Deploying the iPhone 3G for business, part 2

Getting iPhones to connect and sync with Exchange servers can be tricky. Here's how to make it all work smoothly.

Deploying the iPhone 3G for business, part 2.

Deploying the iPhone 3G for business, part 2.

In Part 1 of this series, I looked at the mechanisms available to IT staffers to activate, deploy and configure iPhones in business environments. But the biggest new business-oriented feature available on the iPhone, thanks to the iPhone 2.x firmware (included with the iPhone 3G and available for free to users of first-generation iPhones or for US$9.95 for iPod Touch users), is the addition of ActiveSync for accessing Microsoft Exchange.

ActiveSync allows for automatic over-the-air push updates of new e-mails, calendar events and personal contacts to the iPhone (functionality that was already available to Windows Mobile, Palm and Symbian devices). ActiveSync also lets iPhone owners search a company's Global Address List (GAL) using the included Contacts application, and allows administrators to enforce some security policies on the iPhone, including the ability to remotely wipe the contents of a phone that is lost or stolen.

But getting iPhones to connect and sync with Exchange servers can be tricky. In this story, I'll provide tips for integrating and managing iPhones in an Exchange environment. (Part 3 of this series, which will be posted in the next month, will cover the options for developing and deploying in-house iPhone applications.)

How ActiveSync works

Unlike push services for BlackBerry devices, which rely on an intermediate server (RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server) that receives update notifications from an e-mail server and then provides push notification to remote devices, ActiveSync maintains a connection directly to an Exchange server. For those new to working with over-the-air syncing via direct push in Exchange, the following is a brief introduction. Understanding the basic concept can help in both planning and troubleshooting iPhone access to Exchange.

Direct push between an Exchange server and remote client devices relies on a persistent connection between the server and the device. When the device is powered on or configured, it sends an HTTP/HTTPS request (known as a ping request) to the server to establish the connection.

The ping request identifies the device and the user as well as the Exchange folders that the device will monitor. (The iPhone supports monitoring of Inbox, Calendar and Contacts, but unlike other devices that implement ActiveSync, it does not support monitoring of Tasks at this time.) Additionally, the request identifies a time limit for the connection -- also known as a heartbeat interval.

Upon receipt of the client request, the Exchange server monitors the specified folders until changes occur or until the heartbeat interval is reached. If the server detects changes to a folder being monitored (e.g., incoming e-mail or a new calendar item), it responds to the ping request by identifying the folder(s) that has been updated, which causes the client to issue a sync request for those folders (and thus update appropriately and alert the user if the update contains new e-mail).

If the server doesn't detect changes within the heartbeat interval, it responds to the ping request with an HTTP 200 OK message, which causes the client to generate a new ping request. A new ping request is also generated following a successful sync.

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