Wireless Network Administration: BlackBerry Basics

BlackBerry is more than just a phone — it’s a complete integrated system of hardware and software devices that are designed to provide smooth and nearly instantaneous integration with Microsoft Exchange Server. The following illustration shows a simplified diagram of its major components.

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The following paragraphs describe several of the components:

  • BlackBerry Handheld Device: The BlackBerry handheld device itself is a combination of a cell phone and a handheld computer. The cell phone has the ability to handle not only voice communications, but also data communications over the provider’s cellular network. Most BlackBerry handhelds include a small LCD screen and a keyboard or touch-sensitive screen.

  • Cellular Network: The cellular network is how the BlackBerry device communicates with the rest of the world. This part of the BlackBerry infrastructure is provided and managed by the cell phone provider you purchase the BlackBerry from. Because different providers have different coverage areas, you should choose the provider that has the best coverage for the areas you most often visit.

  • BlackBerry Network Operations Center: The BlackBerry Network Operations Center (NOC) handles the routing of data between the Internet and the cell network. RIM maintains several NOC locations throughout the country (actually, throughout the world) to ensure that data can be efficiently routed between the Internet and its handheld devices via the cell network.

  • BlackBerry Enterprise Server: Also known as BES, this is the key piece of software that makes BlackBerries do their magic. BES is a software server that runs one of the server computers within your network.

    The main purpose of BES is to act as an interface between e-mail servers (most often Microsoft Exchange Server) and the BlackBerry NOC. BES monitors a user’s mailbox and sends periodic updates over the Internet to the BlackBerry NOC, which relays the updates to the handheld device via the cellular network.

As a network administrator, BES is the critical piece in the BlackBerry puzzle. Most of the time you spend administering BlackBerry users will be spent in BES. Here are some additional details you should know about BES:

  • Although it’s possible to run BES on the same computer that you run Exchange on, this configuration isn’t recommended. Instead, BES should be run on its own, dedicated, server computer.

  • A free version of BES called BlackBerry Enterprise Server Express is available for smaller systems with fewer than 75 handheld users. For larger organizations, you’ll need to purchase the Enterprise edition of BES.

  • BES works like a client as far as Microsoft Exchange is concerned. BES logs on to Exchange using a special account called BESAdmin and uses this account to access the data in BlackBerry users’ mailboxes. BES retrieves the data from these mailboxes and then sends it over the Internet to the BlackBerry NOC.

  • For BES to work, you must grant the BESAdmin account full mailbox rights for each BlackBerry user. Without this right, the BESAdmin account won’t be able to access the BlackBerry user’s mailbox.

  • To connect a BlackBerry handheld device with a BES server, you must go through a process called Enterprise Activation.

  • BES uses sophisticated encryption techniques to ensure that the data sent over the Internet to the BlackBerry NOC and then from the BlackBerry NOC to the handheld is secure. Thus, you can be confident that no one can intercept your Exchange data as it travels from your Exchange server, through the Internet, and over the cellular network to your BlackBerry.

BES was developed at a time when the bandwidth capacity of cellular networks was very limited. As a result, BES goes to great lengths to optimize the delivery of data over the cell network.

Where this becomes most evident is in how BES handles attachments. BES creates a compressed JPEG image of the attachment and sends the compressed image. Even this small image is sent only when the BlackBerry user requests it. If the user zooms in, the handheld requests a more detailed JPEG rendering of the attachment. BES then creates and sends the requested detail.