Apple’s MobileMe Service: No Linux For You

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I have a first generation Apple iPhone and on the 11th of July I downloaded the version 2.0 software via iTunes. I had been reading about the iPhone’s new 2.0 software functions and the MobileMe service and was eager to try them out.

We currently have a Microsoft Exchange 2003 infrastructure and I was curious to see how the MobileMe service stacked up against it. I should also mention that we are switching all our infrastructure out for Linux desktops and servers. We already dual boot all of our workstations between Ubuntu and Windows XP Pro. Most computers are now upgraded to VirtualBox on Ubuntu and so we can still use some applications that need Windows.

Although I am comparing MobileMe with Microsoft Exchange Server, I should also point out that we are evaluating other Exchange replacements which are Linux based. On our short list are: Scalix, Zimbra and Open Xchange. So far we seem to be leaning towards Scalix, however Zimbra is also strong in the running.

We are also well into replacing Microsoft Office with Open Office. So far there have not been any problems for us to use all our existing Microsoft Office documents with Open Office. As our preferred email client we have been using Evolution as the replacement for Microsoft Outlook.

So back to the iPhone and MobileMe evaluation.
Since we have a Exchange infrastructure available I first tried setting up a iPhone to connect to the Exchange Server. Even though the iPhone reports that it has connected to our Exchange Server we were unable to get email to or from the iPhone. After looking up Apple’s documentation they indicate a front end server implementation with a ISA server. That’s more infrastructure than we have, and I presume also more infrastructure than most small businesses with Windows Small Business Server Edition setups.
After several unsuccessful attempts I gave up. I did not want to spend a day on this since our Exchange Server’s days are numbered.

So I decided at this point to connect the iPhone to the MobileMe service and try their push technology. Unfortunately this was also unsuccessful and although no errors were reported in the MobileMe control panel applet no contact nor calendar data has been synced to the MobileMe cloud server.

I figured this may be due to the fact that the Microsoft Outlook user profile I used was still connected to the Exchange Server so I created a new Windows XP user profile and a new Microsoft Outlook user profile that did not connect to the Exchange Server. I imported only the contact and calendar data from a PST file backup and did the over ride sync in the advanced preferences in the MobileMe control panel applet.

Voila. I was able to get the contacts to sync to the MobileMe web application. However when I tried to open the calendar on the MobileMe service I got this error:

Calendar Error
MobileMe Calendar could not start because it was unable to load any calendars from the server. Try reloading Calendar. If this problem persists, contact MobileMe Support.

We get this error every time we try to open the calendar in the MobileMe service. I have reported this several times to Apple’s online support, however even though we get a message stating we will receive a reply within 48 hours we have yet to hear back from Apple.

Now all this testing was done from a computer booted into Windows XP Pro. It was time I got to the meat and tested these systems from a Ubuntu Linux system since this is the new infrastructure we are implementing.

The testing on the MobileMe service from Ubuntu turned out to be a very brief experiment. It seems Apple no likey Linux because if you go to the Me.com web site from Firefox 3 on Ubuntu you get this:

mobileme_on_ubuntu_error-sm

I have to say, this is very disappointing. I do not see any reason why MobileMe’s Me.com can work with Firefox 3 on Windows (and presumable Mac) and not on Firefox 3 on Ubuntu. I believe that a browser is a browser and this is contra to the ubiquitous computing holy grail that the technology sector has been preaching for years.

What also surprises me is that I did not hear this anywhere already. You would think that this glaring inoperability would be noted somewhere in the media. It seems that in the shock and awe that has accompanied the iPhone 3G rollout, nobody, including Apple, really tested these systems thoroughly. Clearly the MobileMe service is not ready for prime time. It is very very slow and when you do get it to work it makes your iPhone very laggy because anytime you open your contacts on the iPhone you will be waiting 5 to 15 seconds while it seems to be checking in with the contacts on the cloud Apple servers. This is really unacceptable.

Although not a bug, a feature that is glaringly missing from the MobileMe service is the ability for a organization to use their existing domain name. If Apple wants to attract businesses to this service they will need to be able to use their own branded email addresses instead of the username @ me.com MobileMe service email addresses. Google does provide this capability with their Google Apps platform.

Conclusion

I believe that MobileMe is a really great concept. I expect that the mad rush of iPhone sales has overwhelmed Apple’s expectations and caused for one a serious strain on the servers that run the MobileMe service. I also believe that as Apple treads more and more into Microsoft Windows territory they are learning that no two PC’s are configured the same and this is very different than what you will find in Mac land where the hardware is more similar from machine to machine.

If Apple gets the MobileMe service to run smoother and increase the performance while they fix the initial bugs in the synchronization, they will be providing a terrific infrastructure service at a reasonable price point for small to mid-sized businesses.

Going Ubuntu Linux

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I have been a loyal Microsoft advocate for a long time, everyone who knows me knows this.  I also was a early adopter of the Windows Vista beta program and did some extensive testing on our network with some positive results.  However, the final conclusion I arrived at was that there is really no compelling business reason to migrate to Windows Vista.  In fact I am of the opinion that Vista is really only attractive to gamers and people who are happy to work with immature products.  The only real benefit, if you can call it a benefit, is the attractive Aero Glass user interface.

As a network administrator Vista has introduced several obstacles that make installing and maintaining software an unpleasant experience.  This saddens me as I was hopeful that the new implementation of user access controls would improve that situation, not impede it further.

Additionally, I was very disappointed with Windows Vista pricing.  I am impressed that Microsoft can sell Vista at the current price points.

For some time I have been interested in trying out Linux.  Previously Linux had in my opinion only been appropriate in the server area, and more specifically in the web server area.  However I had heard some good things about the Ubuntu distribution of Linux and decided I would try it.  For my testing I decided to use the same Dell Dimension 8400 system that I have been using for my Windows Vista tests.

Ubuntu Linux is quite an impressive suite.  it includes the operating system and tons of software, including Open Office.  Open Office is in nearly every respect a Microsoft Office replacement.  If you have a typical Microsoft Windows and Office installation you probably have about $600 per seat invested.  If you compare this to the completely free Ubuntu system you can save a lot of money.  This can be particularly interesting to business users.

One of my early impressions with Ubuntu is the stability.  I am also impressed with the performance.  Ubuntu seems more efficient than Windows Vista, and perhaps even Windows XP Professional.
Ubuntu by default installed a virtual desktop system which is fascinating and should be very useful for power users who like to have a lot of applications running at the same time.  Switching between the desktops is as simple as clicking an icon at the botton of the screen.

I will be doing a more in depth report complete with screen shots in the coming weeks so if you have wondered what Linux, and particularly Ubuntu looks like check back again.

Implementing SPAM Block Lists In Microsoft Exchange 2003

Many companies spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars each year attempting to reduce or eliminate SPAM junk email from their inboxes and servers. If you are using a POP3 email provider you are more or less at their mercy of how Spam is handled.  Often this is a digital yes or no option meaning that you can either enable their Spam filtering or not. In most cases you do not have a choice of what filtering methods or systems are used.

Another issue one can encounter along the road to the elimination of Spam is with the many software applications on the market. You typically have options, too many in some cases for most computer users to understand, in the configuration of how effective the Spam filtering will be. Most default settings will help you reduce the Spam in your inbox, but turning the filtering up too much often results in what is called false positive errors meaning that some legitimate email gets filtered as Spam.

There is a dirty little secret in the Spam software business that you should be aware of. A lot of the companies selling you software to filter Spam rely on Spam lists that are available for free to the general public.

If you are a very small organization operating a couple computer workstations in a peer-to-peer environment there is not much you can do and you will most likely have to implement some locally installed software if you need to reduce the Spam you receive. However, if you are a company operating a client-server based network you should consider running your own email server, such as Microsoft Exchange. Running a email server like Microsoft Exchange in your network will give you more flexibility in implementing a Spam defense. Additionally, by implementing a centrally based server solution you will save time and money by not having to install and maintain separate solutions on all your networked computers.

Another benefit of running a server based filtering solution is you will not loose performance at the user workstation level.

This article assumes you are operating a Microsoft based network in a client server environment. I will be talking about Windows Small Business Server 2003, however this implementation also works for all the other Microsoft Windows Server 2003 platforms with Exchange Server 2003 and higher. UNIX and LINUX networks can also implement this Anti-Spam strategy, however we will focus on Microsoft networks because that’s what we do.

Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 and higher have the capability built-in to implement Real Time Block Lists, or RBL’s. There are other acronyms you should be aware of since the jargon is not standardized and some companies intermix them. MAPS for Mail Abuse Prevention System and SBL and XBL are others based on each of their block list generation processes.

We are going to use SPAMHAUS in this article because we like that they basically told the US court in their defense case with e360 Insight LLC to get screwed. e360 Insight LLC is a Spam/bulk mail company.

Before you begin you need to have a functioning Microsoft Exchange Server connected to the Internet. You must be able to send and receive email. You should then test that your domain is not listed in any of the Spam databases. You can test this via any of the online tools such as DNSstuff.com. You should also verify that you are not operating a open relay in your SMTP implementation. Open relays can lead to your server being used by Spammers to distribute bulk email and Spam. You should also consider tar pitting your SMTP server to make it less interesting to Spammers, see our article on tar pitting here.

Once you have verified that you are not operating a open relay and that you are not listed in any Spam databases you can begin the configuration process.

First you will need to select one of the Spam database such as SPAMHAUS, SPAMCop. You will need to set their DNS suffix information (for SPAMHAUS it is sbl-xbl.spamhaus.org for both their combined SBL and XBL zones) you enter this information in your Exchange Server’s global message delivery properties dialog. You can leave the return status code to the default settings.

After completing this configuration you will need to enable the connection filtering for each of your SMTP virtual servers. You do this under your servers virtual SMTP server general tab by clicking advanced then selecting the IP for the virtual SMTP server and then edit. Check the connection filtering checkbox and OK out of all the dialogs.

So how effective is this? I had typically received close to 600 Spam email messages per day. Now I receive under 200. Your results will vary. Keep in mind that if you, or users on your network, are online shopping and/or signing up for lots of newsletter subscriptions these messages will probably not get filtered since the US government protects the rights of bulk mailers and Spammers to send you as much junk mail as they want if you authorized them, or one of their affiliates, to do so.

The bottom line is this: Implementing one, or several, of the online Spam databases is a pretty simple configuration that you can make to your existing infrastructure for free. If you are not comfortable making system changes to your servers most IT consultants can do it for you for a one time fee. Once setup these services are maintained at the remote database level by the service and therefore are maintenance free.

Now go set it up and enjoy a inbox with less Spam.