Low-Code Development Platforms Address Soaring Application Needs

on September 7, 2016

Lately, the term ‘low-code development platform’ has started gaining traction in the market to categorize platforms for rapidly building and deploying custom apps—without the need for low-level coding. It’s great to see media, analysts and other thought leaders recognize the inherent business value and time to market advantages of these platforms. With demand for custom business apps soaring, it’s clear that traditional, code-based approaches simply can’t keep pace.

Like any new or emerging category, 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 a recent report, “New Development Platforms Emerge For Customer-Facing Applications” (subscription required), Forrester Research defines a low-code development platform as follows: platforms that enable rapid application delivery with a minimum of hand-coding, and quick setup and deployment, for systems of engagement.

While that concise definition is a great start, it’s important to elaborate on three important requirements of any low-code development platform:

  1. 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 data models, application and process logic, user interfaces, etc. Such approaches empower both professional developers and business users (i.e. citizen developers) to build apps much faster than hand-coding. For example, an analysis by Capgemini found that MDD took only 2.5 hours per function point compared to 10.6 hours for Java and 15.5 hours for C#.
  2. App Store – Productivity can be further accelerated with low-code development platforms that offer an App Store populated with templates, widgets, plug-ins and even complete business components. In this sense, developing apps becomes more like visually “orchestrating” the necessary building blocks, versus reinventing the wheel each project.
  3. Full App Lifecycle Support – Despite their name, low-code development platforms don’t focus only on the development piece of the equation; they provide a single environment that supports the entire app delivery lifecycle: design, build, deploy, manage and iterate. As such, in additional to visual development tools, they typically include capabilities like social collaboration, project management, full deployment and application monitoring, 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.

How does low-code development compare to terms like high-productivity aPaaS and RAD?

High-productivity aPaaS is a term popularized by Gartner. The analyst firm defines it as “Model-driven graphical development environment, typically producing metadata that is interpreted at runtime. Some programming is possible, but the core of the application is designed graphically and is interpreted at runtime.” When you get down to it, high-productivity aPaaS and low-code development both describe platforms that abstract away from code in order 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 tools like MDD 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 in the blink of an eye. To survive and thrive, businesses must constantly find ways to innovate and differentiate themselves; to do things better, faster and cheaper; and to engage customers in new ways. This all comes down to using apps to stay one step ahead.

While the demand for custom applications has never been higher, traditional, code-based development approaches simply can’t keep pace. As Forrester Analyst John Rymer noted in a recent Mendix webinar, “If we rely solely on coding, we’re going to fail. It’s too slow. It’s too inflexible… We can’t move fast enough.“

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 offer some much-needed light at the end of the tunnel. For IT and business leaders, it’s important to evaluate platforms carefully and choose the approach that will deliver the most business value to your organization, now and in future.