When buying back-end services beats building back ends

Mobile development experts debate the value of backend services versus building backend systems.

Mobile backend as a service (MBaaS) was created to bypass the high cost and complexity of developing back-end systems from scratch. The emergence of MBaaS, however, adds a new buy-versus-build decision to CIOs' and enterprise architects' development plan. While a service may fit the bill for start-ups and need-for-speed projects, some organizations should not dismiss the build option too hastily, according to Vikki Kolbe, a consultant with Hurwitz & Associates.

Kolbe and other enterprise architecture experts explore the criteria software development leaders should use to choose between back-end services and building back-end systems.

It just costs a lot of money to build a high-quality back end.

Kasey Russell,
SunSprite CTO

Building an application's back end may well be the most expensive part of the development process, according to Stephanie Woerner, a research scientist at MIT Sloan CISR.

The back end also dictates the quality of an application's overall performance. "You need a good back end and you need to know how it's going to work before you can build the app around it," said Kasey Russell, the CTO of SunSprite, a personal sun exposure tracker for the iPhone.

The problem is, building the back end in-house is expensive, complex and requires ongoing maintenance, particularly as user adoption starts to grow. "If you think about building the entire back end and then maintaining it and then scaling it, what happens next year if you double in growth and you're lugging around what you've built?" said Kolbe.

Buying vs. building the back end

In Russell's case, he and the rest of the SunSprite team were sold on MBaaS from the outset. "We knew we were going to go with Kinvey before we started writing an app. We started pricing out building an app and building a back end with it and it was a no brainer," Russell explained. It was, in his words, infinitely cheaper to go with back-end services.

Perhaps even more important than cost savings, however, was the amount of time SunSprite saved in their development process. "It let us finish our app in time for our launch and that was huge."

That said, Kinvey -- and most other back-end providers -- has a per back end pricing model that may work against customers if they have a large, fast-growing user base. In other words, a successful application means a more expensive back end. Russell believes that, even in such cases, MBaaS is worth considering. "If we explode and we get a ton of users, then eventually [the cost] will add up, but you have to get a lot of users and keep them for a long time for it to make an impact. It just costs a lot of money to build a high-quality back end."

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Kolbe sided with Russell on the buy versus build debate. "I've always pushed to look at services first," she said, going on to explain that there would inevitably be some push-back in the company over this decision. There is a sense of personal ownership and control that some development teams want to have over their project.

Companies will also have to consider the risks of partnering with vendors in a fairly new market. MBaaS has only emerged in the past few years. The providers are still young and not necessarily safe long-term bets. They may be purchased by companies with different goals. They may simply go under. That said, Kolbe stood firmly by her position: "Going after a service is the way to scalability and performance." There are two caveats: Choose the service wisely and don't get locked in.

Is MBaaS for everyone?

There are certain industries that may want to proceed more cautiously into the MBaaS space. Russell mentioned healthcare apps as possibly problematic in terms of compliance restrictions. For example, if the application had to be HIPAA compliant, with rigorous security restrictions, then MBaaS may not be in the cards. It may, in Russell's words, be less of a no-brainer.

There are also security considerations for companies handling sensitive data, such as banking and financial services. The cloud service itself could have security holes. The introduction of a third party could also hamper an organization's ability to govern the data flow between the device, the cloud service and the internal system.

Sravish Sridhar, CEO of Kinvey, noticed two patterns in what kinds of companies were turning to MBaaS. The first trended toward startups. These companies had a brand new idea, were completely uninhibited by legacy systems and saw the value in MBaaS primarily because the cost of entry was low and it provided the entire backend stack. With half of their app taken care of, they could direct their focus to the front end.

The other pattern was the opposite: an enterprise bogged down with legacy systems and complex infrastructure. "For them, the complexity is how to connect to these systems in an easy, secure mobile-friendly fashion, and that's why they see the value of a platform like Kinvey," Sridhar explained.

SunSprite is one of the former types of adopters and Russell says back-end services made perfect sense for them. Their primary initiative involved developing a market and market testing so it didn't make sense for them to heavily invest in an internal back end.

This was first published in May 2014

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