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Low-code development is not a new phenomenon. In many ways, the term is a modern moniker for rapid application development (RAD) tools first introduced in the 1980s. These tools were originally introduced as alternatives to traditional programming techniques. Early RAD tools focused on quick, iterative development methods prioritising constrained functionality, user experience and overall performance.
Today, empowering employees with low-code development technology is part of the digital workplace charter, supporting the large scale of departmental and workgroup application development. Only applications that are of an extreme scale (for example, relying on custom microservices) or that contain novel capabilities require the traditional professional IT developer and are outside low-code tool capabilities.
Workgroup applications have always exploited citizen-developer tooling such as spreadsheets. Departmental line-of-business applications built by developers attached to business units have been the growth area for low-code development tooling, in conjunction with popular software-as-a-service (SaaS) off-the-shelf offerings.
But the rise in low-code functionality and performance has also led to its adoption as a replacement enterprise platform – low-code tooling continues to climb the pyramid of applications. The principal benefits of low-code application development include productivity, time to market, a reduced need for specialist skills and a simplification of the tooling needed (outside of the low-code platform).
While time and reduced resource remain the biggest draws for those adopting low-code applications, cost is a cause for concern in many cases. A high proportion of customers do not realise that subscription models require a great deal of care and attention for the first contract.
That “per user” or “per application” cost decreases with volume of usage. If a company starts small, as is advisable, it should ensure that its low-code contract has provisions for ramping up as needed. If each team in an organisation can build a new application every month or two, application leaders will quickly find themselves with dozens of apps, all of which can come to be considered business-critical in a relatively short period of time.
Some IT organisations are hesitant to adopt low-code tooling due to doubts over its integration with existing IT systems, typically solved through the use of application programming interfaces (APIs). However, the vast majority of low-code suppliers today allow existing services to be called through APIs, as well as provide their own APIs for access to their data or services.
Gartner includes API enablement as a requirement for any enterprise tooling today. This does not mean that the focus of low-code is just for assembling applications from APIs to headless services. Many low-code tools also provide multi-experience development capabilities allowing for highly usable, customer-friendly user experiences with web and mobile devices.
Finding the right tools
Once an organisation chooses to adopt low-code tooling, the focus turns to which tools to select.
The market leaders come from the SaaS-provided platform world, with suppliers such as Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce and ServiceNow, and the specialist application development world, with suppliers such as Betty Blocks, Mendix and OutSystems. There is also increasing growth into application development from the business process management suite world, with suppliers such as Agilepoint, Appian and Pega.
Move to low-code development is rapidly gaining pace
The enterprise low-code application platform (LCAP) market is growing strongly, due to continued demand for applications and a shortage of skilled developers. Low-code development is a natural evolution of rising abstraction levels in application development, which will eventually lead to viable cross-enterprise, highly scalable citizen development and composition of applications.
LCAP suppliers represent the vanguard of the movement to democratise application development by increasingly replacing standard business application development in Java or .Net, and providing differentiating alternatives to commercial off-the-shelf or software-as-a-service applications.
Many enterprise software suppliers recognise the advantages of low-code application development and provide associated platforms, but not all do.
Analysis of the responses to Gartner’s survey of around 200 reference customers in February and March 2019 produced the following insights, which can be used to build a business case for using an enterprise LCAP:
■ They sought an LCAP mainly for its application productivity benefits, reduced time to market and ability to improve business process automation.
■ Most used an LCAP for both enterprise and departmental applications, which more than half deployed organisation-wide.
■ Less than half of their LCAPs were used to support process automation or multi-experience development.
■ LCAPs improve productivity, citizen development and the user experience.
■ LCAPs are primarily cloud or application-platform-as-a-service (aPaaS) offerings, but significant deployments are self-managed on-premise or on customers’ own cloud contracts. Some are a hybrid of cloud and on-premise deployments.
■ The skills required and application delivery times for LCAPs are low, compared with historical norms for application development.
The LCAP market and its tools are still evolving. Consequently, business justifications and cost negotiations need to be handled carefully to offset the lock-in effect of these tools, which support no portability across suppliers.
Source: Magic Quadrant for enterprise low-code application platforms, August 2019
At the same time, there are still a large number of suppliers whose annual revenues don’t surpass $5m, either because they are still starting up or because they are struggling to market themselves to a wider audience. Some of these suppliers are choosing to specialise, be that in specific geographies such as France or Japan, or particular vertical markets such as local government or education.
A question of security
Cost and supplier decisions aside, prospective adopters must not neglect security. Historically, low-code tooling has been deployed for business-to-employee (B2E) applications behind the firewall. However, recently they have been increasingly used for B2C and B2B use cases, which have meant increased security considerations.
But as platforms, and especially when delivered as cloud services that are updated automatically behind the scenes, there is a strong support for best practices such as authorisation and authentication mechanisms and data encryption services.
With on-demand auto-deploy, most low-code platforms embed or automate DevOps operations – they streamline the software development lifecycle as a function of the platform, which is especially interesting for business automation and what Gartner calls DigitalOps.
Despite the focus on business IT teams, Gartner finds an increasingly important developer community is the central IT professional developers needing rapid development of simple applications, or to build minimum viable products or multi-experience capabilities. And when application leaders use low-code within conventional application projects, they might want to use a standard IT DevOps automation approach alongside low-code tooling.
Application leaders responsible for application development and platform strategies must bear in mind a number of considerations to maximise benefits. Start by categorising application use cases to identify those appropriate for low-code development and choose low code for the use cases that require faster time to market with reduced developer skillsets.
Overall, Gartner believes there is a strong affinity between democratising infrastructure with the evolution of cloud services, and the democratising of application development with low-code. Today, all enterprises have a cloud strategy, and in future they will also all have a low-code development strategy too.
Paul Vincent is a senior director analyst at Gartner.