The cloud gets mobile apps moving

cloud on mobile devices
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New York City uses cloud services to get apps tested and built more quickly.

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Immediately after Hurricane Sandy tore through New York City in October 2012, city officials needed a quick way to show the damage that had been done to streets and infrastructure.

They needed an app -- and they needed it immediately.

For a quick turnaround, Cordell Schachter, chief technology officer at New York City's Department of Transportation, asked his crew to stop work being done on what was eventually to be a street excavation permit app and had programmers repurpose it to show street damage instead.

And because they were doing their app dev on the cloud, they were able to get the application quickly built, tested and in use on the city's storm-damaged streets, according to Schachter, who said using the cloud was "much faster" than traditional app-dev methods.

"We had sand and water in the roads, damaged street signs," he told Computerworld. "We had inspectors all over the city taking pictures with their iPads. And when the commissioner, who had to justify why we needed restoration money, had to show pictures of damage to state and federal officials, he could call it up on his iPad. We needed to be mobile."

Schachter said he had known before Hurricane Sandy hit that they needed the cloud, but the storm and the ensuing need for quick and efficient application development drove that home.

Why cloud development works for mobile

New York is in good company. Mobile apps have become increasingly dependent on the cloud, with data storage and processing happening inside the cloud, instead of on a mobile device or on an enterprise's own server banks.

The cloud also can handle peak app traffic, meaning enterprises aren't burdened by crushing loads or by paying the costs of unused servers when traffic is slow.

Mobile being married to the cloud is nothing new. Think Gmail, Google Maps and likely your favorite navigation apps. They've long been cloud-based.

Now, though, there's an increasing push behind enterprises using the cloud to accelerate and ease mobile app development.

Application development tools that are native to the cloud can give users and enterprises faster app delivery, better performance and more stable uptime.

Popular cloud vendors like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google, Microsoft and Salesforce.com have their own cloud-based development platforms.

Developers, often being pushed to work at breakneck speeds on new apps, can set up and launch their own development and test environments without going begging up the IT hierarchy.

Developers no longer have to wait for new servers to be provisioned and they don't need to spin up a bunch of servers to test their apps.

Creating insurance apps in the cloud

"With a few commands, you have a server up and running. You work on the app and then launch it," said Mackenzie Kosut, head of technical operations with Oscar Insurance, a startup built on tech and a "human" approach to customer service. "We can re-iterate ideas over and over much faster and improve things. That's a huge advantage in any industry."

Oscar Insurance, which is running completely on the AWS cloud, depends heavily on mobile apps, with versions for both Android and AWS.

"Mobile is enormous for Oscar," Kosut said. "Customers can check on a timeline of their health history, track steps and be connected to a doctor with a push of a button day or night. Having real connectivity with each one of our members is extremely important."

Keeping those apps updated and being able to fix problems and add new features is key.

"We can take an idea and turn it into an app and launch it much quicker than another company could," he claimed. "The cloud lets us build a self-service model for developers."

Girish Juneja, CTO of Altisource Porfolio Solutions -- a global provider of mortgage, financial and technology services for the real estate industry -- also turned to app dev in the cloud for the speed it provides.

His team began working on their first app in the Verizon cloud about nine months ago and launched it within the last few weeks.

The Real Trans Inspector is an app built for property appraisers, enabling them to bid on jobs and enter data and photos, along with pushing alerts.

"Many of these apps often use services from other cloud service providers, like Google Maps," said Juneja. "It's much easier to integrate third-party services if you're using the cloud. When you have an internal environment and have to make outbound calls to third-party providers, you have more hoops to jump through, like security validations."

He also noted that it's easier to build and test in the cloud because he doesn't have to spend time and money acquiring new hardware, a new network or more storage

"In the cloud, you have all these building blocks to get started with," said Juneja. "Because storage is provided, you are testing fewer moving parts... Our app uses a whole bunch of pictures. The cloud offers us the storage API."

Altisource is a multi-cloud company, using both Verizon and AWS.

Juneja said his team is working on more apps in the cloud, and will use both Verizon and AWS going forward. Apps that have more requirements for data protection will be built on the Verizon platform, he explained.

Security, other issues

Using the cloud for mobile, though, comes with its own issues.

While cloud services appear to be particularly well optimized for mobile, enterprises, as always, need to consider security needs, especially when there are compliance issues involved, according to Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group.

And while Brad Shimmin, an analyst with Current Analysis, said security always is an issue, enterprises also have to consider if they're willing to give up a level of control over their application development and management processes.

"Anytime you outsource infrastructure, you give up control of that infrastructure," said Shimmin. "You give up being the captain of your own ship over pricing and your own equipment and the ongoing management and maintenance. Of course, buying those servers, standing them up and maintaining them is going to cost you sizably more but it's worth it to investigate the pluses and minuses."

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