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How middleware platforms can benefit mobile apps

Organizations that build mobile apps with a lot of integrations with back-end services should consider middleware. But first, be aware of these pros and cons.

It can be a complex process to implement mobile business apps and connect them to back-end systems, but middleware platforms offer a simpler route.

Most enterprise applications need to communicate with back-end systems -- such as directory services, file servers, databases or storage services -- to access the data and services they need to conduct business. Mobile apps are no different, but they also come with additional unique challenges.

For example, because mobile apps run on devices with less processing power and memory than a typical desktop, IT may need to offload more of the processing to back-end servers. IT often updates mobile app front ends more frequently than back-end systems or the APIs that facilitate communication, which can complicate connectivity -- especially if app updates are not concurrent across all the devices.

Developers must also contend with unique platform and device features. Many mobile devices support fingerprint authentication, which developers must incorporate into the larger security and authentication infrastructure. At the same time, developers have to cope with features that can have an indirect effect on security, such as cameras and GPS.

A mobile app must also be able to work across different connection types, including 4G networks, public Wi-Fi and corporate networks, which can change as end users change locations. These changing networks can also lead to intermittent connectivity, which makes it necessary for apps to have offline connectivity.

In addition to these challenges, developers must build apps that run on different OSes, different versions of those OSes and different device types, which range from smartphones to tablets to smartwatches.

Middleware platforms to the rescue

Many developers customize their apps to support connectivity to different resources, which can be a long process.

Middleware platforms can help enable and simplify connectivity between mobile apps and back-end systems no matter the type of system or its location. Middleware sits between the back-end resources and mobile apps, abstracting the complexities that come with connecting to resources. Middleware also uses standards-based technologies such as Simple Object Access Protocol and REST.

But middleware does more than just manage connectivity.

With middleware platforms, developers have a single gateway to back-end systems, which makes it easier for them to connect their mobile apps to corporate resources. They don't need to customize each version of an app to accommodate the requirements of the individual systems. IT admins can modify those systems without breaking all the applications; they only need to update the middleware.

But middleware does more than just manage connectivity. A comprehensive platform also handles issues such as scaling, load balancing, concurrent processing and transaction management. In addition, the platform ensures that the connections and back-end systems are protected and secure, incorporating authentication, encryption and other protection technologies as necessary.

Some middleware platforms also make it possible to implement custom logic that carries out specific operations based on app requests, such as tailoring data to specific locations.

Make these middleware decisions

If an organization is deploying a few mobile apps and connectivity to the back-end resources is simple and straightforward, middleware might be overkill. But a more complex operation may require significant effort to implement all the capabilities that middleware provides.

Middleware services are available as software products that IT can install on premises or through cloud services, such as integration platform as a service or middleware as a service. An IT team considering a middleware platform should take into account the apps they're running, when and how those apps are used, and the types of back-end systems that support those apps.

Mobile apps require flexibility, and cloud-based middleware is typically a good fit for that. Cloud services are also easier to implement and maintain. On the other hand, an organization might need a middleware platform that also supports more traditional types of apps and services. In that case, an on-premises platform might be a better fit.

This was last published in August 2018

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