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The best enterprise use cases for mobile backend as a service

Mobile development is tricky and harder still when trying to integrate it with an enterprise platform. MBaaS has the potential to simplify things. Expert Tom Nolle explains.

As critical as mobile broadband is, not all mobile-empowerment projects are successful, and the lessons learned...

from both successful and unsuccessful projects have led to a broader model of mobile services, called "mobile backend as a service." We now can see three specific mobile backend as a service use cases: the need to broaden the vision of "mobile app" from a device platform to an IT ecosystem, variations in the mobile needs of various business units that threaten to drive incompatible and inefficient development, and the desire to optimally leverage trends like cloud computing and microservices. Nearly all enterprises can apply at least one of these use cases, and many will find they all resonate.

Early mobile development treated mobile devices largely as web front ends, a means of creating a simple portal to company information that could be used on a device with a small screen. With this front-end model, the biggest issue in mobile development was accommodating the differences in the mobile device platforms, created by the variation in smartphone operating systems. This gave rise to the growth of platform-independent mobile development tools, the first critical development in mobile empowerment.

Platform-independent mobile technology is critical for mobile applications of customer or sales outreach because consumers pick whatever platform suits their overall needs. As enterprise mobile device policies evolved from the company phone to bring your own device (BYOD), platform independence became critical to support the wider range of devices and insure a consistent and productive work experience.

It has quickly become apparent that platform-independent mobile development tools are only a step along a path. A company's entire information ecosystem is a candidate for mobile interaction for at least some employee roles, and the spectrum of information that a candidate can now deliver toprospects, customers, and partners has expanded greatly in just the last few years. A lack of end-to-end information control for security, compliance and simply utility is the first and most universal use case for mobile backend as a service deployment.

The critical task in accomplishing this use case is a kind of "speed-matching," a way of allowing mobile empowerment to move quickly to respond to market pressures and opportunities on the one hand, and employee needs and business conditions on the other. IT infrastructure is long-lived, and when you add in the tools and practices needed to insure information security and governance, the inertia of the core IT elements is considerable. A mobile backend as a service can decouple the mobile processes that demand responsive handling from this inertial base, without compromising cost efficiency or information control.

MBaaS benefits

Even companies that haven't recognized the need for an ecosystemic IT vision of mobility are finding that the front-end focus of current mobile application development is creating too many implementation variations. Some enterprises have a half-dozen or more distinct mobile application frameworks, which results in a duplication of development effort, and increased security and compliance risks since each framework has to be independently certified and monitored.

For this group, the biggest benefit of mobile backend as a service is a federated tools and practices opportunity. A single architecture like mobile backend as a service, or MBaaS, can be deployed across all the business units and mobile missions, reducing the burden of independent development and the governance problems. In fact, some enterprises have found that it's possible to treat the MBaaS as an "application" and apply application lifecycle management (ALM) principles to its foundation technology.  That reduces business-unit-specific efforts and improves software efficiency and governance overall.

This MBaaS use case is best served if the mobile backend as a service solution is provided by or explicitly integrated with the middleware used in core IT operations. Companies that have a dominant vendor, such as IBM, HPE, Microsoft, Oracle, etc. should strongly consider an MBaaS model that builds on their vendor's middleware tools.

Supporting new technologies like the cloud and microservices is the latest use case for MBaaS, but it's quickly becoming the most important for many enterprises. Nearly all enterprises use cloud computing and project increased use of the cloud in the future. Those that do their own development are also committed to exploiting the benefits of microservices, and in most cases these two technology shifts are expected to deploy together.  Even if we assume that mobile empowerment doesn't directly use either the cloud or microservices, the creation of a cloud-and-microservice IT core would surely demand changes to how mobile devices were supported, and mobile backend as a service can be the response.

Many enterprises that see this use case as relevant are looking at the mobile-centric tools now being offered by the top-tier public cloud providers, all of whom have web services that offer direct support for mobile devices. Not only that, these providers are starting to deploy IoT features in a manner consistent with MBaaS principles, and to add event processing using microservices (Google) or "functional programming" (Amazon, Microsoft).

Using MBaaS right

The most critical technical thrust of this use case is the requirement that MBaaS be cloud-ready and implemented through microservices or functional programming. Cloud computing's benefits in scalability, agility and resiliency demand that software resident in the cloud utilize programming techniques that match with and maximize these benefits. An MBaaS platform that doesn't do that can not only constrain the use of cloud provider features designed for mobility, IoT and event-handling, it can make exploiting the cloud and microservices within the IT core applications more complicated and less efficient.

Mobile backend as a service at the highest level has become the embodiment of the "two-track IT" sentiment. The core IT track is responsible for information collection, processing, and security and/or governance. The MBaaS track is responsible for information exploitation and projection, worker empowerment and the business's relationship with its customers and prospects. The first track focuses on efficiency and control, and the second on agility and flexibility. MBaaS, used properly, can establish that structure, to the ultimate benefit of every company activity.

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