What Is a Mobile App Backend and Does Your Mobile Application Need It?
A rocket is nothing without a powerful engine. The same goes for a mobile app — without a functional backend, an app will have a limited capability and user experience, no matter how engaging the UI. The backend facilitates data exchange and communication, helping a mobile app perform compute-intensive tasks.
Let’s look at what a mobile application backend is, how it works, and what types there are. We’ll also answer the question when your mobile product needs a backend.
What Is a Mobile App Backend? Does Your App Need It?
A mobile app backend is the brain of a mobile app. Among other things, the backend takes care of data processing, storage, and security.
The backend operates on the server, and it’s that part of the app that you don’t see, but your mobile app depends on it for functionality.
A mobile backend takes care of:
Data processing and storage independent of a smartphone’s capabilities
Data sync and sharing across multiple devices and platforms
Content updates within the mobile app
Management of the app’s business logic
Authorization and authentication that control access to data
Heavy processing operations (e.g., retrieving songs when you open a Spotify playlist) need a mobile app backend because of the limited capabilities of smartphones.
The mobile backend runs on a remote server and communicates with the mobile app to deliver a feature to end-users.
The backend, unlike the frontend, runs without a graphical interface. A backend is an app designed for communication among machines and servers.
The mobile app backend server performs remote tasks and processes information to make the frontend app experience better. A hosted backend stays on remote servers that developers access via APIs (application public interface).
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A mobile backend communicates with the app’s frontend to answer user requests. Together, they’re the soul (backend) and the body (frontend) of any modern mobile app.
Without the backend, the frontend is non-functional and without the frontend, an app wouldn’t be understood by the end-user (because there’s no visual layer).
But how does the communication happen? How does a machine-based backend understand what a human needs?
The answer lies in two-way communication via APIs.
When a user taps on the screen, the frontend sends a request to the backend. The backend retrieves the information required to perform a function via an API and sends back the final output to the frontend.
Let’s take an example.
Say, you want to buy your favorite pair of shoes on Amazon. You click the buy now button and go to a checkout page to pick the payment option.
The frontend (Amazon app) sends a request to its backend servers to connect to the external payment gateway. The result: you see a banking payment page asking for your payment credentials like credit card information, address, CVV, etc.
The API connects the backend and the frontend to the external service (payment provider) to display the payment page and pay for the order. The two-way communication ensures that the app keeps functioning seamlessly and offers the desired solution to the end-user, which in this case is to buy a pair of shoes.
What Types of Mobile App Backends Are There?
Now that you know how a mobile backend works, let’s see the different backend options.
Mobile app backend can be likened to meal options available on the market. There are restaurants, frozen meals, and fresh produce like vegetables, spices, meat, dairy, etc.
Third-party backend solutions are the restaurants — with fixed menus where you order, pay, eat, and move along. MBaaS solutions are like frozen meals that you pick up from the store, take home, heat, and consume whenever needed. Preparing a meal from scratch is then a custom backend solution.
Let’s look at all three mobile app backends in detail:
Third-party mobile app backend solutions — Solution-as-a-Service (SaaS)
The solution you’re building can often be already available on the market. Some platforms allow you to connect your app’s frontend to their backend solution (service) for a monthly/annual subscription fee.
These are known as third-party mobile app backend or SaaS solutions. A third-party backend is a ready-made, plug-and-play solution. You plug in your frontend, subscribe to their plan, and release your app. Here are some examples:
AccuWeather’s APIs allow app developers to fetch worldwide weather data, i.e., storms, forecasts, and weather conditions. Developers can use the AccuWeather backend and package it alongside an engaging frontend to launch an intuitive weather app for end-users.
No need to build complex algorithms to fetch data from millions of data points. Just pay a monthly fee and get access to endless weather data from around the world.
Shopify Headless Commerce
Shopify is one of the world’s most successful eCommerce platforms out there. It also offers a headless commerce solution for brands that want to launch apps using their own tech stack.
A headless solution connects a frontend touchpoint like a mobile app to a backend infrastructure (in this case Shopify headless commerce) to make an app functional for end-users.
Headless commerce solutions have in-built capabilities to manage inventory, orders, customers, sales, and content. Developers can use storefront API to add these eCommerce capabilities with ease to a mobile app.
Contentful headless CMS
If your app offers content — text, images, videos, or any other form of media, having a headless CMS as a backend is a great idea.
A headless CMS like Contentful allows you to show content across platforms to all app users. The frontend application can fetch any data or content stored in the headless CMS dashboard via APIs and display it independently to end-users in different forms.
A central backend dashboard helps you manage all the content across your mobile app.
MBaaS — Mobile Backend-as-a-Service
While third-party backend solutions might be good for straightforward applications, they can’t handle complex backend requirements. Apps that store user data, offer login/registration features, authentication, and push notifications need a powerful backend.
MBaaS allows you to use your pre-developed components with a backend to offer all such features. MBaaS lets you have custom code functionalities outside the available libraries and capabilities.
A more flexible option than SaaS, MBaaS is suitable for companies that want functionality without increasing their in-house backend capabilities and resources.
MBaaS gives you a basic structure that you can mold based on your requirements. Developers don’t need to build a backend from scratch but take advantage of reusable components and pre-populated libraries for general app features.
For MBaaS, app owners and developers pay a monthly fee for the resource utilization — number of users, notifications sent, traffic volume, etc. Some popular MBaaS solutions for Android and iOS apps are:
Amazon Web Services (AWS) mobile
Amazon AWS offers the perfect combination of scalability, elasticity, and cost-efficiency for a powerful mobile backend. The serverless, cloud-hosted backend solution has all the tools for powering a mobile app.
Netflix, Twitch, LinkedIn, and millions of other apps around the world use Amazon AWS as their mobile backend. The solution gives all advanced features like push notifications, cloud data storage, and user authentication with excellent scalability for all kinds of modern apps.
Firebase is another trusted MBaaS solution that also comes with a free plan to try and test the features. A Google-approved solution, Firebase powers apps and platforms like Flutter or Shazam.
You can take advantage of real-time database updates, crash reporting, cloud storage, and hosting for your mobile app.
One of the few popular self-hosted, open-source backend solutions, Parse offers a fully-packaged software development kit (SDK) to build custom backend apps.
Suitable for both Android and iOS, Parse can be used to build backend for apps that work on the CRUD (Create, read, update, delete) philosophy. Social media apps are the perfect examples of CRUD apps.
There are other MBaaS solutions like RestAPI, GraphQL, or StackMob. which are equally powerful like the ones listed above. Choosing one over the other is a question of the app’s requirements and user base growth potential.
Custom mobile app backend solution
Building a custom backend is the most sensible alternative if you want full flexibility and customization with your mobile app’s backend. A custom backend is built from scratch with the help of an expert team of backend developers.
Naturally, the level of customization and control comes with a price tag — you’ll have to hire and manage the backend development team and might need to invest in the underlying infrastructure.
But if you are concerned about the app’s performance, security and want to build a highly scalable app, a custom backend would be the most ideal option for you.
In a day and age where privacy is a big concern, building an app with zero dependencies and minimal API connections can be a differentiator for many apps.
You can also adopt a hybrid approach with a mix of SaaS, MBaaS, and custom backend solutions. Everything depends on the use case and requirement of the app. The best way to make a choice is to consult with engineers who can analyze your idea and provide a viable backend development plan.
Does every app need a backend? Which apps don’t need a backend?
Not every mobile app needs a mobile app backend to function. Self-contained apps like a drawing app, notepad, magnifier app, or invoicing app can work without a backend. These apps can store data on local storage and work offline. Generally, apps that don’t ask you to sign up or store any user information (or history) on the cloud can function without a backend.
What kind of app features require a backend?
Features like login and registration, push notifications, personalized recommendations, chat messaging, dynamic content inside the app need a backend to function. The backend is required for storing, processing, and exchange of data to ensure seamless sync across devices.
What goes into the backend of a mobile app?
Any mobile app backend has many layers to it. Traditionally, the backend consisted of servers, databases, and middleware. But modern mobile app backends can comprise various components and integrations for email notifications, load balancers, or cloud storage.
What is the difference between frontend and backend?
Frontend and backend are two sides of the same coin. While the frontend focuses on the form (user interface), the backend is essential for the underlying functionality of the app.
Does Your Mobile App Need a Backend?
Now that you know what a mobile app backend is, it's time for the golden question — does your app need a backend?
Well, if you’re building any kind of app that deals with user data, you need a backend to support it.
To simplify the discussion, here’s a list of questions to ask to determine if your mobile product needs a backend:
Will you collect or save any type of user information?
Will your app display personalized/dynamic data based on user behavior?
Does your app need a user authentication method?
Do you want users to access their information across multiple devices?
Will your users consume the content you create via an app?
If you answered any one of the questions in a “Yes,” then you surely need a mobile app backend. You’d have to kickstart the mobile app backend development process before you can think of delivering a powerful app.
While picking up a tech stack for the app’s backend, make sure the technology suits your app’s needs, business logic, and future growth opportunities.
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