Backend as a Service takes on scalability, lock-in issues

Backend as a Service (BaaS) helps front-end mobile developers focus on the user, while capitalizing on the elastic scalability of cloud computing.

Part of a special series on mobile development.

The most obvious result of the Backend as a Service approach is more time for developers to invest in the front end. Other advantages, like improved scalability for apps, meet major demands in the mobile space.

The demands for scalability are quite pointed in mobile, said Michael Facemire, senior analyst at Forrester Research. Cloud architectures that help automate scalability could betoken a change in enterprise middleware that would see more activity moving to public clouds. For mobile application integration, the change appears to already be under way.

"The Backend as a Service space took the concept of middleware and moved it to the cloud and said, 'Now we'll put your initial touch point of these services in the cloud, and we'll handle scalability there,'" said Facemire. Mobile architectures also rely heavily on RESTful application programming interface (API) generation in the cloud, he continued.

"[Scalability] is something that developers might not initially think about when building their app," said Kelly Rice, marketing manager at Kinvey, a Backend as a Service (BaaS) platform. "What if their app really takes off and they get an influx of users? How do they scale accordingly?" With BaaS, the answer is that apps are scaled automatically, according to variations in traffic or volume of users.

"It eliminates the need for the developer to even have to worry about scaling their app," Rice continued. "It all happens kind of behind the scenes with Backend as a Service."

"The truth of application development work today -- particularly on the back end -- is that it has a lot [of common traits]," said Dave McLauchlan, CEO of Buddy, a cross-platform mobile BaaS. "Most apps require some kind of user account system; some kind of geolocation or points of interest; some sort of messaging process; and so on."

BaaS supports common back-end services, offering capabilities like social media integration, hosting, notifications, database creation and event tracking. Those features, along with the automation of scalability and RESTful API generation in the cloud, boost developers over some of the biggest hurdles to quickly develop a high-quality mobile app.

"These back-end services are really helping developers develop their code quicker, knowing that there are going to be less bugs, and less issues," said Stephen Feloney, director of product management at Appcelerator, provider of Appcelerator Cloud Services, a BaaS solution. "Because they have those well-defined services already developed, already time-tested, it makes development much easier."

The BaaS approach is also said to address the looming issue of vendor lock-in.

"Vendor lock-in was always a problem with the mobile middleware providers," explained Forrester's Facemire. "With all of the Backend as a Service space, I've not seen any of the vendors specify that if you use us, you have to use us for the lifetime of the app."

Vendor lock-in is a problem that BaaS sets out to address. Vendors say they aim to give developers the flexibility to deploy and migrate their apps wherever they choose.

Still, technology lock-in remains an obstacle. BaaS vendors might make it simple for developers to export data and switch providers, but "the unique code that integrates my back-end service -- that's not the easiest to pick up and move," Facemire said.

McLauchlan agrees that, while possible, moving an app is not always the best or easiest action to take.

"Whether the developer elects to invest their time and resources to build their own back end, or they choose to … use a service like Buddy, they're going to have a fairly substantial dependency on that choice," he said. "It's more about making the right choice up front, and choosing a partner that … has the functionality and technology required to grow with you as your needs grow."

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This was first published in October 2012

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