Outlook/Exchange using RPC over HTTP with Wi-Fi

Like most people I know, I spend a huge percentage of my day in front of email. Because I’m in a corporate environment where scheduling and shared contacts are important, I use Outlook with Exchange. I have a very light laptop (Toshiba Portege 2000 at 2.1 pounds) with built-in Wi-Fi, and so I’m generally either working on it or suspending it temporarily by closing the lid.

Outlook XP couldn’t automatically move from connected to disconnected mode, so suspending the laptop would regularly hang the program requiring a Ctl-Alt-Del to kill Outlook. Outlook 2003 could move back and forth from connected mode, but required a PPTP VPN connection for connecting over Wi-Fi. (Besides needing a VPN from my home, we place our corporate Wi-Fi outside the firewall to avoid security issues and make it easier for visitors.) This meant that on opening the lid, I needed to wait several seconds for the Wi-Fi to get set up, and then click the VPN icon.

Well, thanks to Skymoon’s sysadmin Jim Murdoch, I now have Outlook 2003 (beta 2 technical refresh) running with Exchange Server 2003 (RC2), which supports RPC over HTTP. That means that Exchange’s proprietary Remote Procedure Calls get encapsulated to look like the regular back-and-forth of viewing and submitting a form to a secure web page. Not only does this obviate the requirement for the VPN, but it also enables me to use Outlook at several corporate offices which allow public Wi-Fi access but who’s firewalls block standard PPTP VPNs.

Of course, this is a horrible bastardization of Internet standards, since HTTP is supposed to only be for web pages and the firewalls were (possibly) intentionally configured to block VPN access. Anyway, I don’t care, as I want my mail to work, and doing it over HTTP should make it much more reliable. Those who believe in the “hard, crunchy outside with a soft, chewy center” firewall security model deserve what they have coming to them. (The quoted phrase comes from RFC 1636.)

The trick, in case you’re having problems with the same beta software, is that first, you need to install an obscure hotfix from Microsoft (thank goodness for Google groups which provided the pointer). Then, you need to know that you can check the status of the connection by right clicking the Outlook icon in the taskbar notification area while holding the control key and choose Connection status. Finally, the trick was to install the right certificate from the Exchange server to enable the SSL encryption to work under with HTTP. FYI, if your exchange server is yourserver.com, you can probably install the certificate from http://yourserver.com/certsrv. This was a standard Microsoft install experience.

Of course, I’m only back to what POP and IMAP have offered for a decade with regular Internet mail, but it’s still a huge improvement. Seconds after I open my laptop from anywhere with Wi-Fi connectivity, my new mail has downloaded (using RPC over HTTP over SSL over TCP/IP over Wi-Fi). It works quite well.