MBaaS helps developers grapple with the complexity of mobile app development

A few years ago, a number of startups saw the need to provide a cloud-based middleware platform, known as mobile backend-as-a-service (MBaaS), to help app developers handle the proliferation of mobile apps, which can strain service performance, storage capacity and data management. These MBaaS vendors provide tools for hosting the infrastructure behind mobile apps using the cloud.

The MBaaS was slow to take off, generating only $216.5 million in revenues for 2012. But that number is forecast to climb to $7.7 billion in revenues by 2017, according to market research firm MarketsandMarkets.

MBaaS "reduces the complexities of the application development by dealing with the complex server side programming, reducing the redundancy in creating back-end code blocks, providing ready to integrate features and template back end. Developers can focus more on the front end of the applications and the marketing activities needed for the application," the firm explains.

One of the first MBaaS startups was Boston-based Kinvey, founded and headed by Sravish Sridhar. FierceMobileIT sat down with Sridhar to discuss the MBaaS phenomenon and broader issues impacting the enterprise mobility market.

FierceMobileIT: How do you see the mobility trend impacting the enterprise in the near future?

Sridhar: For our company, we are in the build phase of applications. We are less in the management and deployment of apps--that's more in the enterprise mobility management space. On the build side, I see two things. First, mobility is moving so quickly with new devices, new responsive frameworks, sensors and embedded devices. This is good news for our company. IT is getting to the point where they are saying, "We need a vendor to come in and run our mobile infrastructure and build our mobile infrastructure." All IT wants to do is set rules for the mobile infrastructure, provide that infrastructure access to internal systems, then get out of the way. They want to let the line of businesses build apps using front-end tools of their choice and let them innovate and build apps that they need to be successful. That is all being done via the cloud. We are moving to a world where mobile is driving cloud adoption in the enterprise. So IT is looking for a cloud-based service that the line of businesses can use and consume in a completely self-service fashion.

Second, I see a migration toward more sophisticated apps. A couple years ago, most of the app use cases that I would see were primarily being driven by marketing. The apps were trying to mimic the website, doing something for the brand or, in some cases, trying to keep up with the competition. But I'm seeing more and more the case now where enterprises are fundamentally thinking about what an app on a phone or tablet can do to fundamentally change the business process for the better and potentially increase revenue and cut costs. We are seeing more and more use cases that fall into that bucket--more sophisticated transformative apps rather than just apps to be competitive. These are the two major trends I'm seeing again and again when I talk to enterprise customers.

FierceMobileIT: Could you talk about what mobile backend-as-a-service entails and how it helps enterprises with app development and deployment?

Sridhar: Backend-as-a-service is a cloud platform that allows developers access to four major components: data, identity, business logic and engagement capabilities. It allows them access to these four things via client-side libraries. For the front-end developer, the application programming interface (API) that they care about is not a REST endpoint, but the API for the mobile developer is the client library. So from a developer experience standpoint, they are building apps in a UX-first method. They are building out the front end of the app, dropping the library into the project, and then letting the library take care of a lot of the complicated front-end things like encryption of data, managing data online and off-line, and syncing data with back-end systems, etc.

On the back end, they are trying to access data or send data either into the back end or to some third-party source. Same thing with identity--they are trying to authenticate users and determine what privileges they have via the backend-as-a-service platform or via a third-party service. Third, they are trying to consume a lot of engagement features like push notification, SMS, analytics, beacons and so on. Fourth, they are tying all these things together--data, identity and engagement--via new business processes and business logic that they host on the backend-as-a-service platform that brings everything together and makes the app experience very contextual. So backend-as-a-service is a cloud platform that brings together data, identity, business logic and engagement as one cloud service and ties it down to client-side libraries.

FierceMobileIT: What do you see as some of the challenges of scaling multiple enterprise apps?

Sridhar: It depends on the use case. Some enterprise apps are going to have either in the high hundreds of thousands or millions of active users if they are an app catered toward their end customer. That is a well-known problem for us because we run Kinvey.com as a publicly accessible cloud service. We have learned how to scale it over the last few years. But the other complexity is connecting to a disparate set of enterprise back-end systems and how do you make that process simple. We are the only company in the space that has an open source toolkit that we call Data Links that make it really easy to connect existing enterprise back-end systems into our backend-as-a-service platform and mobilize it. In effect what we're doing is we're converting a legacy protocol into a REST layer and changing the transport mechanism. So those are the two complexities--scaling and securing the system itself and then accessing various kinds of enterprise back-end systems.

FierceMobileIT: You mentioned beacons as being one of the aspects of mobile backend-as-a-service. Could you talk about some of the implications of beacons for app developers?

Sridhar: At a high level, what we see are sensors of different kinds coming into play--in some cases they're Wi-Fi, in some cases they're beacons, in some cases they are wearables. So we have customers that are doing all of those things or some of those things. At the end of the day, a beacon is a device that is helping you measure proximity to a certain location. What you need the back end for is to determine now that you have proximity what do you want to do with that information. Do you want to send information to a user? Do you want to store it for compliance purposes? Do you want to send new content to an end user? Do you want to alert another user? Do you want to create a ring fence around a set of users and do something with them as a group? These are the business-level decisions you need to make for each app. For us, information that the device gets from a beacon is another type of data and the app via our library sends that data to Kinvey. Then we make it really easy for developers to write business logic to then determine what they need to do now that they know the proximity context and who the user is.

FierceMobileIT: Do you think it is a good idea for enterprises to deploy enterprise app stores?

Sridhar: With BYOD, my end users have the ability to root my device if they want to. I have enterprise data on that device, and how do I provide my end users a secure capability to run enterprise apps while at the same time knowing that they could root my phone? How do I protect my brand? Ultimately an enterprise app store is a good way to consolidate where your enterprise apps live. Whether it is done through a custom app store that you bought from a vendor or whether Google or Apple might launch their own enterprise app store and that becomes the hub for you, I think that's decided on a case-by-case basis. But app discovery is difficult, so from an end-user perspective, if I know that there is one place I can go to find all the apps that my enterprise is providing, that is a much better experience for the end user.

FierceMobileIT: Does your company have a product that secures apps?

Sridhar: We are not in the app store market. We have taken a different philosophy when it comes to securing the app itself. Our philosophy is--long-term security will not come down to app container or device-level security model. Security should come down to data and identity. So what we have done is our libraries have made it simple for the developer to encrypt data on disk and data is encrypted on the wire. So even if the phone is jailbroken, it's just encrypted data that they see on the device. Then IT can set enterprise-level policies on wiping out a person's cache or revoking tokens, thereby invalidating the application. So we have taken the approach of moving security to data and identity level, not the device or app container level.

FierceMobileIT: Where do you see enterprise mobility evolving over the next 10 years?

Sridhar: Ten years is a long time. I think two things are going to happen. First, enterprises are finally now at the point where mobility can deterministically drive revenue or cut costs. By creating a set of sensors in your company or in your supply chain, you are enabling your business processes to be far more efficient or far more creative and therefore coming up with new ways to make money or cut costs. In 10 years, the combination of sensors and apps will provide brand-new ways to increase the top line and the bottom line of the company. This doesn't exist today because in the enterprise most use cases are still around improving productivity. They haven't made the jump from productivity to cash.

Second, as devices and endpoints get more and more fragmented ... there is a proliferation of user access endpoints. I see that instead of there being a one-to-one relationship between a user and his or her endpoint, there is going to be a many-to-many relationship where identity becomes the key factor. Most devices you walk up to will know who you are immediately and can create an experience based on who you are, what time of the day it is, and what your preferences are. So form factors and user interfaces become highly customizable based on who the user is. I see those two things happening over next 10 years.

Related Articles:
The indie developer's guide to mobile backend-as-a-service
MDM is 'bare minimum' for enterprises dealing with BYOD, says analyst