Why the open source debate around MBaaS is missing the point

Matthew Baier is COO at Built.io.


There has been lots of discussion around mobile backend as a service (MBaaS) and the merits of open source vs. proprietary options in this space. Arguments on either side of the fence are largely unchanged from when the same debate raged over a decade ago, across anything from operating systems – Linux vs. Windows vs. (Open) Solaris – to productivity software – Microsoft Office vs. OpenOffice. Take the debate to the cloud, give it a mobile spin, update your FUD and you’re all caught up to what’s happening in the world of MBaaS.

Much of the debate is missing the point and obscuring the biggest challenge MBaaS has to overcome in order to succeed in the enterprise. What is true is that open source typically provides a level of flexibility you can’t get from proprietary options. The open source concept, by its very nature, allows you to replace functionality or components you don’t like with ones that you do (assuming you have the necessary skill set or access to it).

Flexibility is key for enterprises

Imagine an MBaaS that gives you a datastore, push notifications, analytics, realtime etc. all built into one package. That is super convenient (and one might argue precisely the reason why MBaaS came into existence in the first place) until you have a use case that goes beyond the built-in capabilities.

Perhaps you want to replace the default push notifications component with Urban Airship (a highly specialised, top-of-the-line push notification vendor). Maybe you decide you want the highly advanced analytics capabilities of Mixpanel to replace the ones that came with your MBaaS. As companies build up their mobile competence, they increasingly want and should be able to do that.

Is open source really the panacea?

For open source to thrive, you need an active community that champions and persists in maintaining a project. The reality is that more than 98% of all projects on GitHub don’t see any development beyond the first year they were written. So while there are many open source success stories, betting on open source as an enterprise isn’t a guaranteed road to success.

With that said, using open source software in the enterprise does bring with it many advantages, including: cost savings in development due to both lack of licensing fees and speed of product implementation; increased quality in source code and the mitigation of risk because there is no vendor lock-in. In the case of EU-based organisations, using open source software brings with it the advantages of being better able to work within the strict privacy requirements handed down by the government.

Despite the advantages of using open source, enterprise MBaaS providers have yet to fully embrace open source. MBaaS itself is hardly a brand new concept, yet there hasn’t been a massive rally to any particular open source option – perhaps because the mobile technology landscape is simply so fragmented. It’s also notoriously difficult for open source vendors to make any money. Regardless, while open source successes for MBaaS seem to be biding their time, the proprietary vendor landscape is rapidly maturing – with both winners and losers beginning to emerge.

MBaaS needs to become “pluggable”

The future success of MBaaS won’t be governed by a showdown between open source and proprietary offerings. MBaaS will have to embrace both concepts to deliver against enterprise requirements. A pluggable architecture that provides flexibility, i.e. by allowing you to “unplug” existing components and “plug in” others, is ultimately what will be needed. Today, no pure-play MBaaS vendor is quite there (yet) but some are beginning to upgrade their architecture and separate it into a core, with the ability to add pluggable modules.

The key here is that such pluggable modules may be open source, proprietary or a combination, leading to hybrid MBaaS solutions that combine the best of open source (flexibility) with the best of proprietary (on-going maintenance, active support, SLAs) offerings.

Today’s preferred choice for most companies is still for a vendor to stand behind, actively support and continuously evolve their enterprise MBaaS. Proprietary offerings offer longevity, stability and remain state of the art, even if the headlines begin to fade. However, by embracing the ability to add open source into the mix, MBaaS can lower concerns about vendor lock-in and become a viable option for situations where open source is directly or indirectly mandated, e.g. via government regulations.

So let’s stop thinking about MBaaS as being locked into a showdown between open source and vendor-backed, proprietary platforms. Instead, let’s look for the emergence of an MBaaS 2.0 architecture that moves beyond the misleading rhetoric and gives enterprises what they truly want.

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