Pros and cons of low-code development platforms

EducationSummary: A growing trend, low-code development claims to address many of the common challenges facing businesses today. But, how accurate are these claims? In this article, we take a realistic look at low-code platforms–exploring the pros and cons.

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According to Forrester Research, the low-code development platform market is growing by 50% year-over-year.

Why the rapid growth?

A couple of reasons. First, software capabilities have improved dramatically since the days of code generators like RAD and 4GL tools. Modern low-code software offers the capabilities (and user experience) to truly meet enterprise demands.

Secondly, low-code platforms address a few common problems facing businesses today. For instance, in an era where agility is crucial for modern businesses, low-code platforms help organizations deliver solutions quickly.

Now, if you talk to the low-code vendors, you’ll hear that their tools solve all of your problems and have no drawbacks. Today, let’s take a realistic look at low-code platforms. What are the pros and cons of this growing trend? What areas should watch out for when selecting a tool?

One caveat before we start: Not all low-code tools are created equal. In fact, the low-code market has become fairly diluted over the past couple of years. Many new entrants into the market are trying to ride the low-code wave, but lack many of the features that established players provide. So, some of the pros and cons explained below don’t apply to every option. However, I include them because they’re areas that should be examined.

Pro: Low-code helps fight Shadow IT

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According to Gartner, the demand for application development is growing 5x faster than IT’s ability to deliver. Business users are requesting more web applications than ever, and IT is struggling to keep up.

What happens when users can’t get the solutions they need from the IT department? They bypass the IT department altogether and adopt third-party solutions–a practice known as “Shadow IT.”

In most cases, the users aren’t acting maliciously. As explained in this article , Shadow IT isn’t a rebellion…and shouldn’t be treated as such. Users are just trying to solve a problem.

One way IT departments solve their problem: IT-sanctioned low-code platforms. They allow users to create their own solutions, without bothering the IT department. The IT department can control data and user access, while the end users can create their own solutions.

“IT should embrace Shadow IT because it clarifies priority and can enable strong IT-led partnerships with other teams,” says Jamie MacQuarrie, Co-founder, Appivo. “Users will always want more than IT can provide, and if the need is dire enough they’ll look for ways to do it themselves. Low-code platforms can be enticing and there’s definitely risk there. In fact, research has shown that most companies have a Web/mobile app backlog whether they know it or not! However, IT can mitigate that risk by providing a sanctioned low-code platform and guidelines on how to use it. In this way IT can empower users to build their own tools, switching IT’s role from time-consuming development to a more-scalable guidance/support function. To be clear, it’s not feasible for everyone to build their own apps. But IT should be able to triage requests to traditional app-dev teams, or low-code enabled self-dev.”

Con: Low-code can promote Shadow IT

How can Shadow IT be a pro and a con of low-code platforms? It all depends on who drives the initiative.

I’ve spoken with multiple IT leaders who discovered that a department within their organization had adopted a low-code tool without IT’s knowledge. Not only does this waste resources, it creates security risks.

How do you know that it’s happening? Look for the warning signs, and keep communication lines open with the business. Educate them on risks of Shadow IT, and try to understand what problems they’re trying to solve.

“With simple subscription billing that can be tucked into Opex budgets, low-code platforms can enable non-IT teams to build their own solutions,” says MacQuarrie. “Depending on the ease-of-use of the platform, these teams could be far outside the official IT app-dev process, meaning they may not be considering important technical, procedural and industry-specific policies. When IT loses visibility and control we have Shadow IT. At best it’s annoying and at worst there are financial repercussions.”

Pro: Deliver solutions faster

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According to a Forrester study, development speed plays a crucial role in your company’s future competitiveness. “The software you deploy, and especially the custom software you create, will increasingly be part of your competitive edge,” explains the study. “Companies that are able to innovate quickly with software will out-compete traditional market leaders.”

This is where low-code platforms shine, and one of the main reasons why organizations adopt them in the first place. They’ll improve development speed by 50 – 80%, depending on the tool and the project. How? In a couple of different ways:

1. They eliminate coding in most projects: Using a point-and-click interface, developers can create most applications without writing any code. Simple applications are done in minutes. More complex applications require hours.

2. They reduce testing: Many tools use a template-driven build process, which let you start every project using pre-tested templates. This eliminates the program logic testing normally required when building new applications.

“Simply put, low code development can help a business design and ship software quickly, inexpensively, and often with existing in-house resources,” says Andrew Bellay, Technologist & Innovation Strategist, at MetaNeer Labs, Inc.. “Further, maintaining software built with low-code or no-code technologies is usually trivial. Many applications are very simple, adding a convenience to an already existing suite of tools.”

Con: Customization

This is one of the areas that I referenced in the caveat above. It’s also one of the biggest complaints you’ll find about low-code platforms. Many of these complaints come from people who have had a bad experience with one platform and assume all are the same.

The fact is, customization options vary widely from platform to platform. Some will limit your customization options, while others provide access to the underlying code. Some will let you generate applications that fit your business 100%, while others won’t. Before you adopt any platform, make sure you know your customization limits.

“Compared with building custom software, the biggest drawback for low-code or no-code platforms is customization,” says Bellay. “When building custom software, developers are only limited by the hardware and the capabilities of the native language. Low-code platforms are much more constrained. Businesses might not be able to get the exact functionality they want or need. Options for the user interface and flow is often very limited as well, typically making low-code platforms a poor choice for consumer-facing apps, especially mobile apps where UX and UI are expectations are very high.”

Pros: Accomplish more with your current skills

photo credit: Unsplash via pixabay cc

photo credit: Unsplash via pixabay cc

Web application development is constantly changing, requiring an ever-evolving skillset. The problem is, many companies are facing a skills gap. They can’t afford to bring in developers with modern skills when they’re stuck supporting outdated systems and applications.

A low-code development platform bridges the skills gap in a unique way: It brings modern skills to your existing staff.

For instance, I’ve heard from IT leaders who used a low-code tool to turn their COBOL programmers into web developers. Rather than hire new employees and teach them the business, they brought modern skills to employees (who already understand the business).

“Low-code development can result in significant cost and time savings and extend the range of users who can develop programs,” says Garry Brownrigg, CEO and Founder of Quicksilk. “Using a low code environment minimizes the need to send every development request to internal IT or development teams, or limitations faced with the availability or expense of third-party developers.”

Con: Vendor lock-in

Vendor lock-in is one of the biggest fears surrounding low-code platforms. Many assume that they’ll be tied to whichever vendor they choose.

Again, refer to the caveat above. This issue varies from vendor to vendor.

For instance, some generate applications using open code and frameworks. They generate clean, standard code that works anywhere. While simpler to maintain these applications within the platform, they can also be maintained outside of the platform.

Other vendors lock you into their platform in a couple of different ways. Some generate convoluted code that’s nearly impossible to maintain outside of the platform. Others won’t let you edit your applications once you stop using the tool.

It’s important that you understand each vendor’s policies before licensing a tool. Make sure you know whether or not you can maintain applications outside of the platform. Also, ask to see the generated code beforehand so you know how easily it can be changed.

Summary

These are just a few pros and cons of low-code platforms, but the list could be much longer. Would you add anything to this list? Feel free to comment below!

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