Backend as a Service players, users and trends

Today, Backend as a Service (BaaS) vendors vie with alternatives for mobile apps that must deftly integrate back and front ends.

Part of a special series on mobile development.

Although the Backend as a Service approach may be relatively new, there are dozens of players already in the field; Michael Facemire, senior analyst at Forrester Research, puts the minimum number of Backend as a Service vendors at forty.

Their customers run the gamut. Examples of current Backend as a Service (BaaS) users include:

  • A mobile social network that uses BaaS for social integration, push notifications, data storage and managing a physical server;
  • A trivia game app that uses BaaS for asynchronous turn notifications, version-specific messaging, and Facebook notifications; and
  • A mass transit app that uses BaaS to push messages to users and handle rapidly growing scale.

Among today's BaaS vendors are Parse, Kinvey, Buddy, Appcelerator, StackMob and others. These vendors stress that their services reduce the need for server-side code, work across multiple platforms, drastically shorten development time, and make mobile app development easier. When choosing a BaaS provider, companies can decide according to their development needs, such as whether they prefer an HTML5-compatible BaaS; which mobile platforms they want to develop for; or which particular back-end services they need access to.

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To explain Parse's role in the market, Tikhon Bernstam, co-founder of Parse, pointed to the long-developing trend of apps moving onto host cloud services -- beginning with Amazon Web Services in 2006. "The next inevitable step is a platform dedicated to mobile apps, their pain points and their needs," he said.

Kinvey, a cross-platform BaaS, emphasizes its data integration feature, which allows developers to connect to any third-party service. "Right now we have a handful of pre-integrated services," said Kelly Rice, marketing manager at Kinvey. They include GooglePlaces, YahooLocal, FourSquare and Facebook. "By making a request to our Kinvey API [application programming interface] -- just like you would for any other data -- developers have easy access to those services." Developers who want back-end features beyond those offered within Kinvey can connect to outside services in the same way.

Similarly, Appcelerator offers an extendable platform. "You're not locked into only what we offer," explained Stephen Feloney, director of product management at Appcelerator. "You can build modules, or you can find modules on our open marketplace that provide additional extension into what the developer is already developing." Through this approach, developers can add capabilities like extra encryption, or a connection to PayPal. Appcelerator has over 290 different modules in its marketplace today.

Buddy takes an approach that addresses online API and application publishers' needs as well as developers'. "For developers, we let them build an app without having to write server-side code," explained Dave McLauchlan, CEO. "For publishers of apps, our benefit is that we can give them very, very high fidelity data on the usage of their apps." Buddy's analytics provide publishers with information about app usage and the engagement of their consumer base. McLauchlan sees the mobile app development market shifting to encompass the publisher's perspective, as more companies want to take advantage of the opportunity to engage with users in real time.

At StackMob, said Sidney Maestre, platform evangelist, there is an effort to simplify back-end development, while still supporting complex configurations. StackMob supports developers who need to write complex server-side business logic and make calls to third-party APIs, among other actions, he said. Security APIs allow developers to create applications without "having to worry about encrypting around the user and their data," he said.

Viewers predict that the enterprise will soon take on a bigger role in the BaaS space, as more enterprises look to build mobile apps. "The new trend that we see moving forward is these companies are starting to take a mobile-first strategy," said Feloney. "They're now looking at mobile as the way to interface with the back end. They're starting to develop apps first for mobile -- and then maybe they'll convert those back onto the desktop later."

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