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Backend as a Service points to mobile development futures

Mobile middleware is undergoing some changes as Backend as a Service (BaaS) upstarts bring cloud services architecture to back-end processing.

Part of a special series on mobile development.

Backend as a Service is gaining traction as an alternative to mobile middleware, helping developers build mobile apps at a faster pace without sacrificing back-end features. Proponents of the approach say it enables better scalability, flexibility and security, while curtailing the high costs that often accompany mobile app development.

Backend as a Service (BaaS) has been finding use among both enterprise and non-enterprise developers faced with the increasing complexity of developing mobile apps.

The complexity of developing mobile apps is compounded by the difficulty of cross-platform development and back-end processing. According to Michael Facemire, senior analyst at Forrester Research, the task of connecting back-end data to the front end is particularly painful for front-end developers, who are most comfortable working in JavaScript on the client side. "Making that integration step, that transformation, from back-end data systems to front-end experiences is one of the greatest challenges they have," he said.

Building out a back end that works across multiple platforms can be time-consuming and expensive. "When developers have to split their time between developing a compelling user interface and a back end, they end up doing a poor job at both," said Sidney Maestre, platform evangelist at StackMob, a back-end technology stack for mobile applications.

Constructing their own back end often requires front-end developers to learn new skill sets and programming languages, or else hire those familiar with back-end infrastructure. That means less time and money is allotted for front-end work. Yet many of the elements in common back-end setups are readily available as Web services.

"Despite all of the challenges on the client side -- screen size, screen resolution and that sort of thing -- the cloud development effort can be three-quarters or more of your overall development investment," explained Dave McLauchlan, CEO of Buddy, a cross-platform mobile BaaS. "You're building an app for consumers, but most of your effort is not on stuff that the consumer sees."

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The area is new, but developing rapidly. "The state of mobile app development today feels like the state of Web app development in '95, before all of the modern tools existed," said Tikhon Bernstam, co-founder of Parse, a San Francisco-based BaaS provider.

BaaS aims to ease this pain-point by providing developers with a ready-made, customizable back end and facilitating the integration of back-end services. While mobile middleware federates back-end services through a physical, on-premises server, BaaS has moved the central point of integration to the cloud.

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