I hope this week's Exchange Administrator UPDATE reaches you as you return from the Microsoft Exchange and Collaboration Solutions Conference (MEC) 2000 with heads full of Exchange knowledge and looking forward to sleepless nights as you deploy Exchange 2000 Server over the next year. If you're like me, you're probably suffering from information overload from all the new stuff you learned. Microsoft's Mobile Information Server (code named Airstream) is one new technology discussed at MEC this week. I've mentioned Airstream briefly before, but now that Microsoft has gone formally public with this technology, let's look at what the product is and why it matters to our Exchange deployments.
The idea behind Airstream is that Microsoft doesn't want to be late to the wireless data game. Corporations have lots of information and business processes that they'd like to have available via wireless access to devices such as telephones and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). The telco/carrier market wants to provide these organizations with wireless data services—they know the organizations can't survive on voice alone. Therefore, Microsoft plans to target two key markets with Airstream: corporate and carrier. Microsoft has a pretty good handle on the corporate market via products such as Exchange, but the company is a relative virgin in the carrier market. Time will tell whether Microsoft can hit the sweet spot for carriers with Airstream technology.
Airstream technology provides an extensible and scalable service platform to gather and pipe corporate data and business applications through the Internet to a carrier where this information is formatted and transferred to devices over the wireless data networks available today from myriad providers. Airstream takes advantage of Microsoft Message Queue Server (MSMQ) and HTTP to get this data out to the carrier networks. Airstream has two components: the Information Gatherer and the Message Processor/Mobile Data Server. The Information Gatherer leverages Exchange 2000's transport and store events to push information out to the wireless networks. The Message Processor/Mobile Data Server is where Microsoft has done the most magic: This component provides a server that can host content-transformation modules that format incoming data to any type of device that your wireless network services. The ability to create modules to fit whatever device or protocol a carrier chooses to support provides Airstream extensibility and makes the technology truly independent of the data, format, or device types being serviced. To support a device or protocol (e.g., Java on a phone or PDA), the carrier or device maker simply has to develop a content transformation module, and Airstream can format and send data to the device. Airstream also provides a scalable architecture that lets carriers add service capability as their load increases with simple building blocks linked via MSMQ and HTTP. You can secure the HTTP connection with secure Sockets Layer (SSL) to protect sensitive data.
From an Exchange 2000 perspective, users of Airstream services can take advantage of browse (pull) or push functionality. With browse capability, users can access their corporate Outlook or other content (on a phone, PDA, or pager) over the carrier network via protocols such as Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), XML, or HTML by using the Airstream server components. Push capability lets you send events generated on the Exchange server (e.g., appointment reminders) over the wireless network to a device. I expect Microsoft to add even more capabilities beyond the basic browse and push. Because Airstream is extensible, the possibilities are wide open.
Microsoft won't release Airstream until spring 2001, but 500 people used Airstream at MEC this week as part of a joint project between Microsoft and AT&T Wireless. I look for Microsoft to continue to massage Airstream technology into what corporate data users and carriers are looking for. Assuming Microsoft can figure out how to do business in the unfamiliar carrier market, Airstream has huge potential.