Mobility

How Mendix' Smart Apps help large companies innovate like startups

The Platform as a Service provider aims to make mobile app development accessible, even to non-developers.

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Image: iStock/Ronstik

Mendix CTO Johan den Haan echoes venture capitalist Marc Andreessen when talking about why his company exists: "Software is eating the world." Meaning that companies with software at the core of their business, like Uber, Airbnb, and Netflix, are scaring more traditional companies who can't innovate as quickly. Mendix' mission is to help these companies by making app development faster and more accessible.

The Mendix cloud-based platform is based upon capabilities to integrate IBM Watson, Amazon Web Services (AWS) machine learning, AWS IoT and other cloud elements to build applications. Their focus is providing developers the ability to create what they call Smart Apps.

I discussed Smart Apps with den Haan, who spoke to me from his office in the Netherlands.

TR: What's the purpose of Smart Apps?

den Haan: "The smart app philosophy is intended to help accelerate innovation in enterprises by developing software to innovate and compete, using a suite of applications. With this concept, people can build software six times faster on average, depending on the type of product, using smaller teams - it involves 70% less resources. Different types of people are involved; a mix of those with business ideas that can be handled with the platform, combined with the technical people with the background to make it happen. The UI (user interface) building, business logic, and so forth is handled by the less technical people.

We use visual models to specify the elements and turn these into apps. Objects representing desired business model components such as advertising, in-app purchases and subscriptions can be dragged and dropped via a one-click deployment process.

The people using our platform are empowered this way — they're not full time developers, but they have an understanding of what they're trying to do. They don't need know the specific ins and outs of a programming language."

TR: Can you provide some examples of these apps?

den Haan: "An insurance company in the UK delivers new insurance products to the market. They build web-based portals to integrate into their back-end systems to process insurers. It used to take more than 12 months to get a new product, including a self-service portal, out the door. It now takes only six weeks from the initial idea to self-service. You can experiment so quickly with the concept that you'll have one of these examples every year rather than an experiment every year.

Another interesting example involves an airline company. The application is a simple one, but it illustrates how you can quickly build through innovation to execute great ideas to save money. This company does maintenance on airplanes in three buildings, using very specific equipment. Engineers look for certain equipment when they need it, which takes takes time to find. Their app tags all the equipment and connects them to a smart app using a low-energy IoT network and they can then use iOS an app to find this material. This gets planes fixed and back in the air earlier. The app saves a good percentage of time every day, therefore and ends up saving a couple of million dollars per year. The app was built in a couple of weeks and has a huge impact."

TR: What is the infrastructure behind Smart Apps?

den Haan: "Mendix is based on a mobile environment for mobile apps - we use our own mobile languages known as DSLs, or domain specific languages, which make things easy for users. We put these in their runtime environment, along with a built-in Scala Runtime Engine and Java VM. This interprets the business model and transforms it to an to app. The Java VM runs on Cloud Foundry, an open-source service platform. This is the foundational part, it uses container technology, integrating with Docker.

We then put the whole app layer on top of that, so you can push your source code and it will use the Java elements to combine your code, make it binary, then drop it into the container. It allows for scaling, health management, and high availability. We are taking part of the open-source development to use it as the background of our own platform.

You upload the app and it works in Mendix runtime as a normal app. All the scaling, health management and high availability is fit in. On the front end we use Javascript and Cordova. On the back end, it runs on top of the Amazon platform for file storage, web storage, and load balancing."

The apps we facilitate can run everywhere on all operating systems - Linux, Windows, and Mac. We can build integrations with partners such as IBM or HP, or concepts like Platform-as-a-Service (PAAS), or private/public cloud providers. We deliver portability so apps can run elsewhere."

TR: Are mobile apps more popular than web?

den Haan: "Mobile is always there. If people build a new app they want it to work on mobile devices. However, this is where some people go wrong if they just focus on a mobile perspective; they miss out on the fact almost any app in the enterprise is multi-channel, and needs to be accessed from a device/phone/tablet, as well as a laptop or desktop. There is always a business process or workflow being implemented such as people in the office entering information using desktops or laptops while people in the field are using mobile devices. We strongly believe the world is multi-channel and you need to build apps that can be accessed from any device."

TR: What about security?

den Haan: "There are two levels:

  1. Technical security such as protection from query injection, OS vulnerabilities etc. This is covered by the platform. We make sure the platform is hardened, and run penetration tests so people can't do things like SQL injection.
  1. The data is secured with user-role-based access controls which are defined in the application and completely integrated. We automatically check to make sure developers have configured this properly."

TR: Do you offer service-level agreements?

den Haan: "We do offer enterprise level SLAs - depending on the contract you can have basic or platinum level SLAs with specific DR policies and cloud security certifications; the entire package you need for enterprise app development."

TR: What's business model do you use?

den Haan: "Our free version is limited to 10 users with unlimited apps. There are limits on the resources you can use in the cloud as well as the support you receive. The paid edition charges by platform licenses based on the number of apps/users."

Also see:
Appmobi: A look at a secure mobile app development platform
How Allstate boosted developer productivity by 350% with the cloud
How startups can predict what developer tools the enterprise will use in the future
How public cloud providers are making security a non-issue for app developers10 human factors that are critical to your app testing

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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