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Exchange ActiveSync monitoring a necessity for enterprise mobility

As organizations scale up mobile initiatives, ActiveSync monitoring is crucial to avoiding performance bottlenecks and overloading Exchange.

As organizations begin to support more Apple iOS or Android devices, they'll have to deal with performance bottlenecks as Exchange attempts to sync email to those devices through ActiveSync.

Sometimes the issues are specific to the mobile operating system -- as was the case with the recent iOS calendaring bug. Other times, the issues are at the network level, or are due to a problem with the firewall, or even occur because of human error, said Philippe Winthrop, a spokesperson with VeliQ, an enterprise mobility management software provider based in Boston.

It's odd that so many organizations take the time to have managed desktops and laptops on one hand, but then allow often unmanaged BYOD devices on the other.

Michel de Rooij,
Exchange consultant

As a result, it's important to understand which devices employees use when they connect with Exchange, and what they do when they're connected, said Tony Redmond, an Exchange MVP based in Ireland.

Regardless of the reason for performance issues, users expect their email to sync flawlessly on their mobile device, Redmond added.

"An iPad used by an executive who receives 400-plus messages daily creates a much heavier load all around than someone running an Android smartphone who synchronizes with their mailbox hourly," Redmond said.

Issues with syncing are the price organizations pay for unmanaged bring your own device (BYOD) environments, said Michel de Rooij, an Exchange consultant at Conclusion Future Infrastructure Technologies, based in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Sometimes IT underestimates the number of clients because users access the company mailbox from even non-business devices, and that taxes the Exchange server. "It's odd that so many organizations take the time to have managed desktops and laptops on one hand, but then allow often unmanaged BYOD devices on the other," de Rooij said.

After successfully piloting a mobile initiative for 500 devices, a financial services company recently opened up BYOD to its 20,000 employees. During the first three months, more than 3,000 new devices were set up, which resulted in escalating bursts of email syncing delays, said the company's mobile messaging director, who requested anonymity.

Due to a misconfiguration of the session and connection affinity on the load balancers and client access server array, 90% of the devices were connecting through a single CAS, causing severely degraded performance.

"We made a quick setting change, and in less than an hour the devices reconnected and the load was being evenly split," the messaging director said. Even better, the user complaints and support calls died down immediately afterwards, he said.

IT departments can fix misconfigurations more easily once they've been identified, but many of the performance syncing issues de Rooij has dealt with occur because of OS bugs on the mobile device side. He recommends blocking new mobile OS versions from accessing business resources until they have been properly tested and approved by the IT organization. "Having a few annoyed end users who can't immediately access business resources is worth the tradeoff of not having the organization's services brought down to its knees by a few errant devices," he said.

Effective Exchange ActiveSync monitoring

Given that the influx of devices flooding organizations won't tail off anytime soon, it will be extremely important for IT to monitor Exchange ActiveSync performance, whether through PowerShell or by adopting a vendor tool, Exchange MVP Redmond said.

A new tool from mobile device management vendor BoxTone allows IT departments to monitor mobile Exchange performance along with all of their devices.

BoxTone's new Exchange ActiveSync monitoring tool lets IT administrators view performance data on both the infrastructure side and client side, while making it possible to take action on those failures right from the admin console. Such issues as a simple misconfiguration -- or that iOS calendar bug that overloaded Exchange at many organizations -- would be identified almost immediately, said Brian Reed, BoxTone's chief marketing officer.

BoxTone isn't the only vendor offering an Exchange ActiveSync monitoring tool. Citrix Systems Inc. offers one through its mobile device management product, XenMobile, which was formerly Zenprise. BlackBerry offers an array of monitoring tools for email syncing and performance that will be available for its new BlackBerry 10 platform.

In addition, Microsoft makes it possible to manage Exchange ActiveSync clients through a combination of PowerShell and the administration consoles in Exchange 2010 and Exchange 2013, Redmond said. "Any administrator worth their salt who uses an hour or so to browse the Internet can find scripts that they can use to manage [Exchange ActiveSync] through PowerShell," he said. "It really is very powerful."

The BoxTone Exchange ActiveSync monitoring module costs $30 per mobile device (perpetual license), plus maintenance and support fees.

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