Case study

At Modus Create, BaaS makes cloud-based address book app a reality

In early 2012, Modus Create had no way to effectively manage the contact information of its wide-ranging employees. After starting small with an in-house solution to that problem, the Reston, Va.-based company -- which specializes in HTML5 application development and training for large organizations -- moved up to the cloud as a user and a provider of a full-fledged, cloud-based corporate address book app. The technology that made it possible: Backend as a Service (BaaS).

BaaS, an alternative to mobile middleware, is a cloud services approach to connecting back-end services to the front end of mobile apps. The technology may be relatively new, but adoption is spreading quickly. Analyst group MarketsandMarkets reports the BaaS market will hit $7.7 billion by 2017, up from just $216.5 million in 2012. That's an annual growth rate of 104%.

Especially for organizations wanting to deploy mobile apps to the cloud, BaaS looks like a promising approach. By way of example is Modus Create, which has employees using, building or consulting on mobile applications across four different countries.

In 2012, Modus Create was growing, "but we had a very flat-earth company," said Patrick Sheridan, CEO of Modus Create. “I got this notion that we should build our own HTML5 corporate address book, since we were always trying to find people's contact information in the footers of their emails."

After building a prototype with a Ruby on Rails back end, Modus Create had what Sheridan calls a "poor man's address book" for its internal contacts. It could hold information for around 50 people and had a one-page administration console on the back end and a mobile-friendly user interface. Employees could easily get a hold of their managers or one of their colleagues by using an alphabetically sorted contact list.

"At first, we didn’t think anything beyond our own selfish needs for it," said Sheridan. "But after we put it on our Web site, a major telecommunications company reached out to us and said they were interested in the app for mobile use by small and medium-sized businesses."

Analyst group MarketsandMarkets reports the BaaS market will hit $7.7 billion by 2017, up from just $216.5 million in 2012. That's an annual growth rate of 104%.

That's when Modus Create began considering its options for building an improved, sellable version of the app. At the time, the company employed only two developers -- one Ruby on Rails developer and one front-end developer for JavaScript -- as well as a part-time Web designer. The entire Modus Create team clocked in at just 22 people, including engineers, designers and managers.

"We started thinking, 'Could we do this? Could one front-end developer who's somewhat back end-savvy do this? If so, how long would it take?'" said Sheridan. The answers to those questions weren't promising. Building out the app's back end would be both time-consuming and expensive.

The company turned quickly to Backend as a Service.

"[Backend as a Service] was a very complementary overlap for our capabilities, so we could stay focused on the front end," Sheridan explained. "We were attracted to DreamFactory because Platform as a Service is part of what we see as the 'new stack' for apps. DreamFactory enabled us to -- instead of doing Web or app hosting -- have a feature-rich API environment do the hosting and scaling of apps and infrastructure for us. Another one of the selling points for DreamFactory was its full SQL support."

Campbell, Calif.-based DreamFactory bills its services platform as an open source software package that provides back ends for the development of HTML5 applications. It also has a unique approach to cloud deployment options. "We offer a comprehensive suite of services available to install on any cloud that can support HTML or native client style interfaces for the application," said DreamFactory CTO Bill Appleton. Modus Create decided to deploy to Amazon Web Services Elastic Compute Cloud.

After the project kicked off in early February 2013, DreamFactory added new back-end features to the app, including group management capabilities. For example, users can now group contacts based on who's working on what project, or by client. Client-specific contacts can be added as well, making it easier to keep in touch with the right people at customer organizations. There's also internal social media integration, which extends contact links to Twitter and Skype.

While DreamFactory provided those back-end features, Modus Create's developers honed the look and feel of the app's front end. As Sheridan put it, they were able to build high-end user experiences for mobile delivery without straying from front-end code.

"The whole app is on one URL that determines whether you're using a desktop or a phone, and redirects users to the correct user interface accordingly, based on the device," said Sheridan. "Our design guys went in and restyled the design of the user interface around the mobile and tablet devices."

The finished app was deployed on March 31st, less than three months after the idea was conceived.

Now, Sheridan hopes to use Modus Create's experience building an app with DreamFactory to help its own customers navigate the BaaS market. "We feel we had a project that fits the typical case of how an enterprise customer would engage with a platform provider," he said.

For now, the address book app is only used internally at Modus Create, but Sheridan said it will be made available to others soon. "We're going to open-source the code, so people can use the app as a reference application if they want to have a current learning example for how to engage with a platform," he said.

He cautioned organizations not to decide suddenly to flip their entire infrastructure over to a cloud platform, noting that the "clay is still fairly wet" on some aspects of platforms like DreamFactory's. Even so, he has high hopes for the future of Backend as Service capabilities.

"When we look down the road to second-generation features, we see things like HTML5 local storage on phones -- so that if an employee loses network connection, they still have the data," he said.

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This was first published in May 2013

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