Enterprises are racing to connect legacy data to increasingly critical mobile applications. The companies that get there first will gain significant competitive advantages, but the traditional means of tying together existing data and mobile apps are difficult and expensive. A new class of startups delivering what is known as back-end as a service, or BaaS, plans to change all that.
Some of the biggest technology companies in the world have been built around storing enterprise data. Oracle, SAP and IBM all have legacy products that enterprises have traditionally turned to for data storage, along with services such as WebSphere and JBoss. That data is often stuck behind corporate firewalls and functionality is tied to the feature set of the storage provider.
When it comes to enterprises, think of BaaS as a window between end points. On one side, there are the legacy solutions where enterprise data is stored. On the other side are mobile applications on employees’ devices. Traditionally, these two ends have been connected through “mobile enterprise application platforms” (MEAPs) that serve as middleware between the end points. MEAP providers include IBM Worklight, Kony Solutions, Sybase Unwired Platform, Antenna Software and Syclo.
The problem with MEAPs is that they are expensive, cumbersome to deploy and are more focused on tying enterprise clouds to mobile devices. That approach does not often include public cloud services that provide the ability to tie into such services as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Places and Facebook, or into push notification providers like Urban Airship. These are increasingly important aspects of enterprise mobility, and the MEAP ecosystem has not yet caught on to the power of third-party public services.
This is where the BaaS “window” comes into play. As Sravish Sridhar from Boston-based Kinvey points out, “if you want a feature they [MEAPs] don't provide you with, you have to build it yourself.” This can be difficult, because there is a significant amount of fragmentation in where data is coming from and where it is going. There is fragmentation between the legacy enterprise servers, different developer tools (like application programming interfaces and software development kits from companies such as Google, Urban Airship or Facebook), and content sources and mobile operating systems like iOS, Android, Windows Phone or BlackBerry. Those are a lot of moving parts, and the idea is that mobile cloud solutions as a service can help solve that with as little pain as possible.
“Other cloud platforms lock developers in with only the features they provide. If you want any other feature or data, you’re on your own. That’s wrong,” Sridhar said. “We want to free features and data from any source and make it available to applications in a unified fashion, by addressing the complexity ourselves."
Kinvey, which announced a $5 million Series A funding round today, is one of the leaders in the BaaS sector that intersects mobility and the cloud. Kinvey, along with companies including FeedHenry, Parse, StackMob, Applicasa, Sencha, Appcelerator, Netbiscuits, Zipline and appMobi (among others), make up pieces of the BaaS environment. In very simple terms, these companies create suites of tools that help app developers set up back-end cloud services to support the front-end user interface of an application.
These different startups focus on varying aspects of mobile cloud services. For instance, Sencha and appMobi are focused on HTML5. Zipline specializes in mobile games. StackMob, one of the first to be identified with the BaaS moniker, has a comprehensive platform for iOS and Android apps.
The original idea for these companies was to make it easy for developers of consumer apps to have cloud services that were easy to set up. But, a funny thing has happened along the way: The demand for the simpler solutions caught on with enterprise clients. Companies like Kinvey, FeedHenry and StackMob have benefitted from this and have built out their services accordingly.
“Scale is a major issue that every enterprise company deals with. When building a platform, a lot of thought needs to go into the underlying technical scale of the system," said Ty Amell, CEO and co-founder of StackMob, addressing his company’s approach to how it can help enterprise clients grow. "Asking an enterprise to invest time and resources into a platform that is not already scalable is a nonstarter. In order to correctly serve the mobile market, a platform needs to architect for scale from day one,”
There are benefits to choosing such an approach. According to a white paper published jointly by FeedHenry and analyst firm Yankee Group, the top benefits of moving to one-stop mobile cloud solutions are efficiency, scalability, enterprise-based control and configurability.
“Moving server-side logic to the cloud radically compresses the time it takes to develop and distribute mobile applications by reducing much the traditional server-side complexity and enabling replicability of code components,” wrote Yankee Group analyst Chris Marsh. “More time can be spent on ensuring the user experience is of a quality that will encourage user adoption and continued usage.”
In the near-term future, look for specific aspects of the MEAP and BaaS ecosystems to start bleeding into each other. Both serve as a type of middleware intended to make life easier for enterprise mobile cloud solutions. As the two industry segments merge, enterprises should start seeing the benefits in terms of lower-priced solutions that are easier for IT departments to integrate.