The state of mobile back end as a service

Common mobile application services are increasingly being hosted on central back-end servers – but what does that mean for the enterprise?

If the previous decade belonged to the web, this decade is all about mobility. The explosion of consumer devices, combined with the acceptance of the bring your own device (BYOD) trend in enterprises, is driving unprecedented growth in the use of mobile devices.

Developers are under pressure to deliver applications that run across a variety of devices, form factors, operating systems, frameworks and runtimes.

Hobbyist developers who are good at building mobile applications can monetise their skills by publishing apps in marketplaces such as Google Play and Apple App Store. Enterprise application developers are forced to enable existing line-of-business applications for mobile platforms.

This phenomenon is making an impact on every player in the ecosystem – including hardware manufacturers, platform suppliers and system integrators.

Mobile application development is fundamentally different from traditional desktop or web applications. Mobile applications are designed to exploit processing power and native capabilities of mobile devices, such as GPS for geopositioning and near field communication (NFC). This demands a unique design, where the application’s execution is split between the local device and a centralised server stack.

Building blocks in the back end

Every mobile application has a user experience layer that runs in the device and a back-end infrastructure that hosts the logic and database layers. Most mobile applications depend on key building-block services such as user management, data management, push notifications and social media integration.

These building-block services can be hosted on a centralised server stack and exposed as a service. This hosted mobile middleware is called mobile back end as a service (MBaaS).

MBaaS empowers mobile developers by completely abstracting the server-side infrastructure. Developers can assemble the required building blocks and just write the code that connects them. This lets them focus on delivering rich user experiences instead of dealing with mundane back-end infrastructure.

Initially, MBaaS was all about offering common mobile building-block services. But with the increase in enterprise adoption, the market is split between consumer MBaaS and enterprise MBaaS. Parse, one of the first MBaaS companies, was bought by Facebook for $85m. This was followed by PayPal buying StackMob for an undisclosed amount. With Facebook throwing its weight behind consumer MBaaS, other players – such as AnyPresence, FeedHenry and Kinvey – quickly moved towards enterprise customers. Based on the current trend, the MBaaS market can be classified into four areas.

Pure-play MBaaS players

Pure-play MBaaS companies are startups less than three years old. These companies sensed an opportunity to create a dedicated mobile platform in the cloud and deliver it through self-service, pay-as-you-go subscription. They modelled their business around proven IaaS and PaaS delivery mechanisms. 

Some of the pure-play MBaaS players are:

  • AnyPresence – started as an enterprise MBaaS company with emphasis on collaboration and integration. It goes beyond MBaaS by offering a set of tools for designing, developing and deploying mobile applications;
  • FeedHenry – started as a mobile PaaS before the evolution of MBaaS. The back end is based on Node.js, which supports a variety of plugins for integrating with third-party data sources and applications. In September 2014, Red Hat bought FeedHenry to integrate it with its OpenShift PaaS;
  • Kinvey – one of the mature MBaaS platforms with a focus on enterprise. It has an impressive feature set and native libraries for popular platforms. Kinvey's DataLink and AuthLink make it easy to connect with mainstream databases and identity providers;
  • Parse – started with the vision of “Heroku for mobile”, aiming to becoming the default MBaaS platform. In 2013, Facebook acquired Parse for a whopping $85m. With a comprehensive feature set that covers the key mobile capabilities to custom hosting and analytics, Parse is the de facto MBaaS stack for developing consumer mobile applications.

MADP companies

Mobile application development platform (MADP) offers end-to-end mobile application development capabilities. It comes with an IDE, device emulators, frameworks, libraries, third-party connectors and runtime to host mobile applications. The MADP stack has a mobile back end hardwired into the stack. Realising the advantages of MBaaS, MADP companies are now decoupling the middleware to expose it as an independent MBaaS layer.

Some of the companies in this segment are:

  • Appcelerator – has Titanium IDE and a cloud back end. Developers can use it as a single stack or consume only the MBaaS layer;
  • Kony – a traditional mobile enterprise application platform that is transforming into an MBaaS player. MobileFabric is an enterprise mobile back-end service from Kony;
  • Verivo – launched a platform called Akula which is a mobile back end, hosted in the cloud or on-premises;
  • Pega Systems – bought Antenna Software in 2013 to add mobile capabilities. Pega AMP – the application mobility platform – offers end-to-end mobile development capabilities including MBaaS;
  • IBM – entered the mobile application development market through Worklight and BlueMix. Worklight is the development environment while BlueMix is the Cloud Foundry PaaS. Though IBM is yet to tightly integrate both, it is well positioned to offer MBaaS;
  • SAP – its mobile platform, called SMP, is integrated with SAP Hana, which can be deployed in the cloud or on-premises. Integration with OData and OSGI makes it a strong contender.

PaaS Providers

Traditional PaaS providers are adding a mobile-friendly API façade to attract mobile developers. 

Some of the players in this market are:

  • Amazon – AWS Cognito is Amazon's official MBaaS platform. Although it has a limited feature set, AWS is expected to bring additional capabilities;
  • Google – acquired FireBase to augment its existing offerings in the form of Cloud Endpoints and App Engine. This will help the company in cross-selling its cloud to Android developers;
  • Microsoft – Azure Mobile Services is a mature MBaaS in the cloud. Microsoft added support for non-Windows platforms to attract iOS and Android developers;
  • Salesforce – the company is consolidating Force.com and Heroku to offer end-to-end mobile services. Lightning will strengthen the position of Salesforce in the mobile market;
  • Red Hat – When OpenShift and FeedHenry are integrated, Red Hat will become a dominant force in the MBaaS market;
  • Pivotal – recently added mobile services to its Cloud Foundry PaaS, marking the official entry into the mobile back-end market.

API Enablers

As enterprises start to expose and consume APIs, managing them becomes critical. API management companies provide API virtualisation, governance, metering and billing. 

These companies are logically positioned to exploit the MBaaS opportunity:

  • Apigee – one of the first API management companies with an MBaaS offering that came via UserGrid acquisition;
  • CA – acquired Layer7 to offer CA Mobile API Gateway. Though it lacks some of the key building-block services, the platform is preferred for its enterprise features;
  • Intel – with the acquisitions of Mashery and Aepona, Intel has become the Mobile Middleware API company. Enterprises developing and deploying on-premise mobile applications prefer Intel for its comprehensive API management support. 

The MBaaS market is one of the fastest growing cloud services delivery model. In terms of the number of players operating in the market, it surpasses the PaaS market.

Seeing the opportunity in this space, everyone from traditional platform companies to IaaS providers to PaaS suppliers to early-stage startups are jumping on the bandwagon.

In the future, the trend for wearable mobile technology and the internet of things (IoT) will drive MBaaS to support new use cases and scenarios.

This was last published in December 2014

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So, what will be the difference between the MADP companies that decouple the middleware and expose it as an independent MBaaS layer and the pure MBaaS players? Is it similar to the difference between hyper-converged and converged infrastructure?
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In the MADP and API enabler groups, you should also have a look to open source alternatives such as Convertigo
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