"Backend as a Service" (BaaS) companies provide easily integrated cloud-based backends for mobile app developers. Though not as well known as Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) or Platform as a Service (PaaS), the BaaS ecosystem has quickly evolved from a niche vertical into an important industry segment.

The industry segment took another step toward maturity this week with mobile development platform Appcelerator's announcement of its Titanium 2.0 SDK, with significant backend cloud services tied into it. Meanwhile, Boston-based mobile cloud provider Kinvey also released its platform to the public.

Many a startup has seen this scenario play out: The company comes up with a great idea and starts to build it, only to see several other startups release the same idea at the same time. They battle with each other over user interfaces and feature sets even as the market they created booms, and more and more companies jump in. The ultimate winners may or may not be the companies that had the idea first.

This is exactly what's happening in the sector for mobile development.

The standard bearer for the BaaS companies was StackMob, joined quickly by Parse, Kinvey and Cocoafish. There are now more than a dozen mobile cloud service providers across the world.

Appcelerator Integrates Cocoafish

Appcelerator's announcement comes in response to its quarterly report on the mobile industry - compiled with research firm IDC - which revealed that nearly 60% of Appcelerator's developer partners wanted some kind of backend cloud functionality for their apps.

App developers' need for such backend cloud functionality as push notifications and location services, photo and file sharing, user management, chat, ratings, and reviews, also justified the company's purchase of Cocoafish earlier this year. In many ways, the IDC survey and Appcelerator's movement into the space justify the existence of the entire industry segment.

Image: Appcelerator/IDC Mobile Report - Q1 2012

Dubbed Appcelerator Cloud Services (ACS), the BaaS solution has been tied to the company's development platform to be able to write apps with Titanium, Objective-C, Java, PhoneGap, Sencha and HTML5 (among similar services) for native, hybrid or mobile Web deployment.

What Appcelerator has done with Cocoafish is take a BaaS system and integrate it into its own Titanium SDK. Outside of tying Cocoafish to Titanium, though, there is little that the rebranded "ACS" has that other mobile cloud service providers do not already have.

ACS provides: user management, photo storing and sharing, rich location storage, social integration, custom data objects, push notifications, check-ins, status updates, chat, ratings, discussion forums, messaging templates, client (device) identification and unstructured storage.

Battle to Be the Best

Appcelerator Cloud Services is now a strong entrant into the BaaS ecosystem, but how does it stand up against the rest of the sector? Kinvey released its platform to the public this week and offers a strong suite of capabilities. With mobile cloud service companies popping up seemingly every month, there is a lot of competition in the space. It is difficult to ascertain which companies offer the fullest integration.

There are at least 20 companies that now focus on BaaS in one form or another:

Stackmob, Parse, Kinvey, Apple's iCloud, RhoMobile, Appcelerator (Cocoafish), FeedHenry Astrum Space, Scotty App, Webmynd, YorAPI, CloudyRec, Applicasa, QuickBlox, mobDB, Netmera, Kumulos, CodeCloud.io, Sencha.io,Tiggzi and Zipline Games (through its Moai platform).

There are also a couple of large companies that could move into this space very easily, including Amazon with its AWS products, Microsoft with its Azure Cloud, Google with App Engine, and Rackspace.

"From a technology perspective, the growth in the mobile ecosystem has created a brand-new development stack," said Kinvey CEO Sravish Sridhar. "The old stack is dying. The new client stack has Objective-C (iOS), Java (Android), HTML5, Ruby and Node.js. On the business side, there is a shortage of mobile development skills because developers are learning how to build apps on the new mobile stack. When they're doing this, they don't want to also build or learn new backend systems. These technology and business drivers have made Backend as a Service platforms like Kinvey popular."

The goal of each BaaS system is to provide basically the same set of functions to mobile developers. Yet some have broader goals while others focus on certain niches of the mobile development industry. For instance, iKnode calls itself a Backend as a Service provider, but it is designed specifically for .NET architecture, which will limit its broader appeal. CodeCloud.io is a hosted NodeJS and SQLite platform that gives it BaaS-like functionality but also provides a narrower scope.

There are a couple things to look for when determining the top BaaS providers. Foremost is REST API creation and management. REST (representational state transfer) is a software architecture for distributing media from a website (or in this case, a mobile app). Any BaaS provider worth its salt should have significant aptitude with REST APIs. The companies with the ability to create and manage REST APIs are StackMob, RhoMobile Parse, Kinvey, YorAPI (which calls itself an API as a Service), Apstrata and Netmera.

To further narrow the field, YorAPI CEO and founder Scott Ling identified the top functions for a BaaS provider:

  • User profiles with social login support for Facebook and Twitter
  • Custom data objects and storage
  • Analytics and metrics
  • Push notification support
  • Rich location data (Ling did not mention this specifically)

Not one of the BaaS startups does all of these things (or does them all well). Some companies focus on specific aspects, as YorAPI does with its API creation service or mobDB as a mobile app storage client. The best of the best in the BaaS ecosystem do more than just provide certain functions, but also look to be an entire end-to-end cloud service that can make app developers' lives easier.

Image: StackMob features

"The top Backend as a Service providers are the ones solving the hard backend problems for developers. Scale across clouds, security of data in the backend and on the apps, managing users across identity spaces and flexibility to run custom business logic for your apps anywhere. It's not just about being the data backend anymore. To succeed in Backend as a Service, you have to provide a full-feature backend solution," said Sridhar.

This brings us back to the beginning. StackMob set the market for BaaS providers and the company is understandably proud of that. While it does not do location, its claim to be the "complete technology stack for your mobile apps" is not pure hyperbole. Parse and Kinvey both do location, notifications, profile management and analytics as well. While Appcelerator/Cocoafish does not specifically do location, it can analyze data from searchable fields with location being a part of that. Israel-based Applicasa also has a significant technology stack.

Update: StackMob does provide location services.

What is clear is that the startups that created the market and set it up to be copied by other companies across the globe are still the leaders in the space. They have had more time to work on what they offer, have refined their approach and will cement their status going forward.

Developers: Have you tried multiple BaaS providers? What is the easiest to use? What has the most nuanced features? Let us know in the comments.

Top image courtesy of Shutterstock.