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What EA learned about building successful mobile app infrastructure

Find out what Electronic Arts learned from a failed effort and one successful strategy for deploying cloud infrastructure for mobile apps.

Getting a mobile program off the ground is not always easy. The gaming giant Electronic Arts Inc., or EA, tried several times to launch mobile applications for employee users. The first couple of efforts were stillborn and not widely adopted. At the Red Hat Summit, William Bendrot, enterprise architect at EA, elaborated on his experience in getting traction with implementing a successful internal cloud mobile app infrastructure.

Some of the best practices include learning from failure, focusing on user experience, creating a plan and leveraging a platform. This allowed the company to go from a few unused applications to a mobile application factory that made it easy to update apps and deploy new ones.

Bendrot said it is surprising how often planning the infrastructure does not get considered in implementing a mobile strategy. EA realized it would be much better to leverage a mobile backend as a service (MBaaS) to allow developers to focus on writing new features. It ultimately adopted the FeedHenry MBaaS platform that was recently acquired by Red Hat.

In addition, EA needed a strategy for provisioning new apps. They settled on a mobile application management (MAM) platform from Apperian for managing an enterprise store. This simplified the ability to secure data at the application level, so employees could use their own devices.

Learn from failure

William Bendrot, enterprise architect at EAWilliam Bendrot

About a year and a half ago, Bendrot was tasked with implementing a new mobile app infrastructure. This was not the first time mobile had been attempted at EA. His first task was to figure out why it never came to fruition. He found the engineering was good, but the team was not supported, and they lacked compelling use cases.

One app was simply a content mirror of an enterprise site. "If the app is just going to mirror content, it is much easier to just build a responsive website," Bendrot said.

Another app was for expense reporting and approval. Bendrot said it is much easier to take advantage of software-as-a-service offerings, rather than build these internally. Unless expense reporting is unique, it is much easier to buy applications for doing this.

The development process and approach was based on a hybrid model for coding the apps once, and then automatically generating iOS and Android apps. This turned out to make it easier to manage and deploy updates in a streamlined fashion. However, the previous effort had used Sencha Touch, which Bendrot said he believes has not aged well. The app build process was done manually using Adobe PhoneGap. This worked fine for developers, but not for getting the app out to enterprise users. There was no governance, control or security.

Design for compelling user experience

It is important to start with a compelling user experience. IT has gotten into the mindset that products are deployed to simplify IT, rather than work for users. "I'm willing to bet that many internal apps are user-hostile," Bendrot said.

Experience needs to be the focus of everything the enterprise does around mobile. This is not just about a pretty UI, but also reducing application lag and ensuring the logic fits with mobile use cases. If employees cannot get the information they need on their mobile device, they will go back to the desk.

Frame the goal for finance

I'm willing to bet that many internal apps are user-hostile.
William Bendrotenterprise architect at EA

The biggest challenge was to frame things with the finance people. The finance team wondered why they should spend so much on a platform when the company could build this itself. "It was important to counter that they would write a check or pay our salaries. And then, we would not be building the apps infrastructure over and over again. In addition, more effort would be required for the care and feeding of those platforms," Bendrot said.

Afterward, the EA IT team had a high-level presentation to the executive team. They talked in depth about the applications, why they had an ROI and what they hoped to accomplish. Then, they spelled out how investing in a cloud-based mobile infrastructure would enable them to do this better.

Test new tools with actual use cases

As part of the due diligence process, EA identified five platforms each for MBaaS and MAM. This was reduced to two candidates for each technology. Then, the EA team worked with a set of both tools to implement live use cases.

"It is important not just to build a simple Hello World app," Bendrot said. Working with real use cases allowed EA to think through the best approach for building out the architecture.

Another good practice is to include the security team as part of this process. The security team could help ensure the application infrastructure made it easy to code applications securely, rather than as an add-on after the fact.

Let developers focus on new apps

EA selected its winners in August and started the production phase in September. The team has thus far implemented four apps, and two are going through major revisions. The infrastructure includes 23 back-end services. EA has also built a data federation framework created with Node.js.

EA is hoping to add about two to three apps per year in addition to the mobile app infrastructure already deployed. All of this is being implemented with a team of only three members. "We would not have been able to do that if we had to worry about the infrastructure," Bendrot said.

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