My love hate aversion to SyncML

Some years ago, I accidentally managed to synchronize my Nokia E65 phone to Evolution using Bluetooth, OpenSync packages from a custom repository, a huge amount of patience and a blood sacrifice to the gods of bloated binary XML protocols.

Unfortunately, soon after that my file system crashed, I reinstalled Debian and the magic setup was forever gone. Whatever I tried, all I got were opaque error messages. After many months of moot efforts, I finally gave up the transfer of events onto my phone and of phone numbers onto my PC. Sigh.

It was only last autumn that I dared challenging my luck again. After setting up a new colo box (it is serving this blog article right now) and having upgraded my Android toy-phone to an Android 2.x firmware, it was time to get my data from the good old Nokia phone to the Android device. Somehow.

The Quest of SyncML, part 1: eGroupWare

I began my quest by simply installing the current version of eGroupWare from the Debian Backports repository. Unfortunately, this version (1.6.002) is flawed with regard to SyncML. It worked partially with my cell phone, and failed miserably with Evolution.

After several days of fruitless efforts, I found a set of SyncML patches for eGroupWare written by Jörg Lehrke, which are already integrated into 1.6.003. Fortunately, eGroupWare.org is offering Debian 5.0 packages as well. I just added the following line to my /etc/apt/sources.list and installed the new version:

deb http://download.opensuse.org/repositories/server:/eGroupWare/Debian_5.0/ ./

Do not forget to import the repository key as well:

wget -O - http://download.opensuse.org/repositories/server:/eGroupWare/Debian_5.0/Release.key | apt-key add -

With the shiny new eGroupWare, I only needed to wipe my previous synchronization efforts and to enable the SyncML application for the Default user group. Et voila, I could access my new RPC server at https://<servername>/egroupware/rpc.php

Part 2: Evolution

This step does work more or less properly, an official HOWTO is available. The only thing I have not automated yet is the fact of synchronization. It still requires manually running

syncevolution <servername>

Update, 2011-05-15: If you are running debian, do not use it's default packages. After my last dist-upgrade (sid), syncevolution thought it was a good idea to parse its plaintext config files, generate an XML-based config and throw it up on me due to strange parser errors.

Uninstalling syncevolution* and using the syncevolution-evolution package from

deb http://downloads.syncevolution.org/apt unstable main

solved my troubles however.

Part 3: Nokia E65

Fortunately, Nokia already includes a SyncML client with their smartphones. It is almost trivial to set up following the official howto. However, with eGroupWare 1.6.003, I could set the SyncML version to 1.2 to obtain the full contacts information.

Fortunately, it was also very easy to add the CAcert root certificate to the Nokia device, allowing end-to-end encryption of my sensitive personal data.

Part 4: Android

Now, the real fun began. Android comes preinstalled with a well-working synchronization service which is pushing all your data to Google servers. Not that I would mind Google having the data, I just wanted to be able to snapshot my contacts and calendar whenever I need to.

There are as well clients for other synchronization protocols. ActiveSync is supported out-of-the-box (and there is the GPL'ed Z-Push ActiveSync server); Funambol and Synthesis implement SyncML on Android.

Because I already had SyncML running and Funambol is Open-Source and looked generally promising, I started my work with it. However, the Android client is "optimized" for interacting with the Funambol server (read: it interoperates with other implementations only by chance).

Besides the hell imposed on the unlucky ones trying to compile android-client for themselves instead of using the Market version, there were various compatibility issues. In addition to that, SSL verification is only possible using the certificates already stored in the system. Neither self-signed nor community-signed SSL connections are possible.

If you have root permissions, there is a workaround to add CAcert:

# adb pull /system/etc/security/cacerts.bks .
# keytool -keystore cacerts.bks -storetype BKS -provider org.bouncycastle.jce.provider.BouncyCastleProvider -storepass changeit -import -v -trustcacerts -alias cacert_org_class_3 -file cacert_class3.crt 
Certificate was added to keystore
[Storing cacerts.bks]
# adb remount
remount succeeded
# adb push cacerts.bks /system/etc/security/cacerts.bks

Nevertheless, the experience was so frustrating that I started my own project to improve SSL certificate management on Android.

After many fruitless attempts at getting reproducible synchronization with Funambol's Android client, I decided to test Synthesis. It installed, allowed me to bypass SSL certificate checking (which is not quite perfect, but at least better than no SSL at all) and synced all my contacts at first attempt. Wow! Considering the time I have put into Funambol, paying 18€ for a Synthesis license really looks inexpensive in hindsight.

However, not everything is as shiny as it looks at first. It seems, Synthesis is not providing its own calendar backend. Instead, it is using whatever is available on the device. My device however seems to be lacking any calendar providers, unless I install the Funambol client. So all in all, I am using Synthesis to synchronize events to the Funambol calendar because Funambol fails at it. Funny, isn't it?

Update: After upgrading eGroupWare to 1.8.001, I can actually synchronize my events to my Android using Funambol. Because they change much more often than my contacts, I might actually stick to this software for some more time without buying Synthesis...

Update, 2011-05-15: I finally found the "bug" responsible for my lack of contacts synchronization. I happened to have a contact with an "&" sign, which was transmitted verbatim by eGroupWare, freaking out the Funambol parser. After renaming the contact, life suddenly became great passable!

Conclusion

SyncML is a friggin' huge pile of shi bloat. Just sync your devices to Google and your experience will be great.