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. It’s great to see media, analysts, and other thought leaders continue to recognize the inherent business value and time-to-market advantages of low-code development platforms. With business demand for custom applications soaring, it’s clear that traditional development approaches simply can’t keep pace.
Like any emerging category, though, there may be some confusion about what a low-code platform is (and isn’t). With that in mind, this post aims to provide additional context around the key capabilities of a low-code development platform, how the term compares to other industry acronyms, and why the need for these platforms is greater than ever.
What is a low-code development platform?
In the recent Forrester Wave on Low-Code Development Platforms for AD&D Pros, Forrester defines low-code development platforms as:
Products and/or cloud services for application development that employ visual, declarative techniques instead of programming and are available to customers at low- or no-cost in money and training time to begin, with costs rising in proportion of the business value of the platforms.
While that concise definition is a great start, it’s important to elaborate on four important requirements of any low-code development platform:
- Visual Development Tools– To minimize hand-coding, low-code platforms must offer easier, more intuitive ways to build apps. For instance, Mendix’s model-driven development (MDD) approach uses visual models for defining an application’s data models, business logic, user interfaces, etc. Such approaches empower a range of users—from professional developers to citizen developers—to visually model full-stack web and mobile applications. On average, our customers realize 10x productivity over traditional approaches. As their capability matures, (through more skilled developers, better processes around agile and DevOps, more reusable IP, etc.) some have seen up to 20 times productivity.
- App Store – Productivity can be further accelerated with low-code development platforms that promote reusability through both a community App Store—populated with out-of-the-box templates, widgets, plug-ins, business components, and connectors to emerging technologies—and a private app store that allows customers to create and reuse their own IP. In this sense, building apps becomes more like visually “orchestrating” the necessary building blocks, versus reinventing the wheel each project.
- Full App Lifecycle Support – Despite their name, low-code development platforms don’t focus only on the build phase; they provide a single integrated platform that supports the entire app delivery lifecycle: design, build, deploy, manage and iterate. As such, in addition to visual development tools, they typically include capabilities like social collaboration, agile project management, one-click deployment, application governance tools, and end-user feedback loops, etc. The time-to-market advantage of visual development (over hand-coding) is mitigated if there’s not a seamless way to move apps along the lifecycle, particularly in terms of deployment.
- Cloud-Native Deployment – Certain low-code development platforms also offer the flexibility to deploy and manage your applications in the cloud of your choice. For example, the Mendix platform offers automated deployment along with a cloud-native, stateless architecture enabling out-of-the-box high availability and failover to support web-scale deployments. In addition, through its support of Cloud Foundry, Docker, and Kubernetes, Mendix offers deployment flexibility and portability across public, private, and virtual private clouds, or on-premises.
How does low-code development compare to traditional app development?
The traditional waterfall app development process requires the involvement of many people with highly specialized roles. For example, the process requires business analysts to create functional requirements, technical analysts to turn those requirements into technical specifications, a database administrator to create the database and design the database schema, UX/UI developers to create wireframes and a design, and many developers to code the application that brings all the pieces together. Once the application is built, you have testers to test the app, an operations manager to deploy the app, and a project manager to oversee all the moving parts. The process can take a long time from original requirements to a deployed application, with limited ability to collaborate, often resulting in the finished product not meeting the expectations of the business.
With low-code, model-driven development, most of the simple, repetitive development tasks that you face in traditional development are automated. Without the development team there is no need to translate the requirements into technical specifications, so you don’t need a technical analyst. Some low-code platforms, like Mendix, come out-of-the-box with consistency checking and automated testing capabilities, eliminating the need for dedicated technical testers. And without all of those people, you don’t need a dedicated project manager to oversee all the moving parts and handoffs. Furthermore, with one-click deployment, you don’t need to wait for an operations person to build the environments and manually deploy the application with each release.
This means you need far fewer people to build an application with low-code development. The business engineer is closer to the business and requires less technical skills. The models provide a common visual language which can be understood by the business, enabling closer collaboration between business and IT. If you combine all of these things together, you can deliver apps with up to 70 percent fewer resources. Not only are you developing with fewer resources, but this now means you can deliver applications six times faster than with traditional development.
With low-code development, it’s not only about building faster but about delivering the right application that the business wants, shortening time to value. Low-code development guarantees the success of the app because the person building it and the person who needs the app can work closely together due to the common language and collaboration ability that low-code development provides.
How does low-code development compare to terms like high-productivity aPaaS and RAD?
High-productivity aPaaS (hpaPaaS) is a term popularized by Gartner. The analyst firm defines high productivity aPaaS as a platform that supports declarative, model-driven design and one-step deployment. hpaPaaS provides rapid application development (RAD) features for development, deployment, and execution — in the cloud. When you get down to it, high-productivity aPaaS and low-code development both describe platforms that abstract away from code and offer an integrated set of tools to accelerate app delivery.
Rapid application development (RAD) meanwhile is defined by SearchSoftwareQuality as a “concept that products can be developed faster and of higher quality through: Gathering requirements using workshops or focus groups; prototyping and early, reiterative user testing of designs; the re-use of software components” and more. With that in mind, low-code development platforms facilitate the practical implementation of RAD. Visual development capabilities enable rapid, iterative and collaborative design; frequent sharing of prototypes to gather user feedback and refine requirements; and reuse of apps and components through an app store. Thus, the two terms are very much aligned.
What are the benefits of a low-code development platform?
To understand why adoption of low-code development platforms is surging, we must step back and look at the big picture. There is no shortage of competition today. The barriers to entry are so low that new players are coming out of nowhere and disrupting industries through technology-led products, services, and business models. To compete, established enterprises must constantly find ways to innovate and differentiate themselves; to do things better, faster and cheaper; and to engage customers in new ways.
While the demand for custom applications has never been higher, traditional development approaches simply can’t keep pace. According to a statistic cited by Gartner, through 2021, market demand for app development will grow at least five times faster than IT capacity to deliver it.
The inherent value of a low-code development platform is that it brings IT and the business together, enabling more rapid, iterative, and collaborative development. Applications can be rapidly built, seamlessly deployed and easily changed—all without the need for low-level coding. In addition, these platforms provide an excellent communication mechanism to align business and IT stakeholders, thereby ensuring greater software quality and more successful business outcomes.
It’s clear that businesses need a faster way to deliver applications—and low-code development platforms provide a proven way to shorten time to value for new applications. For IT and business leaders, it’s important to evaluate platforms carefully and choose the approach that meets your organization’s needs, now and in future.