MBaaS – IBM Mobile Cloud Services, Bluemix & MobileFirst

MBaaS, or Mobile Backend as a Service, seems to be a particularly hot topic these days. MBaaS generally refers to backend services for mobile applications that provides data storage, user management, push notifications, and other pertinent mobile APIs.  mbaas

This is more than just “Cloud Services” which more generally refer to a scalable virtual cluster of computing or storage resources.  Bluemix is IBM’s suite of cloud service offerings, and covers lots of use cases:

Bluemix is an open-standards, cloud-based platform for building, managing, and running apps of all types, such as web, mobile, big data, and smart devices. Capabilities include Java, mobile back-end development, and application monitoring, as well as features from ecosystem partners and open source—all provided as-a-service in the cloud.

You can view the full catalog of Bluemix service offerings here.

Rather, MBaaS back-ends include services for data management, user management, notifications, and possibly more depending on the provider – all geared towards powering applications on mobile devices.

Why is it a hot topic? MBaaS enables growth of mobile applications with seamless (and virtually endless) scalability, all without having to manage individual systems for the application server, database, identify management, push notifications, or platform-specific services.

I’ve been writing a lot about IBM MobileFirst lately for a seamless API to deliver mobile apps to multiple platforms; though it has been in the context of an on-premise installation.  However, did you know that many of the exact same MobileFirst features are available as MBaaS services on IBM Bluemix?

IBM’s Mobile Cloud Services includes device management, user authentication, offline and back-end data storage, push notifications, operational analytics, and provides APIs for native iOS, native Android, hybrid apps, web apps, and even node.js clients for custom backend services.

MobileCloudServices

Here’s a bit more detail on what is currently exposed in IBM’s Mobile Cloud Services:

  • Mobile Data – The mobile data service includes a NOSQL database (powered by IBM Cloudant), file storage capabilities, and appropriate management and analytics features to measure the number of calls, storage usage, time/activity, and OS distribution.
  • Push Notifications – The push notification service allows you to easily push data to the right people at the right time on either Apple APNS or Google GCM platforms – all with a single API. Notifications can be sent by either an app or backend system, and can be sent to a single device, or a group of devices based on their tags/subscriptions.  Of course, with appropriate analytics for monitoring activity, distribution, and engagement.
  • Mobile Application Security – The mobile application security service enables you to provision or block any devices and/or users using your application, provides user authentication, and provides analytics for app/device usage, OS distribution, and time/activity.

Before starting development with IB’s Mobile Cloud Services, be sure to check out the following resources:

… and don’t forget the platform-specific developer guides:

Ready to get started?

Many of these are the exact same features that you can host in your own on-premise IBM MobileFirst Platform Foundation server – the difference is that you don’t have to maintain the infrastructure.  You can scale as needed through the Bluemix cloud offering.

 

Unified Multi-Platform Push Notifications with IBM MobileFirst

Push notifications, love them or hate them, are everywhere and there’s no getting around it. Push notifications are short messages that can be sent to mobile devices regardless of whether the apps are actually running. They can be used to send reminders, drive engagement with the mobile app, notify completion of long running processes, and more. Push notifications send information to you in real time, rather than you having to request that information.

Regardless of the platform or native/hybrid development approach, push notifications have to leverage the messaging infrastructure of the platform. iOS apps that have push notifications must use APNS (Apple Push Notification Service), Android apps must use GCM (Google Cloud Messaging), Windows Phone apps use MPNS (Microsoft Push Nofitication Service), and others use SMS gateways.

If you are building a back-end infrastructure to manage your application’s data, and you want to leverage push notifications, then guess what? You also have to build the hooks to manage subscription and distribution of push notifications for each platform.

If you’re building your app with IBM MobileFirst, guess what? You already have a unified API to communicate with all of these platform push notification services with a single API. Yes, you read that correctly – in addition to operational analytics, remote logging, simple data adaptersmobile application sharing, app management, encrypted offline storage, SSO, and support for both native and hybrid paradigms, IBM MobileFirst also has a single, unified multi-platform push notification API that simplifies your development effort for subscribing and managing push notifications on numerous platforms. Check out the video below for additional detail.

The unified push notification API allows you to develop your app against a single API, yet deliver push notifications to multiple platforms, and it works with both hybrid (HTML/CSS/JS) apps, as well as native apps.

MobileFirst Push Notification Mechanism
MobileFirst Push Notification Mechanism

 

The IBM MobileFirst push architecture supports numerous scenarios, including user targeted or broadcast messages.

You will still have to build the logic to subscribe devices for messaging, and dispatch push notification messages, but you’ll only have to do it once against the unified API – not once for each platform.

The apps that I showed in the video above are sample apps taken straight from the IBM MobileFirst platform developer guide for iOS and Android, and can be accessed in their entirety (with both client and server code) using the links below:

The client-side code will vary slightly depending on the native platform or hybrid approach, but the server-side implementation will be exactly the same.

When configuring your server for sending push notifications, be sure to follow the platform-specific steps to provision the apps/server for sending and receiving push notifications.

Within an adapter service on the MobileFirst server, you need to define an event source for push notifications.

WL.Server.createEventSource({
 name: 'PushEventSource',
 onDeviceSubscribe: 'deviceSubscribeFunc',
 onDeviceUnsubscribe: 'deviceUnsubscribeFunc',
 securityTest:'PushApplication-strong-mobile-securityTest'
});

On the client app, you’ll need to subscribe for messages from the event source. See the hybrid or native code linked to above for syntax and examples.

Once your clients are subscribed, you can use a single server-side implementation to distribute messages to client apps. Below is an excerpt from the sample application which demonstrates sending a push notification to all devices for a particular user (on any platform):

function submitNotification(userId, notificationText){
	var userSubscription =
		WL.Server.getUserNotificationSubscription('PushAdapter.PushEventSource', userId);

	if (userSubscription==null){
		return { result: "No subscription found for user :: " + userId };
	}

	var badgeDigit = 1;

	var notification =
		WL.Server.createDefaultNotification(notificationText, badgeDigit, {custom:"data"});

	WL.Logger.debug("submitNotification >> userId :: " + userId + ", text :: " + notificationText);

	WL.Server.notifyAllDevices(userSubscription, notification);

	return {
		result: "Notification sent to user :: " + userId
	};
}

From the MobileFirst console, you will be able to monitor and manage event sources, platforms, and the devices that are consuming push notifications.

Push Notifications on the MobileFirst Console
Push Notifications on the MobileFirst Console

 

If you were wondering, yes, these can be cloud-hosted on IBM BlueMix and yes, it can also be installed on-premise on your own server in your data center.  You have the option to configure your physical or cloud servers however you want.

Not sure where to go next? Maybe these will help:

IBM MobileFirst & Remote Client Side Logging in Mobile Apps

One of the many popular feature of IBM MobileFirst SDK is the ability to capture client-side logs from mobile devices out in the wild in a central location (on the server).  That means you can capture information from devices *after* you have deployed your app into production.  If you are trying to track down or recreate bugs, this can be incredibly helpful. Let’s say that users on iOS 7.0, specifically on iPhone 4 models are having an issue.  You can capture device logs at this level of granularity (or at a much broader scope, if you choose).

The logging classes in the MobileFirst Platform Foundation are similar in concept to Log4J.  You have logging classes that you can use to write out trace, debug, info, log, warn, fatal, or error messages.  You can also optionally specify a package name, which is used to identify which code module the debug statements are coming from.  With the package name, you’ll be able to see if the log message is coming from a user authentication manager, a data receiver, a user interface view, or any other class based upon how you setup your loggers.  Once the log file reaches the specified buffer size, it will automatically be sent to the server.

On the server you can setup log profiles that determine the level of granularity of messages that are captured on the server.  Let’s say you have 100,000 devices consuming your app.  You can configure the profiles to collect error or fatal messages for every app instance.  However, you probably don’t want to capture complete device logs for every app instance; You can setup the log profiles to only capture complete logs for a specific set of devices.

As an example, take a look at the screenshot below to see how you can setup log collection profiles:

Configuring Log Profiles on the MobileFirst Server
Configuring Log Profiles on the MobileFirst Server

When writing your code, you just need to create a logger instance, then write to the log.

If you’re curious when you might want a trace statement, vs. a log statement, vs. a debug statement, etc… Here is the usage level guidance from the docs:

  • Use TRACE for method entry and exit points.
  • Use DEBUG for method result output.
  • Use LOG for class instantiation.
  • Use INFO for initialization reporting.
  • Use WARN to log deprecated usage warnings.
  • Use ERROR for unexpected exceptions or unexpected network protocol errors.
  • Use FATAL for unrecoverable crashes or hangs.

For hybrid apps, you use the WL.Logger class in JavaScript:

var logger = WL.Logger.create({pkg: 'mynamespace.mymodule'});

logger.trace('trace', 'another mesage');
logger.debug('debug', [1,2,3], {hello: 'world'});
logger.log('log', 'another message');
logger.info('info', 1, 2, 3);
logger.warn('warn', undefined);
logger.error('error', new Error('oh no'));
logger.fatal('fatal', 'another message');

For native iOS apps, you will use the OCLogger class:

OCLogger *logger = [OCLogger getInstanceWithPackage:@"UserManager"];

[logger trace:@"this is a trace message"];
[logger debug:@"this is a debug message"];
[logger log:@"this is a log message"];
[logger info:@"this is an info message"];
[logger warn:@"this is a warning message"];
[logger error:@"this is an error message"];
[logger fatal:@"this is a fatal message"];

For native Android apps, you will use the com.worklight.common.Logger class:

private final static Logger logger = Logger.getLogger(MyClass.class.getName());

logger.trace('trace mesage');
logger.debug('debug message');
logger.log('log message');
logger.info('info message');
logger.warn('warn message');
logger.error('error - OH NOES!');
logger.fatal('fatal - Oops, you broke it');

Then on the server, you can go into the analytics dashboard and access complete logs for a device, or search through all client-side logs with the ability to filter on application name, app versions, log levels, package name, environment, device models, and OS versions within an optional date range, and with the ability to search for keywords in the log message.

Log Search Results within the MobileFirst Analytics Dashboard
Log Search Results within the MobileFirst Analytics Dashboard

For a complete reference and additional detail, be sure to check out the latest docs on client side logging with the MobileFirst platform.

IBM MobileFirst – Powering the IBM & Apple Partnership

Back in July, Apple and IBM announced a global strategic partnership to redefine how enterprises use mobile applications. Well, last week IBM and Apple announced the first set of apps developed from this partnership.

ibm-apple

The first set of applications include industry-specific applications designed to “redefine how work gets done”. The first set includes apps for air travel, banking and finance, insurance, government, retail, and telecom industries, and are just the beginning of the IBM/Apple parnership. Check out the press release for full details on the apps.

Apple’s VP of Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller is quoted saying: “The business world has gone mobile, and Apple and IBM are bringing together the world’s best technology with the smartest data and analytics to help businesses redefine how work gets done.”

So what is powering this transformation?  

The IBM MobileFirst Platform. That’s what.

MobileFirst-Logo

From the press release:


To supplement the IBM MobileFirst for iOS apps, the partnership between Apple and IBM offers business customers additional levels of capability integrated for enterprise mobility, including:

  • Mobile Platform and Enterprise Integration – Leveraging IBM’s global industry consulting expertise, client experience design and enterprise systems integration from analytics, workflow and cloud storage, to fleet-scale device management, security and integration. Enhanced mobile management includes a private app catalog, data and transaction security services, and productivity suite for all IBM MobileFirst for iOS solutions. In addition to on-premise software solutions, all these services will be available on Bluemix—IBM’s development platform on the IBM Cloud Marketplace.
  • Supply, activate and manage – Streamlined end-to-end procurement, deployment and lifecycle management — at scale; along with cloud solutions for enterprise security, device management, and data and process integration. IBM Global Financing leasing options and services to allow organizations to keep pace with latest device releases.
  • AppleCare for the Enterprise  – Providing IT departments and end users with 24/7 assistance for their devices from Apple’s award-winning customer support group, with on-site service delivered by IBM.

So, what does this mean from a more detailed/technical perspective?

MobileFirst Platform Foundation

Let’s look at the MobileFirst Platform Foundation, which consists of MobileFirst Platform Server (console and app management), client-side SDKs for native or hybrid apps, the MobileFirst Studio & CLI tools, and the MobileFirst Application Center.

mobilefirst-architecture
MobileFirst High-level System Architecture

The MobileFirst Platform Server and Client-side SDKs deliver security features, data integration features, app management features, unified push notifications, and analytics. From the security perspective, the MobileFirst server and SDK provide user authentication and can integrate with virtually any single-sign-on or identity management provider, and can maintain user authentication across multiple applications.

mfp-sso
Multi-app Single Sign On

The MobileFirst SDK also enables encrypted on-device storage, which can be synched with MobileFirst data adapters (used to expose data to the mobile applications).

For application management, the MobileFirst platform enables you to track versions of an app that are live out in production. From the server console, you can send messages to specific versions of an application, or remotely lock down specific versions of an app. This could be used to force compliance using the latest version of an app, or could be used to lock down an app due to some sort of security issue. You can read more about strategies for managing app versions on the MobileFirst platform here.

Application Management Console
Application Management Console

For data integration, the MobileFirst platform enables developers to leverage data adapters, which are lightweight server-side functions to data in a mobile-friendly format. They can automatically generate JSON objects from database information, leverage server-side compression to reduce network latency, perform object translation to compress large structures into smaller, less verbose packages (IE: SOAP to JSON, etc…).

worklight-adapters
MobileFirst Data Adapters

 

Usage of these data adapters is automatically audited, and is governed by the SDK’s authentication and app management. Server-side developers will be happy to know that data adapters are easy to develop using server-side JavaScript. Client-side developers will be happy to know that the MobileFirst SDK has a consisent client-side API to call any backend system.

The MobileFirst Platform server automatically exposes operational analytics for every app and data adapter managed through the platform. This provides insight into devices/platforms/OS versions that are consuming your applications, server-side collection of client-side app logs, and data adapter usage, all enabled “out of the box”.

MobileFirst Platform Analytics
MobileFirst Platform Analytics

MobileFirst Application Center

The MobileFirst Application Center is reposity of mobile applications that enables an “out of the box” app store for your enterprise. If facilitates the sharing of mobile applications, and enables sharing of feedback and rating information. It also uses access control lists to limit who might be able to install specific applications. If your enterprise has numerous mobile apps, and you need a way to manage distribution of your enterprise-signed iOS apps, then this is the solution for you.

mf-application-center
MobileFirst Application Center

MobileFirst Platform Application Scanning

MobileFirst Platform Application Scanning is set of tools that can scan your JavaScript, HTML, Objective-C, or Java code for security vulnerabilities and coding best practices. Think of it as a security layer in your software development lifecycle.

MobileFirst Quality Assurance

MobileFirst Quality Assurance is a set of tools and features to help provide quality assurance to your mobile applications. It includes automated crash analytics, user feedback and sentiment analysis, in-app bug reporting, over-the-air build distribution to testers, test/bug prioritization, and more.

MobileFirst Protect

MobileFirst Protect is a comprehensive suite of tools that enables an enterprise to manage, virtualize and optimize devices, networks, and apps. This includes Mobile Application Management (MAM), Mobile Device Management (MDM), and Mobile Network Performance Management (MNPM). Take a look at the quick video to see how MobileFirst Protect can help you secure the devices connecting to your enterprise.

 MobileFirst Engage

MobileFirst Engage is a platform that enables you to add analytics to your mobile applications. This can help you identify and understand how users are interacting with your enterprise. You can track mobile engagement, process the data, and provide a contextually relevant experience to your users in realtime.

The IBM MobileFirst Platform provides unparalleled tools to build, manage and monitor reliable and secure applications, manage and secure devices, monitor usage and drive engagement, and bring your enterprise to a mobile reality.

IBM Bluemix Cloud Services

Of course, let’s not forget IBM Bluemix, IBM’s suite of cloud services.  Bluemix covers everything from mobile app integration, business process & workflow, security services, cloud storage, analytics, and even the IBM Watson cognitive platform.  This post is long enough already, so I’ll go into more detail on Bluemix at a later date, but definitely go check it out.  There’s everything from basic node.js or Java server hosting, to app boilerplates/templates, and more.

IBM BlueMix Services
IBM BlueMix Services

 

UX & Mobile Apps Leveraging the IBM MobileFirst Platform

When you are developing a mobile app (or website, or mobile web, or TV app, etc..) you should always ask yourself “What kind of an impact does this have on the end user?” It doesn’t matter whether you are creating enterprise apps or games, or anything in between. Every development decision that you make should be weighed upon it’s impact to the overall impact it has on the end user. Simply put: if your app sucks, nobody is going to want to use it.

When building mobile apps using IBM MobileFirst you have two options for a user interface layer; you can write a native app, or you can write a hybrid app using HTML, CSS, & JavaScript.

Native VS HTML Hybrid

So, what kind of an impact does the addition of IBM MobileFirst have on the app?

NONE, granted the app’s UX can vary depending upon whether you are developing a native app or a hybrid app.

IBM MobileFirst Platform Foundation is a platform that consists of a server tier and client-side SDK. If you are developing a native app, the SDK/API provides access to MobileFirst platform features, like user authentication, app version management, data access through adapters, encrypted storage, unified push notification, remote log collection, and more. If you are developing a hybrid app, the app’s UX must be developed complete inside of the web view container. The MobileFirst Foundation SDK provides additional functionality just like mentioned above for the native SDK, plus a few classes that enable native dialogs and a few native UI elements, but for the most part, there is very, very minimal impact on the user’s experience.

When building any kind of mobile app, regardless of whether it is native or hybrid, you need to pay attention to what the user experiences. Are you following human interaction or design guidelines for the platform? Are you forcing your user to go through unnecessary or redundant steps? Are you making forms more complex than they need to be? Are you forcing multiple taps for a simple interaction? Can things be simplified?

The IBM MobileFirst Platform does not add any additional overhead for UX processes.

The IBM MobileFirst platform can be used to develop native apps on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, or Java ME platforms. Follow native coding conventions and UX guidelines for each individual platform. Make sure you follow these guidelines, otherwise your app may feel alien within the ecosystem, or may be rejected from app store approval altogether.

What should you think about when building a hybrid app leveraging IBM MobileFirst?

First, it depends on your hybrid approach. If you are using the for Xamarin hybrid approach for MobileFirst apps, then your considerations will be much like writing a native app.

If you are using the HTML/CSS/JavaScript approach (leveraging the Apache Cordova container), then you really want to focus on the user’s experience inside of the HTML container. You want to make sure the UI feels like “an app”, not like “a web page”. There are many client-side frameworks that help address this need. Feel free to use any of them, or roll your own – just keep the UX/human interaction guidelines in mind.

(this is by no means an exhaustive list, there are more out there)

Make sure you’re building for touch interactivity, addressing animations correctly to minimize browser reflow operations, and more… Read this post on Dzone that I wrote last year for a lot more detail on performance considerations for hybrid or mobile web apps.

If you are using any of these (or none of these), also don’t forget an architectural pattern/framework for helping keep your code organized and consistent. Read this post on hybrid/web app architectural patterns and considerations for even more detail.

For both native and hybrid approaches, you also want to consider impacts of perceived performance vs actual raw processing  power. These techniques deliver the appearance that the app is fast and responsive, instead of sluggish or locked while waiting to perform an action. Perceived performance improvements can be achieved simply by providing instant feedback, performing animations during an asynchronous request, or preemptive tasking. Don’t miss this post, where I go into perceived performance in mobile apps in great detail.

 

Explorations and Evangelism in Technology