By Olivia Cahoon
Low-code app (app) development platforms enable the rapid development and deployment of apps using user interfaces and configuration instead of traditional computer programming.
Forrester defines low-code app development platforms as products or cloud services that employ visual, declarative techniques for app development instead of programming and are available at low- or no-cost to begin, with costs rising in proportion of the platform’s business value.
By using a low-code app development platform, business stakeholders and IT professionals directly collaborate during the app development process without having to deal with sophisticated programming.
Johan den Haan, CTO, Mendix, explains, “a low-code app platform abstracts code into visual models, which speeds up the development process while giving business stakeholders the ability to more effectively provide input and iterate on the development of the app.”
For mobile apps, low-code platforms enable IT developers to deliver apps faster with iterative feedback from business stakeholders. According to den Haan, this ultimately delivers an app that meets the business’s demands without having to complete multiple versions for approval.
Low-code platforms also give advanced business users the ability to actively contribute to app development. den Haan says this alleviates the demand on IT while allowing IT to maintain control over the app development and deployment process.”
Additionally, a broader spectrum of users can utilize a low-code platform because it doesn’t require extensive programming knowledge or experience. Low-code platforms tend to deliver apps to market faster than using traditional app development approaches. According to den Haan, this type of speed will aid in the future of app development as demands grow. “According to Gartner, by 2021, the demand for mobile apps will grow at least five times faster than internal IT’s capability to deliver these solutions,” he explains.
To qualify an app development platform as low-code, several features must be included like data access, ad-hoc data queries, and report building. According to Forrester, developers adopting low-code platforms seek dramatically higher productivity without sacrificing key features.
Allan Leinwand, CTO, ServiceNow, believes low-code users should not have to write SQL to pull data from tables. To avoid this, ad-hoc data queries allow users to bypass writing code while analyzing varieties of data. “These are the core things that organizations would expect any low-code development tool to support,” he explains.
Data access entails features that determine who has access and control so that low-code processes and apps are not available to everyone on the platform. It also segments the data and the ability to view it. Leinwand suggests businesses always consider data access features in a low-code platform.
Additionally, report building features allow users to visualize the output. Leinwand believes that instead of coding, most users want the ability to drag, drop, and configure how they visualize the data using pie charts, funnels, and histograms. “There are many ways to do this that don’t require coding,” he offers.
The way in which forms are created and designed is also a considerable capability in low-code app development platforms. Form design and creation features determine how data is represented in a user interface for input or as part of a process or task. Leinwand believes the ability of the user to determine what fields are required to satisfy the business requirements should have little to no coding involved as well.
Eyal Inbar, VP of product marketing, K2, says an easy, out-of-the-box integration with line-of-business (LOB) systems must be offered in a low-code platform as well as intuitive, visual development tools that allow citizen developers to professional app developers to design forms and workflows.
“Low-code solutions must be simultaneously enterprise-class powerful and citizen developer easy to use,” says Inbar. He believes pre-built apps and app wizards help developers get started quickly. Additionally, analytics and reporting tools help deliver needed information to identify issues and drive optimization.
A security framework allows developers to centralize management of apps and code object security. At the same time, Inbar says a security framework should observe the native security of data in connected LOB systems.
While low-code platforms provide business owners and subject matter experts a direct role in developing digital business automation, it is also an information-centered approach. Jenny Victor, senior director, BPM product marketing, OpenText, says this means business users can participate in all stages of development and focus around policies or workflow.
“This defines the information that needs action rather than working around a rigid process,” offers Victor. Business may quickly build prototypes or initial releases and adapt based on results.
Additionally, companies with low-code platforms see large benefits from the ability to execute more quickly and efficiently. According to Victor, digital business automation apps have typically taken months to deploy with developers responsible for translating business requirements into designs and building web and mobile user experiences. With low-code platforms, apps can be configured and used in lesser time and solutions may be reused to build newer solutions—saving on time and costs.
Burley Kawasaki, EVP products, Kony, Inc., agrees and says that by having a set of pre-built or standardized capabilities built in, less time is spent on developing these functionalities and more on the customized features that differentiate each app.
Not only do developers have more time to focus on customized features, they can also explore app ideas without heavy investments. “The consumerization of the enterprise means employees now expect tools and technologies to help them do their jobs better—just like they’ve experienced in their personal lives,” says Kawasaki. As a result, developers have the resources and time to explore creative and productive ideas that benefit the team.
By accommodating the cloud, low-code platforms provide developers access to the latest tools. Kawasaki says this also means apps can be easily integrated into existing back-end systems, easily maintained after deployment, and are ready to tap into new and emerging technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality. “The best low-code development platforms take full advantage of the cloud,” he says.
According to Mike Hughes, director of product marketing, OutSystems, the biggest benefits of low-code development and deployment include reducing the internal app backlog and providing an omni-channel experience and agility. He believes organizations often begin to use a low-code app platform to reduce the internal app backlog that usually exists within organizations. “Low-code platforms can help to optimize internal operations and streamline processes by replacing inefficient and often paper-based processes.”
While reducing internal app backlogs, low-code platforms also decrease the time to deploy apps. Hughes says that with certain low-code platforms, this can extend to replacing core systems. For example, he says a two-year custom development project for a large system can be delivered in just seven months.
SMBs that use a low-code platform can develop an omni-channel experience to build and monitor the user experience and journey across multiple platforms. Hughes says this extends into websites, mobile apps, and supporting call centers to provide the ultimate user experience.
Different low-code development platforms have varying methods for solving challenges. When working in a low-code platform, Div Manickam, product marketing manager, API & Flow, Dell Boomi, says that developers may have to rethink how they perform tasks in order to successfully adopt the platform. “While low-code platforms can be attractive to some users, they are not for everyone and not everyone sees it as a benefit to their skillset,” she offers.
Companies seek the high productivity that low-code platforms provide, but they don’t want to sacrifice control or customization capabilities. “There is a perception in the market that low-code provides less value with simpler tooling and that is simply not the case with all solutions,” says Manickam. By selecting the right low-code solution, companies receive high control and high productivity, which can solve simple and difficult needs.
As enterprises adopt low-code development platforms there is a growing demand for prioritizing projects. Manickam believes there will still be cases when coding is the best option, and in order to see the return on investment and value of low-code platforms, companies should understand when to use a low-code solution and when to invest in IT resources. She suggests users think about app development similar to how they would for a customer journey map. This involves determining the stakeholders for the solution and gathering the organization to address business needs.
“It’s difficult to assess the success and value of projects that are 12 to 18 months long because the business needs and sometimes even stakeholders would have changed by then,” says Manickam. She recommends aligning business needs to IT requirements to ensure projects run accordingly and all stakeholders are satisfied with the end result.
Trends and Considerations
Before implementing a low-code app development platform, businesses should avoid measures that slow processes down. Richard Billington, CTO, MatsSoft, suggests businesses adopt a bake-off style solution selection process that ensures the platform is suitable for target developmental staff and can potentially test important use cases.
“Develop a strategy that uses a distributed app architecture with a common data model—don’t try to add all the functionality you require into one, monolithic instance,” says Billington. Unnecessary steps, documentation, and reviews can slow projects down. Instead, solutions should be selected in an agile method.
Furthermore, appropriate skill sets should be used at each stage of development so that experiments and minimal viable products can be developed rapidly by staff who understand the business case. Billington believes adding features like ERP integration, multi-tenancy, and internalization may be best achieved with experienced coders.
Frank Zamani, founder/CEO, Caspio, suggests new users look for a balance between capabilities and sophistication while retaining simplicity of app creation and deployment. He says many low-code platforms are designed for IT and development teams and can overwhelm the general business users that lack programming backgrounds.
“Low-code platforms are continuing to make it easier for front-line business leaders to exercise greater expressive power—the ability to convert their ideas into fully-featured, enterprise-grade business apps that are customized to their exact needs,” says Zamani. As a result, greater innovation, agility, and customer-centricity is applied through the enterprise.
According to John Webster, CMO, Bizagi, some IT departments use general low-code platforms to build point apps to fix point problems. However, many companies are finding that these IT focused tools can’t scale functionally or commercially when asked to digitize processes and orchestrate operations that cut across functional, system, or organizational silos.
“There’s a new and growing trend for companies to embrace digital process automation platforms where model-driven apps can be created by both business and IT users using low-code principles, but that can automate processes that cut across silos, systems, and organizational functions, a fundamental requirement for companies to digitally transform their operations and remain competitive in today’s marketplace,” says Webster.
Available Low-Code Platforms
Bizagi offers a business process management (BPM) platform that powers $10 billion transactions for 500 enterprise customers worldwide. Bizagi Studio helps users automate and digitize business operations using a drag-and-drop interface. It also allows developers to run unlimited processes for up to 20 participants in a test environment. Bizagi Studio offers three simple steps—design process maps, build process apps, and run Bizagi enterprise-wide. Bizagi’s Data Layer promotes reuse to allow developers to share business objects across processes and projects.
Released in November 2017, Caspio Bridge 9.9 targets globally serving small- to mid-sized businesses and enterprises with purpose-built solutions for healthcare, education, finance, and government. Each Caspio account provides solutions for creating, deploying, and operating apps. This includes an online database, tools for creating and maintaining apps, and scalable cloud infrastructure to power apps for multiple users. Caspio is offered in several editions that are hosted in multiple data centers around the globe. Plans are structured to meet business sizes and budgets and each edition includes plans with flexible upgrade and downgrade paths.
Dell offers the Boomi Flow, released in June 2017. It is a low-code development platform that targets markets in financial services, healthcare, retail, and higher education. Boomi Flow allows customers to create journeys and automate simple and sophisticated workflows to drive business. It features drag-and-drop workflows with page layouts, rules, and conditional logic and permissions. According to Manickam, Integration platform as a Service is available as part of Boomi and offers a unified platform to connect and develop apps that engage everywhere, across any channel, device, or platform.
K2’s process automation platform integrates with common enterprise systems and apps like DocuSign, Oracle, Salesforce, and SAP. Its integration technology, SmartObjects, allows developers to reuse integration points across every form, workflow, and report. The K2 platform is offered in standard packages including K2 Cloud and K2 Five, released in November 2017. K2 Cloud is a cloud service managed by K2 and K2 Five is offered on premises or a private cloud. K2 Cloud retains ISO 27001 certification and certifications provided by cloud and infrastructure provider, Azure.
Released in September 2017, the Kony AppPlatform targets all markets including banking, finance, healthcare, energy, and retail. It is intended for professional developers and citizen developers within organizations looking to design, develop, and deliver omnichannel apps by simplifying the app development and deployment process. According to Kawasaki, the platform reduces deployment time to 90 days or less and is a patented cross-platform API with guaranteed SLA.
MatsSoft released MATS Low-Code in July 2017. It’s designed for IT and business developers in the public sector, manufacturers, consumer facing enterprises, and providers of business services. “MATS Low-code allows business and professional developers to create and manage enterprise solutions quickly and easily,” says Billington. It includes an integrated multi-channel communications and app store accelerator for fast adoption. A standard monthly license is offered for $29.57 per user per month based on public sector pricing available in G-Cloud 9.
The Mendix Platform 7.6 was released in August 2017. It targets current Mendix developers, IT professionals, and business professionals. Mendix Platform includes client-size validations with expressions, keyboard shortcuts in web modeler, inline text editing in pages, and new widgets. According to den Haan, pricing varies starting at $1,875 per month for a single app.
Released in November 2017, OpenText offers Process Suite with Low-Code v16.3. It includes dual case management and process digital automation, pre-built templates and building blocks, information driven design, and advanced integration with other systems and databases. “The new Enterprise Information Systems and Database framework expand the integration capability of our EIS connectors by providing frameworks to connect to API’s, REST services, and database schemas, and translate the objects from other systems into usable entities to build an app,” says Victor.
OutSystems was released in October 2016 and supports a range of options including vertical scalability and horizontal scalability adjusted to customers’ specific requirements. “OutSystems is the only low-code development platform with advanced enterprise features,” says Hughes. The platform can build apps that have enterprise-grade scalability and security that modern organizations demand. According to Hughes, OutSystems is available as a free edition, One edition, or Enterprise edition. Pricing for One edition starts at $2,100 a month and Enterprise starts at $4,600 a month.
The Kingston release of ServiceNow’s NOW platform is a no-, low-, and pro-code development platform released in January 2018. It primarily targets global 2000 enterprises but also caters to commercial businesses. ServiceNow Agent Intelligence uses a patented machine learning engine that categorizes, routes, and assigns work to automate processes based on customers. The platform also offers Service Now Flow Designer which allows anyone to author codeless flows using natural language to automate business processes across and within ServiceNow cloud apps. “We will continue to abstract out complexity and offer more features and capabilities that empower those that are using the low- and no-code tools,” says Leinwand.
Low-Code for High Efficiency
Low-code app development platforms allow IT developers to deliver apps quickly and enable business stakeholders to collaborate during app development. Low-code platforms include features that enable higher productivity like data management, form design, and report building. As trends grow for model-driven apps, low-code platforms allow business and IT users to collaborate and automate processes across organizations.
Jan2018, Software Magazine