A low-code/no-code development platform is a visual software development environment that allows citizen developers to drag and drop application components, connect them together and create a mobile or web app.
This modular approach allows professional developers to more quickly build applications by relieving them of the need to write code line by line.
Low-code and no-code platforms also enable business analysts, office administrators, small-business owners and other people who are not software developers to build and test applications, because they free application creators from having to know anything about traditional programming languages, machine code or the development work that has gone into building the platform's configurable components. All the citizen developer sees is a user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI) that allows components and third-party application program interfaces (APIs) to be hooked together and tested. Modules can be rearranged and repeatedly tested until the app works as expected.
The growth of low- and 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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Analysts at Forrester Research Inc. forecast that the low-code market will reach $15 billion by 2020.
And Gartner, another research firm, estimated that low-code application development will account for 65% of all application development activity by 2024.
How does it work?
In conventional software development, programmers write lines of code to create the functionality and capabilities 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 and instead give the platform users visual tools that they can easily manipulate to quickly build applications.
Platforms typically feature reusable components and drag-and-drop tools that represent particular steps or capabilities that a user can link together in the platform to create the desired computerized workflow. And these platforms generally have features that allow for experimenting, prototyping, testing and deployment.
Simply put, these platforms enable users to create applications as if they were drafting a flowchart rather than writing line-by-line codes for each desired function and capability. Users drag and drop visual blocks (which contain the actual code) into a flowchart to create applications.
Given the way in which these low-code and no-code platforms work, this type of app development work is sometimes called click development or point-and-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 earlier tools required users to have a thorough understanding of the business apps and their development environments in order to build capabilities. In contrast, low-code and no-code options, with their drag-and-drop features, require users to have either minimal or no real 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 using low-code and no-code platforms, on the other hand, are robust enough to be used across departments, by multiple departments, the entire enterprise and even outside users such as customers and business partners.
What's the difference between low-code and no-code development platforms?
The line between no-code and low-code isn't always clear. In fact, many technology product analysts consider no-code part of the low-code market, noting that even the strongest platforms require some level of coding for parts of the application development and deployment process. Many apps built with these platforms, for example, require some coding for integration with other applications or for desired customization.
In light of such facts, Forrester in a 2019 blog wrote: "The term 'low-code' acknowledges this reality, which is why we selected it for this category of development platforms back in 2014. We treat 'no-code' as a wonderful software-delivery outcome when it occurs but advise against banking on it for all application projects."
Even so, the market still distinguishes between low-code and no-code platforms, with much of the distinction being driven by the vendors themselves as they position their products for different groups of users.
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 be compatible with other business software.
No-code platforms are targeted to citizen developers -- non-IT professionals working in the various business functions with little or no coding experience or programming language skills -- who still want or need to build apps. Because no-code platforms require nearly no actual coding, these citizen developers can easily and quickly build, test and deploy their business apps (as long as they feature the commodity functions and capabilities provided by these no-code platforms).
Living up to their name, low-code platforms require users to do some level of coding -- albeit much less than a conventional development team environment requires. Nontechnical business users can and do use low-code platforms to develop apps for a range of uses. Professional developers and programmers also use low-code platforms to help them more quickly deliver applications to their organizations and to shift their work away from commodity programming tasks to programming work that is more unique and complex and as such can have a bigger impact on the organization and thus deliver more value when deployed.
There are some distinctions, too, in where and how no-code and low-code platforms are used. No-code platforms are typically used to create tactical apps and point solutions to handle simpler functions. Low-code platforms can be used in those cases as well but are also preferred over no-code platforms to handle the creation of apps that run mission-critical processes or are part of an organization's core systems.
The rise of low-code and no-code platforms have delivered several significant benefits to the organizations that use them.
First and foremost, these platforms speed the development and delivery of applications -- a critical element in the digital age where organizations must move fast to meet worker and customer demands or be disrupted by others who do.
These platforms also put more problem-solving capabilities into the hands of non-IT professionals, so that everyday workers are more quickly and easily able to create business apps that help them do their jobs.
These platforms also aid professional developers by freeing them from the more mundane programming activities. Development teams can use these platforms to quickly create apps for commodity functions and then spend more time tweaking them to deliver even more value or spend more time in developing custom apps that provide differentiating value to their organizations.
Although many organizations have embraced these platforms to rapidly develop new business apps, they've also had to contend with the problems and challenges that these platforms generate.
Because of the ease and low cost of these tools, organizational leaders can, and often do, lose track of what their employees are building. That lack of visibility could mean there's no oversight to the data being generated, used or even inappropriately exposed in apps.
Another potential challenge is managing, maintaining and scaling these apps, as well as the potential for escalating infrastructure and storage costs associated with the proliferation of development activity that these platforms enable.
Additionally, organizations may find that citizen developers or even their own professional development teams attempt to use these tools for overly complex tasks only to find after investing time that the tasks aren't well-suited to low-code and no-code platforms -- a process that could represent a significant waste of resources for many organizations.
Such challenges thus add to the already significant IT, business and data governance requirements faced by organizational leaders.
Uses of low-code/no-code development platforms
Low-code and no-code development platforms can be used to create apps in a number of areas, provided generally that the apps require no advanced customization and/or have no complex programming requirements.
These platforms can be used to develop apps aimed at operational efficiencies, such as computerizing manual and paper-based processes. 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 are cloud-based. Gartner ranks nearly 20 in its 2019 Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Low-Code Application Platforms.
Some of the most common low-code platform vendors are Appian, DWKit, Kissflow, Mendix, OutSystems and Salesforce.
Other vendors include Kony, whose products and platforms include Kony Quantum for low-code app development and Kony DBX for banking and financial services.
Force.com allows developers and nontechnical users to create apps and websites and deploy them quickly to Force.com's multi-tenant servers.
Claris (formerly known as FileMaker) allows developers and nontechnical users to quickly add web database publishing capabilities to their website or company intranet with one click.
Microsoft Power Apps allows developers and nontechnical users to build mobile applications from selectable templates without having to know code.
No-code development platform vendors
Vendors offering no-code development platforms include Airtable, AppSheet, Betty Blocks and Nintex, as well as Microsoft Power Apps, Salesforce and others noted in the low-code platform market.
G2, the tech marketplace, offered in 2019 an extensive list of no-code platforms for enterprise use.