Looking to the clouds

When Mobile Met Cloud

Mobile backlog causing you problems? Salesforce.com Senior Developer Evangelist Sandeep Bhanot offers up a handy PaaS solution

A recent ‘Top 10 CIO Business and Technology Priorities in 2012‘ worldwide survey by Gartner identified Mobile as the #2 priority for CIOs this year. Employees, customers and partners who are conditioned to expect ubiquitous mobile access in their personal lives are demanding access to their enterprise data from their phone and tablet devices. So the backlog of mobile projects for the average CIO is growing. But what is the fastest way to address that backlog, while still meeting the stringent requirements of security, reliability and scalability that are inherent to any enterprise solution?

Platform-as-a-Service (aka PaaS) solutions like the Salesforce Touch Platform offer a compelling value proposition for building enterprise mobile apps and addressing that backlog. Platform-as-a-Service is a flavor of Cloud Computing that provides an application development platform in the cloud. Instead of deploying and managing the hardware and software stack necessary to develop and run applications in-house, enterprises can use a PaaS solution to rapidly develop and deploy applications in the cloud.

In order to understand the benefits of a PaaS backend for mobile applications, let’s first look at the typical three-tier architecture for an enterprise mobile app.


Figure 1: Traditional three-tier architecture for Enterprise mobile apps

Any enterprise mobile application typically needs a server-side component to store its data, enforce business rules and integrate with other IT applications/systems. In a traditional architecture, you’re responsible for hosting the server-side infrastructure in-house. In addition to hosting the physical infrastructure (things like app and sync servers, DB servers, load balancers, etc.), you also have to write application logic on the server-side to expose your enterprise data to the mobile application. Typically, this is done by developing custom REST/JSON services that are then consumed from the mobile application. And because this is enterprise data we’re dealing with, you also have to embed a security layer into the API so that the access is secure and authenticated. Alternatively, you have to deploy, configure and manage a vendor-provided sync. server inside the corporate firewall to access enterprise data from a mobile device.

Now, let’s look at the corresponding mobile architecture if you were to host the back-end on a PaaS platform.

IMAGE 2: PaaS-based two-tier architecture for Enterprise mobile apps

The two-tier architecture shown above lets you focus on developing the mobile front-end and then simply use open (often REST/JSON) APIs to query and update data from the cloud back-end. This architecture offers the following benefits.

Zero Infrastructure

One of the core value propositions of cloud computing applies equally to mobile app development as it does to any other form of application development. Rather than trying to host the infrastructure required to run your back-end logic in-house, cloud computing lets you ’rent’ it online on a pay-as-you-go subscription basis. No upfront capital expenditure is required to setup and manage your own data centers. Moreover, PaaS solutions typically provide a fully managed software stack on top of the underlying infrastructure so that you never have to worry about software upgrades, security patches, etc. Platform upgrades get pushed to you automatically, freeing you from the ‘upgrade and pray’ cycle that is all too familiar to anyone managing in-house IT assets.

Focus

A two-tier architecture means that instead of spending time and resources building server-side logic, you can focus on the mobile app functionality and user experience. This is not to imply that a two-tier cloud mobile architecture requires no back-end logic or work. You would still need to do work on the server-side — e.g. designing the data schema, enforcing business rules/workflows, developing integrations with other IT applications (if required), etc. The productivity gains that a PaaS back-end provides, however, means that you can implement such server-side logic rapidly and iterate over it easily.

Let’s take a specific example to illustrate this point. Say that your mobile application needs to query and update invoice data. Using the Salesforce Touch Platform, you can create a corresponding data model using a WYSIWYG, drag-and-drop data modeling tool called Schema Builder in a matter of minutes. Of more relevance to a mobile developer, once you create the data model, the Touch Platform automatically provides a secure REST API endpoint for performing CRUD operations on the invoice data. By contrast, in a traditional three-tier architecture, you’d have to develop a custom REST interface for that invoice data yourself (and/or use some custom middleware solution). Time saved on the server-side means that you can focus on what will ultimately decide the fate of your mobile application – a great user experience.

Scale

This one is simple. As a mobile developer, the last thing you want to worry about is whether your back-end will scale to support the numerous mobile devices running your application. With a cloud based back-end, that is simply not a concern and the elastic scalability offered by cloud computing platforms means that you can scale your mobile application linearly. Salesforce for example services nearly 1 billion transactions in a single day. Trying to replicate that level of scalability and reliability for an in-house mobile back-end would require significant investments in time and resources.

Application Services

One of the benefits of using PaaS is the additional application services that make mobile development quicker and easier. The specific application services provided obviously depend on the respective platform. Some platforms like Parse, StackMob and Urban Airship provide services like Push Notifications and easy integration with social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The Salesforce Touch Platform is targeted specifically at enterprise mobile development and as such it provides application services like...

  • Mobile SDK

The Mobile SDK allows developers to quickly and easily build native (iOS or Android), HTML5, or hybrid mobile applications on the Touch Platform. The SDK abstracts away the low-level ‘plumbing’ required to connect to the cloud backend (e.g. an OAuth 2.0 implementation) and also provides simple REST API wrappers that lets you focus on the application functionality. Additionally, for native and hybrid mobile apps, the SDK provides a secure offline storage module for storing sensitive enterprise data securely on the device.

  • Security

One of the most important requirements for enterprise mobile applications is security. As mentioned above, the SDK provides an out-of-the-box OAuth 2.0 implementation which means that all data access is authenticated. Additional platform features like Connected Apps let administrators enforce their enterprise security policy on mobile applications (by requiring additional pin protection in the app, for example). There is also a more subtle user authorization security layer built into a Touch Platform back-end that is not always apparent to developers that are new to the platform. REST API calls from a mobile app to the Touch Platform only return data that the respective signed-in user is authorized to see (an important requirement for enterprise use cases). Mobile developers don’t have to write any custom code to implement this authorization layer. It’s built into the REST API that is used to query/update data from the Touch Platform.

  • Geolocation

One of the most powerful features for a mobile application is the ability to customize the user experience based on the user’s location. You can easily geocode data in the Touch Platform by using a custom data type called ‘Geolocation’. Once the data is geocoded (say in the location__c data field), you can then execute a query like the one below

SELECT caseNumber, location__c__latitude__s, location__c__longitude__s FROM Case WHERE DISTANCE(location__c, GEOLOCATION(<latitude and longitude coordinates of mobile device>), 'mi') <= 10


The above query will return all Case records (that the signed-in user is authorized to see) that are within a 10 mile radius of the mobile device.

Concluding Remarks

We’re living in a mobile-first world and enterprises have to quickly adapt to that reality. The two-tier mobile architecture and its attendant advantages described above have hopefully made the case for why PaaS can provide quicker time-to-market for mobile app development and help enterprises mobilize their corporate data.

Sandeep  Bhanot
Sandeep Bhanot

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