BlackBerry enterprise server zooms in on IT management tools

Research In Motion Ltd. officials offered a broad-brush preview of Argon, the code name for RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server 5.0, which is expected to launch sometime in the second quarter.

The presentation to about 20 reporters provided the opportunity to see a new interface that will be used by IT managers that deploy 5.0, but only general details were given. Primarily, Argon will bring easier manageability of BlackBerry devices to IT managers, RIM officials said.

RIM also said its Mobile Voice System (MVS), first announced in May 2007, has been sold to hundreds of businesses and is expected to grow to thousands of customers with the release of Argon and further adoption of unified communications technologies.

Natan Glaich, MIS director at Jam Industries Ltd., described using MVS to drastically lower phone costs at the private music-distribution company near Montreal, especially for international travelers who use voice functions on BlackBerry smartphones. He said his company's costs for the system were about $30,000, but they have already been paid back in three months of use by 15 workers.

In one example of greater manageability, Argon will give IT shops the ability to monitor over-the-air BlackBerry activations and software updates, RIM said. Currently, users can activate and update a device wirelessly, but IT managers can't follow the process to make sure it happens or to spot problems as they occur, said Peter Mitchelmore, RIM's technical product manager.

In addition, updates will not require users to attach a BlackBerry to a desktop, which one industry analyst called “great,” since eliminating the desktop connection can improve security.

Alan Panezic, vice president of platform product management at RIM, called Argon the biggest and most comprehensive release since BlackBerry devices started shipping 10 years ago. The BlackBerry Enterprise Server, affectionately called BES by IT managers, runs inside corporations to connect workers with BlackBerry devices to e-mail, voice calls, the Web and enterprise applications of all shapes and sizes.

The BlackBerry market has grown so large that several enterprises are now approaching rollouts of 100,000 users, Panezic said. Overall, there are 21 million BlackBerry subscribers globally, including consumers who don't rely on BES to connect wirelessly, a spokeswoman said.

Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM has begun aggressively focusing on the consumer smartphone market in recent months, following the lead of Apple Inc. with its iPhone. Panezic acknowledged that the focus of Argon is on enhancements to help IT administrators, adding, “These are not hugely sexy features to the end user.”

In one example, Panezic said Argon will give IT managers greater control over 35 new IT policies for greater security, although he didn't name them. RIM will continue to offer 256-bit encryption of data as it is sent over the air and as the data is stored on a BlackBerry device.

IT administrators will still have the ability to wirelessly lock or wipe data off a device that's lost by a user so that its content can't be seen by any unauthorized users, RIM officials said.

Argon will also be the “easiest upgrade ever” for IT shops, Panezic said. “We've focused on a new tool to help move users from the old to the new.” BES 5.0 will not require adding software to the desktops of IT administrators, who will simply access the new tools over the Web with a URL. RIM's last BES release was Version 4.16, which launched about three years ago.

Other tools will allow an IT department to set controls for what applications and permissions are granted to users. A group of sales personnel might have permission to different applications than the accounting group does, for example. BES 5.0 also will allow IT shops to customize the roles of IT administrators so only high-level administrators could be granted permission to monitor activities of high-level executive BlackBerry users.

Regarding activations, Mitchelmore said IT shops will have more control over when a deployment is done, so, for example, they could set up a deployment on a Thursday to have it take effect on a Saturday.

BES 5.0 also provides automatic fail-over capabilities so if a server fails, the system knows which server to activate as the fail-over server. Today, that process is done manually, Mitchelmore said.

At Jam Industries, Glaich said MVS works in conjunction with BES. Calls are made by BlackBerry devices at Jam around the world so that the voice is carried over BlackBerry's data channel and through Jam's private branch exchange voice switch, provided by Cisco Systems Inc. Previously, a typical week-long trip to London by one worker to other Jam sites might have resulted in $1,000 in cell-phone call costs, but that cost has nearly disappeared with MVS, he said.

Using BlackBerries for calls has also allowed Jam to avoid using voice over Wi-Fi phones, Glaich said. Jam executives had tried them for a while and didn't like them because they were one more device to carry. With the BlackBerry phones connected to the Jam PBX, only one voice messaging system is required instead of two, further reducing costs.

About 15 workers at Jam now use BlackBerry phones with calls routed through MVS, and up to 50 will use them eventually, he said.

While Jam workers still have their desk phones as well as their BlackBerries, Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney said businesses could save about $350 per worker if they started eliminating IP phones of the variety sold by Cisco. “MVS has been around for a long time, and I think if done properly, will do well,” Dulaney said.

Dulaney said MVS does not support Wi-Fi, even though many BlackBerry devices do and many businesses want the Wi-Fi voice support. David Heit, director of software product management at RIM, said he is aware of the concern and suggested that RIM might eventually support Wi-Fi voice.

“Cellular is ubiquitous compared to Wi-Fi,” he said. “We continue to watch it. We want to really get it right.”

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