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Facebook's coming shutdown of the Parse open source mobile backend as a service came without warning. What started as a Twitter-fueled panic attack among mobile app developers facing Parse's looming Jan. 28, 2017, demise is now giving way to a calmer search for alternatives. To its credit, Facebook is helping to mitigate the pain.
Though not precisely a retread of Britain's retro-popular "Keep Calm and Carry On" wartime slogan, the prospect of moving apps and data to alternative platforms befits the update, "keep calm and migrate on." Who better to sort out the Parse shutdown anxiety than a U.K.-based independent developer of mobile apps.
Based in Wiltshire, west of London, Jason Kneen of BouncingFish is a freelance developer building cross-platform apps in native iOS and Android. He also does Node.js, .NET and Classic ASP Web development, counting the likes of Microsoft and Disney among his clients.
Like other mobile app developers worldwide, Facebook's sudden January 2016 Parse shutdown caught Kneen by surprise. "Initially, it was a total shock; completely unexpected," he said. "I was in panic mode, because I had apps that I'd just finished and released on Parse." Kneen also had three other major projects lined up that he planned to host on Parse.
Popular open source MBaaS
Kneen is far from alone in his dismay, according to Mike Facemire, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, who serves application development and delivery professionals. "When Parse came out, it offered ultimate back-end simplicity for building games or storing users' preferences," he said. "Parse was the perfect storm for indie developers -- it was a quick way to throw data up into the cloud, it had the ability to perform at scale and it wasn't prohibitively expensive."
Jeff HaynieCEO, Appcelerator
Jeff Haynie, CEO of mobile backend as a service (MBaaS) provider Appcelerator Inc., one of many Parse alternatives, agreed. "I think Parse succeeded at what Facebook initially wanted to do: Provide tools and a disciplined approach that allowed developers to build apps that connected with the Facebook platform."
That standalone MBaaS model no longer appears to be a priority, and demonstrates how MBaaS has been assimilated into the larger cloud and mobile app development universe, Haynie said. "MBaaS is still an important technology, but today, it is just one part of the overall application stack that developers use to build their products." He added that apps are now more attuned to other technologies, including API enablement, microservices and containerization. "Think of MBaaS as part of a larger suite for building cross-channel, cross-platform mobile applications."
Two-step app migration process
After the initial shock of the Parse shutdown passed, Kneen realized he has nearly a full year to move his apps and data to another MBaaS platform. He also realized he was not alone. "The open source community really jumped on this quickly. Literally, overnight, we had blog posts on how to deploy the open source Parse server to other platforms. And within days, we had a button you could click off the sample Parse app that would deploy it somewhere else."
Though the Parse shutdown doesn't happen until Jan. 28, 2017, waiting until the last moment is simply asking for trouble, Facemire said. "Whether you set up your own Parse server or go with another MBaaS provider, it is never exactly the same. Code changes and API calls will likely need adjustment or rewriting, followed by testing."
Facebook itself is promoting a phased approach of migrating data from Parse to some other MongoDB database server before the end of April 2016, followed by redeploying apps to an independently hosted Parse server by the end of July.
To aid developers, Facebook posted the code for the open source Parse server on GitHub. The recommendation from the Parse website "is to use the open sourced version of Parse to deploy your own Parse back end for your mobile application." A separate application migration guide is also available.
Self-hosting the Parse server code may be an ideal approach for some developers. "Looking at other MBaaS solutions out there, they are either not simple to set up and use, or expensive from Day 1," Kneen said. "Parse was at least free to use up to a certain point -- and maybe that was ultimately the issue."
Parse shutdown ultimately good for developers
"Developers understand that they now have the means to instantly deploy the Parse server to Amazon Web Services, Salesforce's Heroku, Google and other destinations, such as Appcelerator's cloud platform," Kneen said. "More interestingly, this has sparked interest among developers and businesses to create alternative solutions. It has actually lit a fire under developers that wouldn't have happened if Parse had continued."
Another side of the Parse shutdown is that it forces developers to evolve from working on a mobile-only environment to interacting with a wider range of connected devices, which includes smartwatches and even home-automation Internet of Things appliances. "This advances developers into stream processing and real-time communications," Kneen said.
For Kneen, the perfect cloud-based MBaaS is one that provides breathing room for app development and testing. "What I need is an MBaaS solution that isn't geared toward being in production immediately." He said he prefers a platform where it is possible to get a mobile back end working fast, without incurring significant costs during the development phase. "Ultimately, I will hand any production costs over to the client."
In the long run, the Parse shutdown, and the need to migrate apps and data are likely to be seen as mere bumps in the road to the cloud, Facemire said. "Once you have a good understanding of the cloud, it becomes apparent that it isn't a big deal to pick up and move somewhere else." Developers of mobile apps will be doing a lot of picking up and moving before next January.
Alternatives to Parse MBaaS are plentiful
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