Research in Motion Ltd. is hoping that the latest version of its BlackBerry Enterprise Server will help convince skeptical IT managers that smartphone technologies can meet rigid corporate standards for management and security.
Analysts and users said that if new fail-over functions and simplified administration tools in the upcoming Version 5.0 of the BlackBerry management software work as RIM promises, thousands more workers outside of executive suites could safely use the mobile devices.
Analysts have said in recent months that improvements in technology — more powerful processors, faster networks, and devices that can support multiple networks — and lower costs are gradually increasing the spread of mobile devices into corporate settings.
Nevertheless, they noted that many IT managers remain wary of allowing significant numbers of employees to use handhelds because of a perceived lack of security and management capabilities.
Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc., estimated that up to 80% of large companies have more than 100 workers now using smartphones sanctioned by IT operations. Over the past two years, he added, the technology has started spreading from the executive suite to the corporate masses.
The new BlackBerry management tool set, code-named Argon, is slated to ship in the second quarter of this year. RIM officials declined to identify the companies that are now beta-testing the software and can best explain its new features.
Peter Walker, senior director of software product management at RIM, said that the built-in fail-over capability in Version 5.0 will allow IT administrators to connect multiple servers with one system that is kept ready in “live, warm” high-availability mode for activation in case the primary systems start running below predetermined performance levels.
Dulaney noted that current versions of BlackBerry Enterprise Server require that IT developers build custom add-ins to accomplish fail-over from one server to another.
Implementing the fail-over capability will require some users to install additional hardware to run the backup tool, Walker said. However, he also noted that the multiple computer systems could share a single database that would not need to be replicated.
John D. Halamka, CIO at Boston-based CareGroup Inc. and a Computerworld columnist, said he expects that the new RIM server fail-over capabilities will be “very helpful to my disaster recovery planning efforts.”
CareGroup, which oversees several health care operations, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, supports more than 600 BlackBerry users, he said.
“BlackBerry is obviously a critical component to our overall communications infrastructure,” added Tony Disalvatore, director of CareGroup's messaging server team. “Any outage would affect over 600 users.”
Walker noted that Argon's new Web-based console allows IT executives to limit the administrative functions any single IT employee can control. For example, managers can whitelist or blacklist a single user for certain applications with the click of a mouse, he said.
Natan Glaich, IT director at Jam Industries Ltd. in Baie D'Urfé, Quebec, said he hopes that the new administrative console will significantly ease the job of managing the BlackBerry devices used at his firm.
The promised Web-based console would eliminate the need for a fat client to run a console, as was required in Version 4.16, which Jam is now using, Glaich noted.
More than 50 employees of Jam, a distributor of musical instruments and equipment, travel worldwide and often use BlackBerries to communicate, he said.
Dulaney believes that the promised upgrades in the RIM management tool set should keep it ahead of competing offerings. However, he pointed out that Microsoft Corp.'s bundle of mobile device management tools, System Center Mobile Device Manager, is closing the gap.
In fact, Microsoft's offering could soon become a viable alternative to even the upgraded RIM tool set, said Stephen Drake, an analyst at market research firm IDC.
Drake noted that the upgraded RIM offering still lacks strong enterprise asset management tools, which would provide IT managers with data on how many versions and models of BlackBerry devices are used in a large deployment. Users must still rely on third-party vendors for those capabilities, he added.
Most of the other options for managing smartphone devices include stand-alone, single-function tools from vendors such as Sybase, Zenprise and Mformation Technologies, as well as more broad systems-management products like Hewlett-Packard's OpenView, CA's Unicenter and IBM's Tivoli, analysts said.
Several of the stand-alone products offer impressive features, but RIM has gained an advantage by bundling its various management tools into a single offering, ensuring easier upgrade, patching and security processes, they added.
Dulaney suggested that RIM continues to benefit from the management software's closed technology — it only manages BlackBerry devices. However, Microsoft's more open technology is starting to catch on with corporate users, he said.
Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates LLC in Northboro, Mass., said that in some companies, BlackBerry Enterprise Servers are managing tens of thousands of mobile devices. The updated version should help boost the number of such sites, he added.
“RIM has the high ground on wireless management,” Gold said. “No one else comes close.”
Some analysts noted that IT managers also like the software's ability to freeze or wipe data from a BlackBerry that has been reported lost or stolen.
Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM recently claimed that about 20 million consumers and business customers use its handheld devices. Its customer list includes several companies managing close to 100,000 BlackBerry users each.
RIM noted that the updated software also adds new capabilities for end users, such as the ability to access, save, view, edit and e-mail documents from shared Windows files.
The company also announced plans to create an application storefront, similar to Apple Inc.'s App Store, where corporate and consumer users can buy RIM or third-party applications for their BlackBerry devices.