Low-code development platforms: Pain or gain?
According to Gartner, through 2021 market demand for software application development will grow at least five times faster than IT has capacity to deliver it. And according to various analysts and surveys a significant proportion of applications developed won’t meet user expectations, probably through lack of a clear understanding of the requirement in the first place, changing needs or by not being appealing to use.
Vendors of low-code application development platforms such as Mendix propose that their alternative approach to development - visual modelling rather than coding – can help CIOs better meet the demand for applications and improved outcomes. Analysts propose that such platforms make application development easier, faster and often better by enabling closer business engagement and collaboration in the development process.
There is an increasing amount of user evidence in favour of low-code as a rapid and agile platform for building large business applications. But at the same time there is a common conception that applications built using such tools do not have the sophistication and scalability of applications using traditional coding languages. This view is outdated and wrong.
According to Forrester, low-code development platforms continue to gain traction in the market due to their ability to enable enterprises to rapidly build and deploy custom web and mobile apps—without the need for low-level coding. Forrester surveys also reveal that low-code platforms are being leveraged for large, mission-critical applications—dispelling the myth that they’re suitable only for small, departmental apps.
Six characteristics of low-code platforms for enterprise ready applications
For applications to be enterprise ready, they must include the following six characteristics regardless of build method. If you agree with my choice of characteristics, then I’d argue that the top end of low-code vendor platforms fulfil them all, and so are eminently suitable for enterprise application development projects.
Full integration capabilities
It’s essential that applications can be connected with other systems and services easily. The better low-code platforms all offer extensive integration capabilities, including mapping from and to different data formats, transport protocols and more. The provision of out-of-the-box connectors for cloud services like IBM Watson, AWS Machine Learning and other smart services let you build sophisticated enterprise apps. Credible low-code platforms also offer connectors for your more traditional systems-of-record like SAP, Microsoft Dynamics and others.
For example, for the logistics industry, a team built a mobile-first tracking solution with an immutable ledger of events to support end-to-end auditing across the supply chain. It took just 10 days to build, without a single line of code being written and used out of the box connectors to integrate with IBM Watson and IBM Blockchain.
At the sophisticated end of the low-code platform market, vendors offer APIs for all core platform functionality, allowing a seamless fit within your IT landscape. It’s worth asking the vendor though, whether their platforms allow applications to find and bind to third-party platform-level services, such as message queues or databases. Ask whether they incorporate third-party testing services or use automation servers such as Jenkins or Gitlab CI to orchestrate your continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipeline. Do they publish all application models—domain model, logic model, and UI model—in an open model specification? Will their Model API and Platform SDK provide access to your core application artefacts from third-party tools?
All major low-code platforms provide levels of security for the platform itself, and the applications built on the platform for both cloud and on-premise deployment. This includes handling security threats within the run-time environment and the provision of application security settings to define roles and access rights. Most platforms comply with key ISO standards. Many meet security standards for container environments. Back-up and disaster recovery processes are usual too. If you’ll use your platform to develop applications for a particular enterprise technology environment, such as IBM or SAP, ask whether the low-code platform is certified by those vendors.
Most cloud-native low-code platforms marry rapid development with a web-scale run-time architecture allowing on-demand elastic scaling for large user bases. It’s a good idea though to choose a platform that provides the freedom to scale just application components, regardless of dependencies. This is becoming a must-have in enterprise software development, yet not all vendors offer this capability. For example, if a backend process is taking more time than expected and needs extra horsepower, that component can scale up as needed without taking away from the user’s experience. Of course you could scale the entire application, but to do so just because one process is slowing performance is a waste of resources.
Cloud native and portable
IT departments expect to deploy applications into the cloud environments that best meet their functionality needs. Most low-code platforms offer cloud (as well as on-premise) deployment options. ‘Cloud-native’ low-code players have a close relationship with a range of cloud deployment technologies such as Cloud Foundry, Docker, Kubernetes and others. This allows complete freedom to deploy on virtually any cloud you prefer such as AWS and Azure, or the vendor’s own public service, on IBM Cloud, SAP, Pivotal or other public or private services.
Embracing container technology is important to modern application development and generally supported by strong low-code vendor platforms. Containers offer portability and are a solution to the problem of how to get software to run reliably when moved from one computing environment to another. They provide speed and rapid scalability, while also delivering resource efficiencies and operational cost savings. And of course applications run and work as designed locally – anywhere.
Support DevOps and microservices architectures
Today’s organisations need continuous innovation to keep up with the demands of an ever changing market. They must change the dynamics of how they undertake application development and delivery. Many organisations are switching from a centralised development approach to one of working in small, cross-functional teams. These teams are implementing DevOps best practices and Microservices to bring together development, testing, operations and line of business stakeholders. This approach fosters continuous integration, application monitoring and delivery of app portfolios. Many low-code platforms can also act as your app delivery hub by enabling continuous delivery with built-in DevOps capabilities, or through integration with perhaps Jenkins, Gitlab CI or your existing DevOps toolset. One click deployment, version management, continuous integration and automated testing should come as standard.
Often driven by digital transformation challenges, IT teams are under significant pressure to deliver more applications, faster and to better meet business needs. Low-code platforms can help organisations overcome the skills shortage for coders and facilitate and improve collaboration both within the development team and with end-users to deliver better business outcomes, faster.
Low-code platforms support the development of large-scale, secure and fully-integrated cloud-ready applications. Many organisations that have experienced low-code development are scaling up their rapid development teams to cope with growing demand and are delivering mission critical enterprise applications. Low-code is about gain – not pain.
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