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Are Backend Cloud Services the Key To Enterprise Mobile Apps?

Enterprises are struggling to adapt their application portfolios and business processes to the mobile world. Mobile Backend-as-a-service promises to help.

The world of enterprise applications is undergoing a revolution as the smartphone becomes employees' go-to information appliance. The recently completed InformationWeek Mobile Application Development survey found that enterprises have jumped aboard the mobile train as only 30% have no plans to develop custom apps; 37% of the rest plan native apps for a single platform and 30% are going native on multiple platforms, typically iOS and Android.

Changes of this scale are never easy, but the mobile transition is rockier than most as it affects several variables. First, IT must adjust to smaller touch screens and users with much higher expectations about app features, design and updates, with release cycles measured in days and weeks, not months. In addition, BYOD and mobile networks (both carrier and hotspots) mean IT's lost control of the endpoint and edge network. And just as IT developers have gotten comfortable ditching client-server applications for Web apps, the mobile device user experience strongly favors a native client.

Despite the added complexity of native apps, there's a countervailing trend working in IT's favor: cloud services. Linking a mobile app to a cloud backend solves many of the same data access, synchronization and security issues as Web apps. In fact, the market for mobile backends has already spawned enough entrants to warrant its own category buzzword: MBaaS, or Mobile Backend-as-a-Service.

MBaaS offers the promise of native app user experience plus Web app IT security and manageability. The cloud backend centralizes the app's data store on a platform that IT controls. Like browser-based Web apps, there's no data on the client. Some backend services also include security features limiting what users can do with the data--for example, preventing information from being emailed or copy and pasted. Likewise, since apps automatically sync to the cloud backend, IT doesn't have to worry about managing or backing up local copies.

The MBaaS market, which already includes no fewer than 21 vendors, according to this taxonomy, is poised to explode. MarketsandMarkets estimates the global BaaS business to grow at a CAGR of 104% over the next five years, from $216.5 million last year to $7.7 billion in 2017. One of the major reasons: MBaaS reduces the complexity and time needed for mobile application development and deployment.

[Read about IT management services delivered via the SaaS model in "8 Cloud-Based IT Management tools."]

Understandably, given the demand for consumer apps, most MBaaS products don't target business apps and use cases. However, Point.io is a startup bucking the trend, with a core focus on the enterprise. "Most MBaaS players are focused on UI functionality, offline capabilities and providing an object store, but no one is focusing on unstructured data [documents] and workflow," says CEO Ron Rock.

Point.io's product architecture incorporates several features that lend credence to its marketing pitch. Like many MBaaS products, the platform includes a single API to access multiple cloud-based storage services like Box, Dropbox, Google Drive and S3. But founder and technical architect Andrew Schwabe says its real value is in the middle of the stack, with components for document control, process workflow and metadata collection, including parameters like geo-location and search context (that is, search terms used to access particular documents).

But Point.io is more than just a cloud backend; it also provides a locally deployed software gateway that bridges on-premise document stores like SharePoint, file shares and email systems, and enterprise AD and LDAP directories. Rock feels this is a key differentiator to systems like Box and Dropbox that are adding enterprise controls to what is essentially a consumer service, since the gateway allows organization to keep information on existing internal systems yet still expose it to mobile apps via a consistent RestAPI.

Yet Point.io is decidedly document- and storage-centric. While the platform can be used for simple workflows, it's not a full-blown BPM service, Schwabe says. Nor is it an application platform like Azure. For mobile apps just needing access to existing enterprise document repositories and implement forms-based workflows, it has a powerful feature set, but enterprises wanting to use the cloud for application processing, messaging and social network integration will need something else, like one of the "traditional" MBaaS products.

Like all things cloud, there's plenty of semantic ambiguity because, in many respects, MBaaS looks like Platform as a Service by another name. But while PaaS traditionally focuses on client app itself, MBaaS is purely about backend infrastructure. Expect the two concepts to merge, however.

In fact, Google has fired the first shot with its Mobile Backend Starter for Android, which Google describes as "a one-click deployable, complete mobile backend" that provides everything needed to set up a backend for an app without needing to write any backend code. It includes an App Engine instance and server for data storage and code library for accessing the service. Google's developer site also includes instructions and sample code for adding real-time push messaging and OAuth-based authentication.

Kurt Marko is an InformationWeek and Network Computing contributor and IT industry veteran, pursuing his passion for communications after a varied career that has spanned virtually the entire high-tech food chain from chips to systems. Upon graduating from Stanford University ... View Full Bio

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