The arcane ritual of configuring application servers and writing deployment scripts is a rite of passage experienced early and often in the world of the Web application developer. Mobile developers on the other hand are often a different breed. As opposed to starting deep in the bowels of the backend, they are much more likely to start at the very front, often by launching their favorite mobile IDE and dragging some UI elements onto a canvas. It is for this reason that PaaS, in promising to abstract all the nuts and bolts of the backend infrastructure, is a great fit for mobile developers.
Mobile Backend-as-a-Service (mBaaS) offerings take this one step further, abstracting the entire backend application behind a set of high-level APIs for handling common tasks such as storing and accessing data, managing users, generating notifications and integrating with social networks. Not a new market segment, the mBaaS space seems downright dated in internet years, with most of the leaders in the space—companies like Parse (recently acquired by Facebook), Kinvey, and StackMob—having been founded way back in 2010.
Cloud Deployment Options
StrongLoop, a new entrant in this space, just announced LoopBack, its take on mBaaS. What makes LoopBack unique is the fact that it’s the first of the mBaaS crop to offer both as-Software and as-a-Service. In other words, they support both public cloud and on-premise deployment right out of the gate.
Also interesting is how they support cloud deployment. In addition to supporting Amazon’s and Rackspace’s IaaS offerings, the company also offers LoopBack as ready-to-deploy modules for leading PaaS offerings, including buildpacks for Heroku and Cloud Foundry and a cartridge for Red Hat OpenShift.
LoopBack uses a model-driven approach to connecting with and exposing backend data sources and ships with connectors for Amazon RDS, Oracle, MySQL, MongoDB and REST, the latter allowing integration with arbitrary web-based services and handling a host of connectivity issues including security, data transformation and JSON-to-XML conversion. Users of it’s frontend SDKs—initially only iOS is available but the company promises Android within a month—can access data from any of these connected sources via client-native objects.
Overcoming the Barriers to Enterprise Mobile Enablement
StrongLoop believes that the company’s rich support for private deployment options will help overcome a key barrier to enterprise adoption of 1st generation mBaaS offerings, namely the difficulty in integrating with enterprise data sources.
In fact, this is the first of three distinct advantages LoopBack offers enterprise users:
- Simply allowing the mBaaS to run behind the corporate firewall, giving it access to corporate data, goes a long way in helping enterprises mobile-enable applications.
- LoopBack’s model-driven architecture promises to allow enterprise developers to point to, for example, an Oracle database and, after its schema is auto-discovered by LoopBack, select those tables and fields they would like to incorporate into their mobile application(s). Behind the scenes, a model is created which encapsulates data, behavior and business rules, is easily exposed as a business object on the mobile device, and which simplifies future extension.
- Connectors, the first few of which are mentioned above, ease integration with popular enterprise data stores. Current connectors are relatively low-level, but I would imagine higher-level connectors, for example an SAP connector, beginning to appear as deployments mature.
Beyond Mobile: An App Server for Node
Furthermore, the company has aspirations beyond the mobile-enablement market. LoopBack is essentially a Node.js application server initially targeting mobile developers, and the company believes that long-term LoopBack can come to be the JBoss for Node.js. Node.js’ continued strong growth will help here, as evidenced by the fact that it’s the second most popular project on GitHub, and the fastest growing framework on OpenStack, Cloud Foundry and Heroku, per Issac Roth, StrongLoop’s CEO.
That all this sounds great is not to say that there is no risk for StrongLoop. Building commercial open-source companies is a difficult endeavor, as is building enterprise infrastructure and platform companies. Building integration technology is difficult and made more complex as the number of connectors grows. And the space has (relatively) mature competitors; will they parry this threat by offering their own software-based solutions? Will the enterprise vendors (SAP, Oracle, etc.) offer robust-enough mobile development offerings as part of their own platforms that the pain of exposing this data is low enough to prevent a new entrant from gaining traction?
In addition to announcing LoopBack, the company is announcing an $8mm series A investment, so they have a bit of time to figure out the answers to all of these questions.