Low-code/no-code development platforms are types of visual software development environments that allow enterprise developers and citizen developers to drag and drop application components, connect them together and create mobile or web apps. These platforms are often discussed synonymously with the development methods they embody.
Low-code and no-code modular approaches let professional developers quickly build applications by relieving them of the need to write code line by line. They also enable business analysts, office administrators, small-business owners and others who are not software developers to build and test applications. These people can create applications with little to no knowledge of traditional programming languages, machine code or the development work behind the platform's configurable components.
In either case, they see a user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI), through which they can marry components and third-party application program interfaces (APIs). Application builders can rearrange and repeatedly test modules until the app works as expected.
The growth of low-code/no-code platforms has proliferated due to a lack of skilled software developers and the need to improve turnaround time for development projects so business problems can be solved quickly.
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How do low-code and no-code work?
In conventional software development, programmers write lines of code to create the functions and features desired in a computer program or application. This process requires programmers to have in-depth knowledge of computer languages, as well as development environments, deployment processes and testing protocols.
Low-code and no-code platforms encapsulate all that work behind the scenes. Users visually select and connect reusable components that represent particular steps or capabilities (which contain the actual code), and link them together to create the desired computerized workflow.
Users can create applications as if they were drafting a flowchart rather than writing line-by-line codes for each desired function and capability. These platforms also generally have features that allow for experimenting, prototyping, testing and deployment.
This type of app development work is sometimes called point-and-click development or simply click development.
Evolution of low-code/no-code tools
Low-code/no-code platforms stem from earlier rapid application development (RAD) tools such as Excel, Lotus Notes and Microsoft Access that likewise put some development-like capabilities into the hands of business users (i.e., non-IT professionals).
However, those tools required users to thoroughly understand the business apps and their development environments in order to build capabilities. In contrast, with low-code and no-code options' drag-and-drop features, users need either minimal or no knowledge of the tools or development in general.
Furthermore, development with RAD tools generally produced capabilities used by the individual who created the functionality, or by a limited number of users associated with the creator (usually a work group or business unit). Apps produced with low-code or no-code platforms, on the other hand, are robust enough to be used across departments and throughout the entire enterprise, and even by external users such as customers and business partners.
Low-code vs. no-code development platforms: What are the differences?
Low-code and no-code systems offer the same fundamental benefits, but their names indicate the key difference between these two methods of application development.
Low-code development requires users to do some level of coding, albeit much less than is required with traditional application development. Professional developers and programmers use low-code to quickly deliver applications, and to shift their efforts away from commodity programming tasks to more complex and unique work that has bigger impact and more value to the organization. Non-IT professionals with some programming knowledge also use low-code tools to develop simple apps or expanded functions within an app.
No-code development targets nontechnical users in various business functions who understand business needs and rules, but possess little or no coding experience and programming language skills. These citizen developers can use no-code to easily and quickly build, test and deploy their business apps, as long as the chosen tools align with these commodity functions and capabilities.
There are also some distinctions in how users apply no-code and low-code. No-code is typically used to create tactical apps to handle simple functions. Low-code can be used in those cases as well, but additionally to create apps that run processes that are critical to a business or to an organization's core systems, such as certain integrations and digital transformation initiatives.
The line between no-code and low-code isn't always clear -- and this carries over into the low-code and no-code platforms themselves. Many technology product analysts consider no-code part of the low-code market, as even the strongest platforms require some level of coding for parts of the application development and deployment process. Vendors drive much of the distinction between low-code and no-code platform capabilities as they position their products for different groups of customers.
Generally speaking, no-code platforms are a specialized type of low-code cloud platform in which the required visual components address industry-specific functions, a specific line of business (LOB) or support a specific company's corporate branding. Low-code platforms, on the other hand, may require the assistance of in-house developers to make small changes to back-end code so the new app will align with other business software.
Benefits of low-code and no-code platforms
First and foremost, low-code and no-code platforms speed the development and delivery of applications -- a critical element in the digital age when organizations must race to meet worker and customer demands, or be disrupted by others who do so.
These platforms also put more problem-solving capabilities into the hands of non-IT professionals, so that everyday workers can more quickly and easily create business apps that help them do their jobs.
These platforms also free professional developers from mundane programming activities. Development teams can use these platforms to quickly create apps for commodity functions and then tweak them to deliver even more value, or spend more time developing custom apps or addressing other initiatives that provide differentiating value to their organizations.
Challenges of low-code and no-code platforms
Although many organizations embrace these platforms to rapidly develop new business apps, they also contend with the problems and challenges generated by these platforms.
Because these tools are low-cost and easy to use, organizational leaders can, and often do, lose track of what their employees are building. This could mean there's no visibility or oversight to the data being generated, used or even inappropriately exposed in apps. It also could contribute to more shadow IT.
Another potential challenge is how to manage, maintain and scale these apps, as well as the potentially escalated infrastructure and storage costs associated with the proliferation of development activity enabled by these platforms.
Additionally, organizations may find that some tasks for which citizen developers or professional development teams have used these tools weren't well-suited to low-code and no-code methods or platforms, and this could represent a significant waste of resources.
Uses for low-code/no-code development platforms
Low-code and no-code development platforms can be used to create apps for various business or technical purposes -- provided that the apps have no complex programming requirements and require little or no customization.
These platforms can be used to develop apps aimed at operational efficiencies, such as computerizing manual and paper-based processes or contributing to business process management efforts. They can also be used to modernize legacy systems, thereby helping organizations advance their digital transformations, further their migration to the cloud or support their use of newer innovative technologies such as IoT and artificial intelligence.
Furthermore, these platforms can be used to create business apps used by workers, as well as apps used by business partners; they can also be used to create customer engagement apps.
Low-code development platform vendors
Dozens of mainstream and niche software vendors offer low- or no-code platforms, many of which run in the cloud. Gartner ranks nearly 20 in its "2020 Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Low-Code Application Platforms."
An incomplete list of some of the most common low-code platform vendors and tools includes:
No-code development platform vendors
Many low-code platforms offer no-code functionality as well, such as Appian, Mendix, Microsoft PowerApps, OutSystems and Salesforce Lightning.
Other vendors that offer no-code development platforms include:
- Appy Pie
- AWS Honeycode
- Betty Blocks
- Umso (formerly Landen)
- Zudy Vinyl
The future of low-code/no-code application development
Industry experts predict the future of low-code will see continued enterprise adoption, especially for fast development and specific business needs, although low-code won't entirely replace traditional application development.
Analysts at Gartner estimate that the low-code market grew 23% in 2020 to reach $11.3 billion, and will grow to $13.8 billion in 2021 and almost $30 billion by 2025. Gartner also forecasts that low-code application development will account for 65% of all application development activity by 2024, mostly for small and medium-sized projects. Meanwhile, Forrester projects about half of firms today use a low-code platform, but this number could rise to 75% by the end of 2021.
Low-code and no-code use is likely to increase among LOB workers, while more professional developers will adopt it as well, to help them with more mundane programming tasks.
Currently the top areas for low-code use are business process or workflow applications, web and mobile front ends, and customer-facing applications, according to Forrester. But low-code has quickly become a standard practice for fast application development, as illustrated by adapting to COVID-19 pandemic-related scenarios such as employee contract tracing apps. Experts predict that eventually low-code will expand into broader areas such as reengineering technology stacks and ecosystems.
However, enterprises will continue to practice traditional development for applications that require extensive application functionality, data governance and deployment to specific architectures or environments.