Using the Cloud to Streamline Development

Developers tend to view server coding as one of the more arduous chores in building a mobile application. An emerging group of vendors, however, are offering to offload that task to the cloud.

These companies, sometimes referred to as “backend-as-a-service providers,” aim to help developers streamline software development, boost time to market and save money. Although cloud services of this kind are relatively new, thousands of developers have started taking the server stack to the cloud.

Aaron Saunders, founder of ClearlyInnovative, a Washington, D.C., mobile solutions provider, is among the developers who’ve used these services. The company employs Appcelerator’s Titanium mobile development platform and recently announced Appcelerator Cloud Services. He says his company uses the “backend in a box” approach with a couple of clients and pitches the cloud solution to all his prospective customers.

Saunders says the cloud option means he doesn’t have to hire a PHP or Ruby specialist to build the back end of an app, which he likes since Ruby developers have become extremely expensive. And managing a development job, he notes, becomes that much easier with fewer people to coordinate.

“Another thing it allows you to do is focus on value-added activities instead of focusing on building the foundation of the application,” says Saunders.

Easing the Server Side

Server-side cloud vendors point to the cloud’s cost savings potential.

An app project’s cost depends on the complexity of the UI on the client side and the logic on the server side, says Tzvi Kopetz, chief operating officer at Applicasa, a Tel Aviv, Israel, company that offers a cloud-based server side solution. “For the majority of the apps, the server side is about 40 percent of the total project’s cost and at least $7,000 for the most simple app,” says Kopetz.

James Yu, co-founder of San Francisco–based Parse, says cost containment and time to market considerations are driving customers to the company’s server-side stack in the cloud. “It’s never been more critical for developers to quickly build and launch their products,” he says. “There’s still a lot of pain in mobile development; it feels like the state of Web development in the ’90s. The tools just aren’t there. What this means is a large time cost for individual developers to learn the technology, and a large monetary cost for larger organizations to build this expertise inside their teams.”

Jo Ann Buckner, vice president of product management at Appcelerator, based in Mountain View, Calif., says the company’s cloud services let developers sidestep a couple of difficult alternatives: hiring someone to build cloud-connected features — an approach that cuts margins and increases time to market — or creating their own services, which involves acquiring hardware, writing code and handling scaling issues. “It’s a real pain to do it themselves,” she says.

What’s on Offer?

Companies that cover the server side for mobile app developers offer a mix of products and pricing options.

On April 17, Appcelerator rolled out its cloud services with the launch of the Titanium 2.0 mobile platform. The company currently offers a set of 15 preconfigured mobile application features that developers can integrate into their apps through a single line of code, says Buckner. Those features include user management, photo services, social integration, email templates and push notifications.

The Appcelerator Cloud Services offering is integrated into Titanium, which lets developers build native iOS, Android and HTML5 mobile Web applications. But the cloud services are also available on a standalone basis, says Buckner.

Titanium and Appcelerator Cloud Services are available under a freemium pricing model. The Titanium SDK and Titanium Studio IDE are available for free under an App Explore bundle. The cloud services component of App Explore covers 1,250,000 push and email notifications/messages, 250,000 Tier 1 API calls, 250,000 Tier 2 API calls, and 5 G of storage per month, per application. Appcelerator also offers commercial versions of Titanium and cloud services under a range of pricing plans.

Parse, meanwhile, lets developers “persist” data from their clients to Parse’s servers. To send and retrieve data, developers integrate Parse’s SDK with their applications. Yu says more than 10,000 developers are on the company’s platform, which supports iOS and Android. Parse’s service emerged from beta mode in March.

“At the core, Parse is solving the data problem,” says Yu. “Every other feature stems from data — user authentication, push notifications, data-driven UI components, analytics, etc.” Preconfigured mobile app services are a future possibility, “but first and foremost, we’re focused on getting the data part right once and for all,” says Yu.

Parse offers free access for up to 1 million API requests, 1 million push notifications and 1 G file storage. A second pricing tier is priced at $199 per month for up to 15 million API requests, 5 million push notifications and 10 G file storage (overage fees are incurred after that). A third tier provides enterprise pricing based on an agreement between Parse and a developer organization.

In February, Applicasa began offering startups a full server-side for their apps at no cost. The company says it provides “a variety of tools including simple database creation, custom queries as well as a full CMS for management of updates, beta version deployment and push notifications.”

Startups can continue to use Applicasa free of charge until an app hits the 100,000 user mark. At that point, the developer can transfer to a paid plan. For non startups, the company provides three packages, which range from $49-$199 per month, depending on the number of downloads, says Kopetz. Applicasa currently supports iOS and plans to make Android support available on May 1.