mobile Information Server works well, it’s too hobbled by limited interoperability with other Non-WAP devices and application support.


Reality One: Ask most companies what their most critical business application is, and the odds are that they will say “e-mail.”

Reality Two: Increased mobility was one of the hallmarks of the 20th century, and it appears that this will only intensify in the 21st.

Reality Three: For these mobile workers, daily access to critical applications isn’t always easy to find. Tools such as Outlook Web Access meet some of the need (when they can be accessed), but they’re not enough.

Add these up and the sum is that wireless data access is on the verge of becoming a critical business tool in need of a solution. To address this, Microsoft released Mobile Information Server 2001 (MIS) to provide the capability to wireless-enable existing Windows or Web-based applications, including Exchange 2000 and Exchange 5.5.

High on Potential, Low on Delivery
Despite the seemingly unlimited conceptual potential, MIS’ first release offers nothing dramatically new. It only works with WAP 1.1 (Wireless Application Protocol) devices, typically cellular phones or PDAs. The only out-of-the-box application is Outlook Mobile Access, which enables users to browse the contents of, and receive notifications from, their Exchange mailboxes.

MIS depends on Active Directory and must be run on Windows 2000 Server or Advanced Server. Outlook Mobile Access requires Exchange 5.5 or Exchange 2000 with SP1. Both messaging servers support browsing, but only Exchange 2000 supports notifications.

Mobile Information Server 2000
Varies from $15/seat to $75/seat depending on version
www.microsoft.com/
miserver/

Secure Mobility
MIS comes in two versions: Enterprise Edition, intended for installation in conjunction with an Exchange server, and Carrier Edition, aimed at mobile operators. Each edition can be deployed independently; but, when combined, they offer enhanced security. This is accomplished by sending notifications and messages over a secure IPSec connection between the enterprise and the carrier MIS, as well as acknowledging that the notification has reached the carrier.

Setup is relatively easy, creating a Mobile Inbox folder amid the standard Outlook folders. Using rules, specific messages can be forwarded to the mobile inbox and notifications (via SMS prompts), then immediately sent to a WAP device. The mobile user has access to all the mail in his account and can configure the account to enable notifications for important messages. MIS can also send notifications from a corporate network to a carrier network via SMTP, where they’re converted to SMS messages and forwarded.

In addition to providing access to mailboxes, MIS enables wireless access to intranet pages formatted using Wireless Markup Language (WML). Sites can be accessed and browsed using the Internet Browse Sites tab on the MIS installation properties in the MMC snap-in.

Not Ready for Prime Time
While MIS provides a promising framework for delivering networked resources and services to wireless devices, it’s clearly only a beginning and, in its current form, a bit of a disappointment.

While it works well with WAP devices, WAP can be a poor means of accessing enterprise data. Because wireless network coverage can be unpredictable, MIS would be more useful if it supported synchronization and offline data access for Palm OS, Pocket PC, and Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM) devices.

Microsoft Mobile Information Server 2002: A Step Closer

Let's be honest: MIS 2001 wasn't really ready for the market and the market responded with a collective yawn of disinterest.

After taking stock (and noticing both the negative comments and lagging sales from enterprise customers and wireless carriers) Microsoft has decided to reposition MIS as a platform for using Exchange and custom .NET applications to enable mobile-device solutions.

MIS 2002 Enterprise Edition contains three core features: Browse, Notify and Server Active Sync. Mobile devices, such as mobile phones, pagers and PDAs, browse corporate resources, such as Exchange 2000 and Exchange 5.5 mailboxes and intranet Web site through the Browse Feature. Notify enables MIS to send notifications about e-mail messages, changes in task and contacts and messages from custom applications. MIS uses Server ActiveSync to synchronize Pocket PC 2002 devices with some Exchange 2000 folders, allowing Pocket PC 2002 users to synchronize their devices over an intranet or wireless carrier with a high degree of security based on HTTPS.

The product requires a device equipped with either Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) or the planned Microsoft Mobile Explorer (MME) browser. Users of WAP-enabled devices send requests through a WAP gateway to an MIS Server. The WAP Gateway translates the WAP request (which is in Wireless Markup Language (WML) to HTTP or HTTPS asking for resources from the MIS server. MME-based devices will not need the WAP gateway but will be able to send an HTTP request directly to the MIS server, allowing access to the requested material.

In MIS 2001 the notification functionality was provided by Microsoft Outlook Mobile Manager (MOMM) through its desktop-based notification engine. In MIS 2002, notification is provided as a server-based function, eliminating the need for MOMM.

While MIS 2002 is still as limited in its breadth of scope as MIS 2001, it appears that Microsoft has made a deliberate policy decision to focus on the three key features of Browse, Notify and Synchronize. In doing so it has signaled an intention to incrementally refine this product and eventually fulfill its promise.

If you want to experiment with an MIS platform, MIS 2002 is vastly superior to MIS 2001.
—David W. Tschanz

In its present incarnation, MIS isn’t quite ready for prime time except in a very limited set of scenarios. MIS does a good job of extending Exchange data to WAP devices, but that isn’t enough. The lack of interoperability and the paucity of applications severely restrict the server’s actual usability and capabilities. There’s a lot of promise here, but it remains unfulfilled.

About the Author

David W. Tschanz, Ph.D., MCSE, is author of the recent "Exchange Server 2007 Infrastructure Design: A Service-Oriented Approach" (Wiley, 2008), as well as co-author of "Mastering Microsoft SQL Server 2005" (Sybex, 2006). Tschanz is a regular contributor to Redmond magazine and operates a small IT consulting firm specializing in business-oriented infrastructure development.

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