Sergey Nivens - Fotolia
According to Forrester Research, spending on low-code software development is set to reach $21.2bn by 2022, growing by about 40% each year. Although it was initially considered a boon to mobile and web application development, as confidence in the market increases, businesses are trusting the concept to improve productivity in enterprise business applications, says Eduardo Cruz, vice-president UK and Ireland at OutSystems, a low-code platform supplier.
“Through the years, we have focused on delivering great applications for mobile and web platforms, but we have shown most software is faster to build and easier to change and maintain using low-code,” he says.
Low-code suppliers promise a largely graphical, drag and drop approach to building applications, although some coding might be necessary to link to other IT infrastructure. It differs slightly from the no-code concept, which promises a purely graphical developer experience.
But developers still need to aware of the overall IT environment, says Cruz. “If you are building a core system, you need to be mindful of that architecture. Low-code does not mean lack of architecture or lack of security and testing.”
With that in mind, developers can build robust applications with low-code platforms. For example, Nationwide building society has just started building a digital banking platform using the OutSystems platform.
“The fact that they are building customer-facing apps but also processes that run in the back office and integrate with enterprise application – that is the biggest recommendation of the approach,” says Cruz.
Rapid development in response to user needs
Although the term low-code was coined by Forrester in 2014, to some the concept is not new.
Supplier Pegasystems was founded in 1983 and began by capturing user requirements on forms presented on mainframe green-screen systems. While it has developed its products through the client-server era to the cloud, the focus remains on rapidly developing applications that stick close to user needs, says chief technology officer Don Schuerman.
“It’s about how you take a process and chunk it down to a micro-journey to build and deploy the application, whether that is managing customer billing, or a vaccine clinic. It all comes down to finding the business process and chunking it down,” he says.
The recent demand for low-code development comes from a desire to modernise IT environments quickly without taking a rip-and-replace approach, says Scheurman.
“The push from the business on software development is to do things fast. They also want to automate. That is why I think low-code and robotic process automation (RPA) are part of a continuous spectrum.”
Nick Ford, vice-president of product and solution marketing at low-code supplier Mendix, agrees that the hidden benefit of low-code is meeting user needs.
“What often happens is there is an impetus for an idea – a new insurance product, for example,” he says. “That might be built as a prototype by a subject-matter expert who creates the data model on-screen in low-code, but over time that is fleshed out and made production-ready, including integration with back-office systems, by a developer collaborating on the same model. It is not waterfall – they have different windows into the model to do different things.”
In this way, the IT department can set guide rails for data governance and security before applications go live.
Case study: PowerApps helps Autoglass bring business skills into IT
Low-code application development can help business people migrate to the IT department, bringing real-world understanding of processes with them if Autoglass’s experience is to go by.
Software developer Martin Lee started working for the emergency windscreen repair firm in its service centre, helping to orchestrate the deployment of technicians to stricken motorists. After using Excel to monitor team performance, he started “playing around” with Microsoft Access. When PowerApps launched, he realised he could build his own application to reduce paperwork for field workers and make them more productive.
“It took a while to build the first one because I built it from scratch. I deployed it to a small group of users and got their feedback. Once we took their feedback onboard, we deployed it more widely,” says Lee.
Now 1,500 field engineers use the app on Android phones, and there are more than 100 apps in production, including some used in the human resources department.
Lee says the field service app saves around five to ten minutes’ paperwork for each job, and also saves operations managers time spent re-keying forms into spreadsheets. But the approach also gets users more involved with developing tools they need.
“We encourage them to sit down with us and build the app together, hopefully giving them skills to manage that app. It’s great that we can collaborate with users,” he says.
Although Lee has been building apps for two-and-a-half years, he only moved into the IT department about a year ago and is now training to be a software developer. As well as building apps, he helps guide other users in the PowerApps environment. “If someone starts to play around with it, we get a trigger saying they are building an app and we then offer some guidance. They also need to contact IT before they go public with an app,” he says.
The approach also helps gain user acceptance of apps, which has been particularly important for Mendix customer Mencap, a UK charity which used the system to develop apps for its workforce of carers (see box: Mencap gets closer to users’ needs with low-code).
Understanding of the low-code concept received a fillip when the world’s dominant operating system and desktop application software firm, Microsoft, entered the market in 2016. Its PowerApps environment allows business users to develop their own apps, and even make the shift into the IT department (see box: PowerApps helps Autoglass bring business skills into IT).
Cloud customer relationship management (CRM) software supplier Salesforce also offers a set of low-code tools which help users on its own cloud platform. Appian is another notable supplier, which says it makes application development 20 times faster with fewer resources.
Gartner research director Paul Vincent says typical application development times have been cut to between two to three months using low-code technologies, compared with six months to two years for development using more conventional approaches.
Users picking a low-code environment should be aware of the differences between large and small suppliers. Whereas the big firms such as Microsoft and Salesforce only allow the development of applications to run in their own environments, smaller suppliers can help build applications which can be ported to a number of different environments, including on-premise software stacks, says Vincent.
Low-code a popular choice
While much of the interest in low-code has been generated around business teams developing their own applications, the biggest users of low-code environments are developers themselves, he says.
“Compared to conventional application development,such as using Red Hat OpenShift, Pivotal or Cloud Foundry, where developers may need to be combining applications with multiple other components in API [application programming interface] gateways, in low-code all the capabilities for things like integration, a database, and so on, are built-in, and you don't need to configure them. You just need to use them effectively. That's really one of the biggest changes,” says Vincent.
The popularity of low-code development has been evenly spread through industries, he says. “Usually, you expect take-up of a new technology to be dominated by industries like finance and telecommunications, but low-code is applicable across the board. We see it, for example, in governments, which find it a very good fit because they lack IT skills and have a limited budget.”
While low-code is not new, the freshly coined moniker is attracting the attention of IT users. It promises not only to accelerate the development of software, but also improve the capture of user needs and, ultimately, boost buy-in for new applications, helping them achieve their business objectives. It is as popular with developers as it is with business users and promises to reshape the relationship between IT and business users.
Case study: Mencap gets closer to users’ needs with low-code
User acceptance is a major part of the struggle in building applications, but for UK charity Mencap this was doubly true. Some of its carers, who look after people with learning difficulties, had not even used a laptop before being asked to use the Mencap applications.
Scott Markham, Mencap head of business improvement, says using the Mendix low-code platform to build applications helps capture users’ needs and get their buy-in to using technology to change the way they work.
“We can meet with people and build something fast, fail fast and learn. That offers something people can agree on, quickly. They help build and critique the app, and that takes people on a journey, so they feel part of the process,” he says.
The apps are in use by 6,000 paid employees and 1,500 volunteers, about 40% of whom access them on smartphones. The initial business objective was to reduce paperwork and improve governance. But Mencap is using the low-code approach to build apps that transform processes, share performance data and improve care for its service users.