Microsoft has made significant advancements in mobile support technology with Exchange ActiveSync. The XML-based protocol synchronizes email, contacts, calendars and tasks between Exchange Server and ActiveSync-compliant mobile devices. ActiveSync also gives Exchange administrators the tools to control policies and to manage and secure devices.
Being able to synchronize Exchange data can benefit both users and administrators. For users, the advantages include mobility with simplicity; they can connect to a corporate Exchange server with a compatible device and a common cellular carrier, for example.
Exchange ActiveSync also brings an element of control to the mobile environment, allowing administrators to manage the way that devices access Exchange Server. This is particularly important as mobile devices continue to mature and slowly transition from simple messaging devices to more comprehensive unified communication devices. Exchange experts note that the need to control data and how it's accessed is vital in preventing data leakage.
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"If I want control over how those devices connect, what capabilities they have and can't have, how securely they connect, what happens if a device is lost or stolen… that's the policy stuff that's built into ActiveSync," said Lee Benjamin, Exchange MVP and messaging architect with ExchangeGuy Consulting in Boston.
Each manufacturer handles Exchange ActiveSync differently
Microsoft licenses Exchange ActiveSync to mobile device manufacturers, and today many major mobile device vendors support ActiveSync, including Windows Mobile/Windows Phone, Apple iPhone and iPod, Google Android and Palm WebOS devices.
However, no two mobile devices support ActiveSync in the same way. Each manufacturer can select and modify the particular ActiveSync features that its device supports.
For example, one manufacturer may implement bandwidth reduction or multiple folder synchronization capabilities, while another manufacturer may not. This is an issue with the mobile device vendor, not Exchange ActiveSync. The onus is on each organization to determine the features that are needed and then to select a mobile device that supplies them.
Exchange administrators may face additional challenges when device manufacturers implement their own alternatives to ActiveSync. For example, BlackBerry uses proprietary protocols to synchronize with Exchange Server, but experts warn that this can be risky.</ p>
"You have all these manufacturers that are coming up with their own ways to sync data from Exchange [Server] that don't leverage ActiveSync technology," said Richard Luckett, president of SYSTMS of NY, Inc . "Many devices have the ability to bypass ActiveSync, and therefore corporate policy. That's the real challenge to ActiveSync."
The future of Exchange ActiveSync
Support for various ActiveSync features also affects mobile device refresh cycles. Since most mobile devices come with two-year service provider contracts , organizations can't adopt any new Exchange Server, ActiveSync or mobile device features until service contracts expire.
With the release of Exchange ActiveSync 14.0 in Exchange Server 2010, Windows Phone devices can update ActiveSync dynamically, easing a technology refresh. Microsoft mobile devices have taken a piece of this away from cellular providers by providing an over-the-air update to the messaging client via Exchange Server 2010.
Although ActiveSync has evolved into a safe method to access Exchange Server data remotely, development of the protocol remains ongoing. The latest version of Exchange ActiveSync included in Exchange Server 2010 SP1 gives administrators additional control over devices as well as information rights management, or IRM over EAS. Exchange experts don't predict any new features on the horizon, but they do expect that ActiveSync will continue to evolve with the mobile device market.