Mobile cloud services: Big 3 vs. pure-play MBaaS providers

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Mobile cloud architecture plays a very important part in businesses worldwide as more people adopt mobile technology each day. An important task at hand for CIOs includes developing and implementing business strategies that utilize mobile technology and cloud technology. The technologies’ “synergistic relationship” allows businesses to generate streams of revenue that were previously unknown or unavailable.

So what is the mobile cloud? It’s a set of back-end features that, like other cloud services, are exposed by a REST API and typically include the following functionality: data storage, management and synchronization. Since mobile devices have limited storage and may be offline, particularly if you’re flying, for example, cloud services allow persistent storage of the data and synchronization to the device when it comes online. They perform identity and access management to a central user directory and set of security policies. They can provide push notifications, which are either popular or a curse, depending on your point of view, but they are very valuable for many applications.

They make it much easier to integrate your business systems like CRM, ERP, finance and HR and others. Since the integration itself is handled via a set of cloud services that are designed for that purpose, it makes it easier to access data and update data on those back-end systems from a mobile device. And mobile cloud services also provide API gateways and management to allow developers to expose functions through their own APIs and connect to other third-party services, whether it’s Twitter, or Facebook, or any number of other public services via their APIs.

[Here are] a couple of data points to illustrate the potential and the growth of this area: Gartner expects that by 2020, lightweight apps, which they categorize as mobile-style and web, will have completely displaced the traditional kind of thick, client-server application approach. And they’re expecting that this year 40% of mobile application development projects will use some sort of mobile back-end service. And one could just imagine over time that’s going to only grow.

Walking through a few examples of mobile cloud services just to illustrate kind of what’s available, we’ll start with the big three infrastructure as a service vendors. Each of them has mobile services. We won’t be able to dive into detail about the strengths and weaknesses of any one in particular, but just realize that this is an area of intense competition among Amazon, Microsoft and Google — and very rapid development.

All you had to do to see that frenzy of competition: At AWS re:Invent — their major conference of the year — there was a plethora of mobile announcements and sessions, and [at] the AzureCon conference, I think it was almost the week before, had a similar emphasis. AWS has what’s called Cognito, which assists with that mobile device synchronization and authentication; the Mobile Hub, which is a more comprehensive application design, testing and deployment platform; a managed API Gateway, which is … for much more than just mobile, but it’s very relevant here; and the Device Farm, which is a unique capability, [allowing] developers to actually test mobile clients on real-live devices running various versions of the mobile software. So, if you say you want to see how your application runs on an iPhone 5S running iOS 8.3, dial it up. Or if you want to try it on a Galaxy S7 running Android 6.01, spin up one of those virtual test devices and test away.

Azure has a mobile app service … that’s got an umbrella for a number of capabilities, including what they call mobile engagement, which is really that telemetry and analytics piece; an API management service; and a notification hub, which provides push messaging. Azure is probably unique in that, as one might expect, there’s quite tight integration between Microsoft’s development platform, Visual Studio, and the various Azure services that allow developers to quite easily design and develop those applications.

Finally, Google Cloud has an all-encompassing mobile back end called Firebase (it was a relatively recent acquisition that has now been incorporated into the Google cloud offering); an API gateway product called Cloud Endpoints messaging, [which provides] push notifications; and App Engine (Azure has something similar, which is under the mobile app service, but App Engine is really a general-purpose platform as a service that simplifies the development of all sorts of cloud-based applications).

But obviously the big three aren’t the only players in this market. There are a number of pure-play … mobile backend as a service, or MBaaS, products. These are differentiated. It’s hard to draw broad stereotypes here, but in general they’re differentiated from the services offered by the big three by taking more of an end-to-end viewpoint that attempts to address the entire mobile development life cycle. So typically … the MBaaS will be but one component in a suite of products that includes mobile IDE and UI design tools, write-once-run-anywhere capabilities that typically include some sort of a platform-neutral language and set of libraries with runtime modules that are included for each of the major mobile operating systems. They also may include some mobile testing and project management features. So, it’s really more of an umbrella product for the entire mobile app life cycle.

There’s a huge number of companies in this space, but some of the notable products I’ll call out here are AnyPresence; Appcelerator, [which] is a very well-known and popular product; Kinvey; Kony, which has an MBaaS piece; and Red Hat, which acquired a company called FeedHenry a year or two ago. Notably, many of these companies don’t provide [only] MBaaS; for organizations that would prefer to operate the back end on their own infrastructure, many of these [companies] — for example, Kony — offer packaged versions of [their] platform that an organization can run and that provide the same functionality. But I’m calling out [these companies] here because they also provide essentially a SaaS version of their products.

So what’s the difference? … Why would one choose a pure-play, MBaaS specialist over a more general-purpose infrastructure as a service vendor that happens to have mobile services? Well, they both have their strengths and weaknesses as one might expect. The major infrastructure providers can draw upon a host of other services, as I mentioned earlier, [including] compute; big data; business analytics; specialty functionality like media, charting and streaming; [and] authentication and authorization services.. For companies that are looking at a more general-purpose platform that they might use for applications other than just mobile, the major cloud players have you covered.

As I mentioned, point products typically deliver tighter integration, with an end-to-end life cycle approach to the entire mobile app development, management and tool chain that includes the entire life cycle from design, development, test and even ticket management in some cases. … [Many of them] also offer marketplaces … that may have pre-built modules for specific verticals or scenarios like retail, field service, and healthcare and others. So, if you’re in one of those businesses, you may find something that does pretty much 90% of what you want that’s already pre-built.