Sunday, March 8, 2009

Exchange calendar sync to iPhone through Evolution

Finally, I have found an easy and transparent way of syncing my corporate calendar (on the evil MS Exchange server, of course) to my iPhone over-the-air, without involving any manual work. The same recipe can actually work for other mobile phones as well, read on!

Current syncing path is as follows:
Exchange → Evolution → (gcaldaemon) → Google Calendar → (Google Sync) iPhone

If it looks long, don't worry - it is not so difficult in reality.

  1. Exchange - this is where the calendar is stored, which very often is located behind a firewall, where it cannot be talked to directly from a mobile phone.
  2. Exchange is accessed using Evolution Exchange connector (poor Outlook users may find this helpful).
  3. gcaldaemon is an open-source tool for doing various interesting tricks with Google Calendar, including syncing it with Evolution, see below for details.
  4. Google Calendar is a full-featured web-based calendar, where you can store several calendars. It is especially convenient together with GMail, but doesn't require it.
  5. Google Sync is a new service from Google that can sync your Google Calendar (and contacts from GMail) to various programs and mobile devices.
  6. iPhone is where you get both your personal and corporate calendars, always with you :-)
So, actually the keyword here is Google Calendar. As it is quite popular, it is already supported by a lot of software, so you can use it as a middle man in various synching situations, not only the one described here.

I have started testing the Google Sync from Google Calendar to my iPhone. Google had a nice idea to implement Exchange ActiveSync protocol, which is already supported by iPhone (probably there are lots of Google employees using iPhones). Now you just need to setup an Exchange account in your phone and configure it to talk to instead of an Exchange server. This is another brilliant implementation after GMail started talking IMAP natively. Follow the instructions on the Google website linked above. As a bonus, you will get 2-way syncing of GMail contacts as well if you want. And everything will work via Push, so you will get almost instant updates when you change something on the either the phone or on the web.

syncing works on the iPhone by keeping HTTP connections open for as long as possible by sending a request and waiting for a response as long as your mobile operator's infrastructure permits (can get up to several hours). During this time no traffic is moving between iPhone and Google, so unless something is changed, no need to pay for any data, which is actually better than polling of server every 10 minutes or so. When changes are available, the server stops blocking the connection and immediately pushes data to the phone, hence the name.

Tip: to select which calendars to sync with your phone, navigate to with you phone and select what is needed. I have at least 2 calendars there: personal and corporate one - you can conveniently see appointments in different colors.

As soon as this works perfectly, all you need to do is get your Exchange (or any other) events to Google Calendar. This is very easy using the gcaldaemon. See their website for lots of usage scenarios. We are currently interested in file-based synchronization with Evolution. Note that Evolution now has native Google Calendar support as well, but this allows you viewing your exising Google Calendar in Evolution, but not syncing your corporate Exchange calendar to Google.

Evolution, while talking to Exchange, caches your calendar data in a file called cache.ics. You can find it in:
substitute your own username name server there.

All you need is to configure gcaldaemon to monitor this file and send updates to Google Calendar, totally automatically. This way you will get one way sync from Exchange to Google, but this should be enough to not miss your all-important meetings at work, because then your phone will alert you whenever you are. I run gcaldaemon right after Evolution from the same launcher, so I don't have to worry about syncing anymore. For that, I have created the ~/bin/evolution file (local bin has priority in PATH, at least on Ubuntu), and this script on execution first runs /usr/bin/evolution, sleeps several seconds and then starts gcaldaemon.

Google sync actually supports syncing with many mobile devices, including the iPhone, Android phones, Nokia Series60 phones with Symbian (contacts only for now), Blackberry, and the awkward Windows Mobile. But even if you cannot directly sync calendar to you phone, you can ask Google to alert you with SMS before each meeting starts, which is almost as good, gcaldaemon will ask Google to do this by default for each event it syncs, provided that Google knows your mobile number. Give this a try - lots of operators are supported worldwide, it's not only US anymore.

The only thing that worries now that this just is another step towards Google taking over the World :-)