Top 7 Mobile-Backend-as-a-Service Platforms for 2020 and Beyond
We review top MBaaS platforms and cover the major considerations of MBaaS implementation to look out for in your project.
Due to the remarkable proliferation of mobile apps for business and leisure, the industry has grown to become a fiercely competitive one. To gain an upper hand in such an environment, app creators need to not only deliver high quality with a unique value proposition, but also do it faster than any other rival. This sentiment urges tech enterprises to seek out ways to shorten their development timeline.
As practice shows, backend development is the most time-consuming stage of a mobile application development project. One of the reasons for this is the sheer volume of code required to build the functionality, business logic, data architecture, and third-party integrations, much of that from scratch. Moreover, while some backend development tasks are unsophisticated and repetitive, a fair share of them require engineers to think out of the box and be meticulous.
Not so long ago, tech companies had two not particularly favorable options for fast-tracking mobile backend development: compromise on the end-product’s quality and robustness or augment the team with in-house or outsourced engineers. Now there’s mobile-backend-as-a-service — the solution allowing mobile app developers to streamline cumbersome backend development without quality trade-offs or heavy spending while implementing advanced features into their solutions.
MBaaS at a Glance
The term mobile-backend-as-a-service (MBaaS) describes a cloud computing platform that provides pre-developed and ready-to-use backend functions via custom SDKs or APIs.
As a rule, MBaaS encompasses the infrastructure and functionality most commonly found in an average mobile backend, such as data storage, geolocation, authentication, push notifications, user management, and such. Leveraging an MBaaS platform, the engineering team can simply incorporate the needed feature into their mobile application, skipping the stage of its development.
This way, using a mobile-backend-as-a-service can save developers weeks or even months of effort, enabling them to build fully-functional and feature-rich apps quicker. From the business perspective, MBaaS helps accelerate time-to-market while also reducing development costs.
As the technology advanced and gained prominence in the backend development community, both tech giants and SMBs began adopting MBaaS not only for MVPs and single-function apps, but also for more complex consumer and enterprise solutions. As a result, in the last six years, the global MBaaS market experienced unprecedented growth and is projected to exceed $87 billion by 2023.
Top 7 MBaaS Platforms and Tools
There are many factors to consider when choosing a suitable MBaaS solution. The variety of backend features, richness of SDKs and APIs, ease of use, documentation availability, and pricing model — all this defines how well the platform can contribute to your cloud mobile development project. Over and above, one should also evaluate the reliability of an MBaaS vendor and the solution’s popularity in the development community.
To help you navigate the burgeoning MBaaS market, we surveyed the most prominent platforms and reviewed in detail the benefits and weak points of each.
Firebase is a leading backend-as-a-service platform for serverless Android, iOS, and web app development. Originally a rather limited tool, in 2014 Firebase was acquired by Google, which put a lot of effort to transform it into a comprehensive BaaS platform. Today, software engineers from The New York Times, Duolingo, Lyft, Venmo, The Economist, and other renowned companies utilize it to ship their applications.
The Firebase platform has three distinct service categories:
- “Build better apps” includes user authentication, cloud storage, and hosting features, as well as the proprietary Cloud Firestone NoSQL database and Firebase ML kit, allowing developers to train and deploy custom algorithms.
- “Improve your app” encompasses features for performance monitoring, app quality assessment, and crash analytics.
- “Grow your business” includes features aimed at enhancing user engagement and retention. Among them are an A/B testing tool, in-app and cloud messaging, dynamic links, and user segment analytics.
In addition to this versatile feature set, Firebase stands out with its ease of use and shallow learning curve. Also, due to Google's active support and a considerable community of developers, the platform has detailed technical documentation, user guides, and tutorial videos.
In the meantime, Firebase is not a good match for large-scale, complex applications because of its limited query abilities and data migration complexity. Moreover, the Firebase pricing model makes it an expensive option for projects that involve a heavy volume of database transactions, like retail apps and such.
AWS Amplify is a set of libraries, UI components, and a command-line interface designed to help mobile and web developers build full-stack applications. Launched at the end of 2017, Amplify is a relatively young BaaS solution that is being actively explored by the development community. As of today, development teams from HyperTrack, Orangetheory, and Branch leverage it for their software products.
The Amplify libraries contain services for creating user sign-in, push notifications, and data storages, together with AI/ML capabilities for image recognition, text interpretation, and speech transcription in iOS or Android apps. Using Amplify’s CLI toolchain, developers can easily create and maintain a serverless AWS backend.
AWS Amplify is praised for its wide variety of features and reasonable pay-per-use pricing model. Amplify is considered more suitable for large-scale projects with stringent quality and security requirements rather than for startup-level projects. Still, the platform’s tangible complexity and steep learning curve are the major turn-offs for companies looking to reduce time to market above all.
Released in 2014, Backendless is an up-and-coming MBaaS platform that can pretty much compete with Google and AWS products. The solution has a solid customer base of SMBs and Fortune 500 companies, with Accenture, Dell, and Capgemini in their midst.
There are also the Backendless Pro and Managed Backendless editions, targeted at large enterprises. The Pro version has no functional limitations and can be installed anywhere, from a developer’s computer to a public cloud, while Managed Backendless includes a dedicated server cluster, staged exclusively for the client, and a full support of server-side operations from the Backendless team.
In 2020, the company introduced Backendless v6.0 that includes a UI builder, multi-environment development features, and a transactions API. This high-profile release elevates Backendless from a backend builder to a visual app development platform.
The strong points of Backendless are its user-friendliness, ease of integration, continuous addition of new features, and reliable support. On the downside, many developers find the free version too limited and admit facing difficulties with complex server logic tasks.
Founded in 2010, Kinvey grew to become a popular mobile-backend-as-a-service solution relied on by such prominent businesses as Schneider Electric and VMware. In 2017, the platform was acquired by Progress Software, a US technology provider for business application development. Kinvey was integrated with several existing Progress tools but remained a standalone product with its core functionality intact.
Progress Kinvey is positioned as an enterprise-grade solution for streamlining development and deployment of iOS, Android, and web applications as well as progressive web applications. In addition to the core features for push notifications and authentication, this MBaaS platform also provides customer and user engagement features as well as IoT data management capabilities. Beyond this, Progress Kinvey has dedicated microservices for healthcare, insurance, and manufacturing fields, which distinguishes it from other MBaaS solutions on the market.
With its differential pricing models, Kinvey proves cost-effective for individual software engineers, SMBs, and large enterprise teams, while its ample technical documentation and knowledge base makes the platform accessible even to inexperienced developers.
When in 2017 Facebook discontinued Parse, the leading MBaaS tool at the time, the enthusiastic development community assumed the responsibility for the support and maintenance of its open-source version, Parse Server. Since then, several modern MBaaS providers built their platforms upon Parse Server, Back4App being the most prominent of them.
The solution provides a convenient spreadsheet-like database, allowing developers to easily create, update, and sync application data. Back4App also offers a choice between shared and dedicated hosting options for their future software.
Another notable feature of the platform is the specialized CLI tool that enables a swift migration of a Parse-based app to Back4App.
All in all, this MBaaS platform is a great choice for building a variety of mobile apps, from MVPs to corporate applications. The only fly in the ointment is the fact that Back4App heavily relies on the officially discontinued Parse, the stability and advancement of which now depends solely on the developer community’s commitment.
CloudKit is a BaaS framework released by Apple as a part of the iOS 8 update. Available for iOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS, the solution is intended to simplify app integration with the server-side iCloud storage.
The key features of Apple CloudKit include user authentication, push notifications, secure data and file sharing, and structured asset storage in private, public or shared databases. The most powerful differentiator of CloudKit is the generous amount of data transfer and storage it offers for free. However, you need to join the iOS Developer Program to be eligible for using the framework.
Since CloudKit is designed solely for the Apple ecosystem and is unreasonably hard to use on any other platforms, it is a rather limited MBaaS tool. In the meantime, iOS developers are highly likely to appreciate the platform’s zero licensing fees, on-point feature set and network stability.
Essentially, Kumulos is a powerful platform for mobile application performance management with features such as crash reporting and diagnostics and app store optimization. In the software development circles, though, it is best known for its MBaaS capabilities.
The Kumulos MBaaS offers standard services for mobile backend development together with SDKs for major mobile and web development frameworks that software engineers can download and integrate into their app projects. Due to the platform specifics, it comes with an array of analytics, reporting, and promotion optimization tools, which many business owners will find helpful. The company develops custom MBaaS infrastructures for businesses that have non-standard requirements for their development environments.
The straightforward drag-and-drop interface, the bring-your-own-data option, and a high app infrastructure scalability all earn Kumulos brownie points. By and large, Kumulos is a viable alternative to dedicated MBaaS solutions that is, unfortunately, overshadowed by its heavyweight competitors.
3 Things to Consider When Getting Started with MBaaS
While the value of MBaaS in terms of backend development speed and cost-efficiency is indisputable, this approach is still not without limitations. Before you include an MBaaS platform into your mobile development toolkit, here are the challenges you should be aware of.
Low Flexibility and Customization Capacity
MBaaS, along with other low-code and no-code tools, is often mistakenly perceived as a substitute for custom software development. Due to this misconception, it is not uncommon for non-tech-savvy companies to implement MBaaS in hope of getting their backend covered, only to get frustrated when the solution fails to deliver the expected result.
In essence, an average MBaaS platform is intended to be a universal solution that fits various project types. It may offer a wide range of backend features but they will be mostly basic and insufficient for building complex and unique features. What is more, MBaaS typically provides a limited capacity for customization of these features.
Thus, for MBaaS adoption to prove efficient, you need to weigh the project scope and requirements against the chosen platform’s functionality. Unless it offers the particular features you intend for your mobile app, the solution’s introduction is highly likely to turn out a nuisance rather than an aid for your development team.
Basic Data Security Measures
In 2018, the Appthority mobile security firm found out that 3,000 out of over 28,000 mobile apps built on Firebase had critical database misconfigurations. This resulted in over 100 million sensitive user records, including PII, PHI, social media accounts, and cryptocurrency access tokens, being exposed. This was the biggest security incident featuring MBaaS — unfortunately, not the only one.
The truth is that Firebase, along with the majority of MBaaS solutions, provides a limited set of ready-made security controls. Instead, they leave it to the developers to create the administrative and technical safeguards they see fit. In many cases, mobile app engineers overlook these MBaaS specifics and fail to implement any security measures, leaving customer data unprotected.
Therefore, it is necessary to get acquainted with the data security mechanisms of the chosen MBaaS platform before implementing it. When the in-built provisions prove insufficient, you should either consider another, more suitable solution or strengthen your up-and-coming app’s security with additional protection layers for advanced mobile app security.
Vendor lock-in, or a heavy dependence on one tech provider without an easy possibility to shift to another, is a common cloud computing threat. In the context of MBaaS, vendor lock-in may jeopardize your application growth plans. As your business expands or your priorities change, you may want to scale up or modify your mobile app but the desired alterations will prove too expensive or impossible due to the platform’s limited technical capacity.
In the worst-case scenario, one day you may turn out dependent on the platform that is being discontinued. The development community has already seen two loud MBaaS shutdowns, and in both cases the tech vendors didn’t seem unreliable by any means.
Facebook discontinued Parse in 2017, giving around 600,000 app owners a year to move their software to other platforms. The open-source version, Parse Server, still exists only through enthusiastic developers’ efforts. At the beginning of 2020, Microsoft announced they will be pulling the plug on their proprietary mobile-backend-as-a-service solution, causing resentment of thousands of the platform users.
The recent events showed that choosing even the most technically advanced or seemingly trustworthy MBaaS provider can’t lift the lock-in threats completely. Yet by adopting an actionable exit strategy, you can significantly lower the costs and simplify the process of transitioning to another vendor and therefore mitigate many of the lock-in repercussions.
MBaaS: A Good-to-have Development Tool
As mobile application delivery speed became the key success factor in the market competition, mobile-backend-as-a-service emerges as an extremely useful development tool. A properly selected MBaaS platform empowers teams to build apps easier with out-of-the-box features and focus on high-value development tasks. As a result, adopting the MBaaS-driven approach will not only help creators put their app on the market faster and enjoy the first-mover advantage, but also swiftly release new features and updates down the line, building up customer loyalty.
Meanwhile, one must bear in mind that MBaaS is not a feasible alternative to custom development. Its standardized backend feature set, limited customization capacity and weak default security measures make it insufficient for building a unique full-fledged mobile application. To sum up, MBaaS can contribute positively to both the development process and business performance but as long as it is handled by experienced backend engineers.
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