Connecting the iPhone to corporate e-mail servers

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from NetworkWorld.com.

Do you have that sexy new Apple iPhone in the palm of your hand? And yearning to connect to your corporate Exchange e-mail account, contacts and calendar? And grinding your teeth because Apple doesn’t yet support Exchange?

UK-based Synchronica will let you do just that, without punching holes in your corporate firewall. All you need is access to Synchronica’s Mobile Gateway 3.0, formerly called SyncML Gateway.

The software talks directly with the iPhone’s IMAP/SMTP mail client, and then connects securely to corporate e-mail servers: Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Domino, as well as Sun Java Enterprise System. In the case of Exchange, Mobile Gateway uses Microsoft’s secure Outlook Web Access to retrieve e-mail from the Exchange server. The e-mail is then sent to the iPhone client via IMAP.

During its interoperability testing of iPhone, a standard practice with new handsets, Synchronica found a slight glitch: Apple was using a specific IMAP command in a way different from other clients seen by Synchronica engineers, according to Carston Brinkshulte, CEO for Tunbridge Wells, UK, software vendor. A slight change on Mobile Gateway was all that was needed to create a completely transparent connection between iPhone’s native e-mail client and Synchronica’s own corporate Exchange server.

“If I delete a spam [message] on my iPhone, it is deleted in Exchange,” Brinkshulte says. “If I send an e-mail from the iPhone and then come back to office, it is shown in the ‘sent-items’ folder of my Outlook/Exchange [screen]. There’s no need of ‘copy to self’ workarounds.”

Originally, Mobile Gateway supported only the SyncML protocol standard, developed for data synchronization between mobile devices and backend applications and services (the vendor also has smart-phone security tools ). SyncML was best suited for calendar and contact synchronization, but it could work with SyncML-based e-mail programs, Brinkshulte says.

In February, the company added into the gateway the recent Push IMAP protocol, a superset of IMAP for “BlackBerry-like” mobile e-mail, along with SMTP. Consilient Technologies introduced a Push IMAP product a year before.

The result was that huge numbers of comparatively dumb cell phones (sometimes called ‘feature phones’), which ship with simple e-mail clients based on these standards, could now send and receive e-mail, via the Gateway, to corporate e-mail servers or to Internet mail services offered by AOL, Google, MSN, Yahoo and others. And via SyncML, these users could synchronize calendar and contact information with these same back ends.

Wireless phones connect via their cellular carrier to the Synchronica Gateway, in the carrier net or behind the enterprise firewall. In this case, the iPhone would be using exclusively the AT&T Wireless EDGE network. The Mobile Gateway software can run in the enterprise itself, or in an ISP or ASP data center.

The iPhone creates a secure IMAP/S or SMTP/S connection to the Synchronica application, according to Brinkshulte. Then, Mobile Gateway communicates with the backend e-mail servers using the WebDAV protocol (for Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning), an IETF project to create HTTP extensions for editing and managing files on remote Web servers.

According to Brinkshulte, this combination means that enterprise e-mail managers don’t have to worry about exposing IMAP or SMTP interfaces, opening entryways through the corporate firewall, or loading additional software on the net or on the client device.

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