Developing apps for the mobile cloud: What you need to know

There are a lot of moving pieces; here's how to be prepared.

What's expanding at the same blistering rate as your company's mobile workforce? How about the demands those users are making for a software experience that rivals the one they get on a desktop?

For many companies, a private cloud is the answer. But if you decide to power your mobile workforce centrally with a private cloud, your mobile applications need to be developed with that infrastructure in mind.

Several factors are in play here, especially if you want applications that can work on all mobile devices, desktops and notebooks. What is required to get existing applications to work with mobile devices when the apps are running remotely on a cloud? How do you resolve the problem of fitting data from an application designed for the desktop onto the smaller mobile device screen? Should you develop for mobile devices first, and only then port to notebooks and laptops?

Tony Iams, senior vice president at Ideas International Ltd., a computer-systems research consultancy, says it is important to determine what part of the application's state -- the code and/or data itself -- is being moved up to the cloud from the mobile device. "Moving state to the cloud gives you back-end manageability benefits because you do not have to maintain that state on the mobile device," he says. In other words, all changes or application updates are made centrally.

Eric Miller
"We have to be able to interact, have good functionality and almost seamless interconnectivity once connected," says Eric Miller, senior vice president of IT and CIO at Erie Insurance.

Mobile cloud computing means that the processing of applications -- and the storage and retrieval of data -- are being performed by a cloud-based infrastructure. It results in a TCO savings because IT staffers don't need to spend time updating individual devices -- the client software environment is running on a server in the cloud, and making changes there ensures they show up on every client.

From a user point of view, there is a convenience benefit, too, because you can now get to your desktop -- a virtual desktop in the cloud -- no matter where you are, through a browser on a mobile device. As Iams says, "You always have the same desktop environment no matter what remote device you are using."

Because there are different types of users and different types of devices, you have to be ready to support multiple versions of your apps. This means being prepared to support different screen sizes and mobile device manufacturers.

Get thee to a mobile platform

According to Jeff Deacon, director of corporate strategy at Verizon Business, this is where a mobile platform comes in handy. A mobile platform is the software between the mobile device and the app/data. It runs on the mobile cloud and does some tasks specifically for mobile devices, such as converting the data into a user-friendly interface for the device and making sure everything fits well on the screen.

It also has an authentication mechanism that reaches all the way down to the device so that if the device is lost or stolen it can be wiped remotely.

With a mobile platform, a corporation's back-office applications are isolated from unauthorized users who might back into the applications via Multiprotocol Label Switching. The platform secures the mobile device and then does the conversion.

These mobile platforms are more formally called mobile enterprise application platforms (MEAP). They allow you to deploy mobile apps across a variety of devices without having to implement an app for a specific device. They also allow you to selectively run applications natively on the remote device when it is very important to take advantage of key remote device features or when it is difficult to emulate native functionality on a mobile-cloud server.

This is one of the directions that the market is moving toward, but MEAP tools are in the early adoption stages and most corporations, as a rule, still aren't knowledgeable about these technologies.

Deacon says Verizon uses a multitenant system, the Sybase Unwired Platform, to reduce the complexity in developing and deploying mobile apps across a variety of mobile devices and back-end enterprise servers. Other MEAP or MEAP-like platforms include WebMobi, AMPchroma from Antenna Software, Agentry Mobile Platform from Syclo LLC and Appcelerator Titanium.

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