Developing mobile apps for the cloud

The rise of the mobile device in the enterprise can make cloud more valuable, if enterprises develop apps with the mobile cloud in mind.

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Cloud computing and mobile computing are parallel technologies that involve moving applications or data from the client to the server. As more users access enterprise applications on mobile devices, the amount of data being processed will grow at an alarming rate. This data boom will drive the need for more computing resources on the backend. Cloud computing is an effective way to increase the scale of server computing.

A mobile cloud is essentially a cloud with added functionality to handle mobile devices. Many companies allow employees to access email and calendars using smartphones and tablets. Very few, however, allow employees to access and manipulate mission-critical applications and sensitive company data on these devices. And even fewer companies’ mission-critical apps are designed to be compatible with mobile devices.

Some more progressive companies, like Matson Navigation, a global shipping company, are developing applications that let customers use iPhones and Android-based smartphones to access transportation schedules and receive text alerts when containers they manage move. This is a typical application for many companies; data is viewed on the mobile device but not stored there. 

Rethinking mobile device app development
A company that plans to integrate mobile devices must reconsider application design, development, management and maintenance. This means companies should:

  • Determine who will develop mobile applications: an internal team or a third-party developer;
  • Decide which mobile devices the company will support;
  • Determine where applications will be hosted;
  • Create a secure environment for mobile device use;
  • Have a plan in place to deal with latency issues;
  • Determine what type of infrastructure must be used to support a mobile application environment;
  • Determine whether a mobile application will be mobile-only or mobile first. This means companies will need to decide whether to treat mobile devices differently than laptops and desktops and consider the environments in which they will be used. If they will be treated the same, which should be developed first?

If you are going to run an application on a mobile device that can access data on data center servers, it’s best to take a native approach -- develop the mobile app first and then port to the laptop or desktop. With this approach, a developer can take advantage of mobile device features such as GPS. When the app is ported to a laptop, however, the developer will need to alter it because the laptop may not have access to the same features as a mobile device.

If you intend to run the application on data center servers and store related data in the data center, then it doesn’t matter as much whether you develop for mobile devices or laptops first. In this case, the mobile device will access the application via a browser running on the mobile device.

A mobile device-oriented world will accelerate the move toward decentralized working environments ... Employees will own multiple devices; IT and application developers will be challenged to build apps that work with each form factor.

Another issue to consider when developing apps for the mobile cloud is usability. Many applications, including Web-based apps, don’t work on mobile devices as they should on larger devices like an iPad. Likewise, apps designed to work on one mobile device may not work well on another mobile device.  This is where a mobile platform can help.  A mobile platform, such as the Sybase Unwired Platform manages multiple mobile apps across multiple mobile device types.

Mobile cloud fosters development
Developers are encouraged to develop more -- and more powerful -- mobile applications. What's needed is a suitable environment in which to run them. The most important facet of a functional mobile application environment is the type of infrastructure that houses it. Mobile application data must be stored somewhere, and those applications must be managed. Administrators need to be able to manage:

  • Huge increases in the number of mobile devices forecast for use in companies over the next several years;
  • Large numbers of different types of devices and the various versions of operating systems that run on them;
  • Large amounts of data stored -- music, videos, photos, etc.;
  • Increasing security problems.

Some companies allow employees to use their own mobile devices instead of supplying everyone with a recommended device. This opens up a number of concerns around security, all of which need to be centrally administered and managed: How do we make mobile applications secure? How do we ensure that applications downloaded to mobile devices don’t get accidentally lost or stolen? What do we do if an employee loses his mobile device?

Because data is stored and processed remote to the device, cloud becomes an ideal environment for integrating mobile devices. Mobile cloud computing also provides advantages for developers that, in turn, also benefit users. For example, users access cloud applications through a browser, which makes the mobile OS less relevant. This allows more users to access more mobile applications, and it encourages application developers to build new and different apps. In addition, because the cloud can offer more processing power than an actual mobile device, mobile applications running in the cloud will become more powerful.

The future of the enterprise-wide mobile cloud
A mobile device-oriented world will accelerate the move toward decentralized working environments in which more people work remotely. Employees will own multiple devices; IT and application developers will be challenged to build apps that work with each form factor.

More companies will move to the cloud as the environment for mobile applications. Clouds provide scalability for processing and data storage, agility, centralized management of security, mobility of applications and cost-effectiveness not available in traditional data centers. In the coming years, users will access and store large amounts of data on the cloud using mobile devices, so IT staffs should expect to see an increased use of data deduplication and storage compression methods.

Software as a Service (SaaS) providers are best suited to deliver mobile applications because they already have the infrastructure in place. They just need to adapt this infrastructure to the mobile form factor.

The development and acceptance of HTML5 will reduce or possibly eliminate some issues with mobile cloud. For example, mobile applications can be directly installed through a URL instead of waiting for an application to be available and downloaded from an app store. HTML5 will allow end users to access any application on the Web -- regardless of the platform it was originally designed for -- on any mobile device.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bill Claybrook is a marketing research analyst with more than 35 years of experience in the computer industry with the past dozen years in Linux, open source and cloud computing. Claybrook was the research director of Linux and Open Source at The Aberdeen Group in Boston and a competitive analyst/Linux product-marketing manager at Novell. He is currently president of New River Marketing Research and Directions on Red Hat. He holds a Ph.D. in computer science.

This was first published in November 2011

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