Adopting low-code programming: what does it mean for IT departments?

Low and no code software such as RPA are making waves in businesses. But how far should companies embrace them?

Low-code apps are transforming enterprise technology. No longer do software developers need to spend weeks writing and testing the code for new business applications. Low-code platforms allow staff in accounts, HR, marketing or any other department to quickly build apps and tailor them to their specific needs. They use simple drag and drop methods and simple graphics. This is democratising app development and giving rise to a cohort of "citizen developers", interested amateurs inside businesses with the tools to create their own solutions.

Over the past five years, platforms such as Appian, Zoho, Outsystems, Microsoft PowerApps and Google App Maker have offered large organisations easy-to-build apps for their day to day business. These are suited to creating apps for specific operations such as running a contact database or scheduling tasks for staff. However, some believe low-code platforms struggle to process large amounts of data and are weak on business logic, linking back-end systems and the user interface.

The low-code movement has been building for ten years and is finally going mainstream. "Low-code development is certainly coming of age," says Appian's senior vice president for Asia Pacific and Europe Paul Maguire.

He points to Italian tyre manufacturer Pirelli, which has created dozens of apps on the Appian platform. More than 2,500 employees in 12 countries make use of 65 low-code apps to handle everything from the approval of invoices to managing tyre moulds.

Maguire argues that the low-code approach offers significant benefits for businesses such as Pirelli. "What they want is to build applications quicker so it's more cost effective. Low-code allows the organisation to respond to the ever-increasing number of applications that the business needs," he says. Low code platforms are also strong at creating multichannel applications and creating responsive, cross-platform apps which work across different devices and operating systems.

To make the apps simple to programme, the platforms use graphic representations rather than complex code. "It's about using business metaphors like flow charts, for example, where you are actually graphically drawing an application rather than coding it and using a language that very few people understand and know in detail," says Maguire.

Analysts believe low-code platforms will expand rapidly in the next few years as growing numbers of large organisations adopt them and increase their share of IT tasks. Forrester expects spending on low-code to hit $21bn by 2022, while Gartner predicts that 65% of app development activity will rely on low-code by 2024.  

Suvish Viswanathan, head of marketing for Europe at Zoho, which runs a low code platform called Zoho Creator, says the market is experiencing hyper growth. "Five years ago there were just a handful of low-code developers and development platforms. Today you see a lot of start-ups are also coming up with their own versions of low code development."

Unlike many low-code platforms, Zoho Creator has its own coding language called deluge and there are thousands of developers across the world who have learned this coding language.

He gives an example of how a low-code app could help save time and improve efficiency. He wanted to collect the contact details of people attending Zoho's booth at a trade show. One option would be to buy an off-the-shelf contact system. Alternatively, he could build a low code application and launch it as an app for tablet or smartphone. This would take less than an hour and be far cheaper than buying and installing software.

However, there are limitations to what can be achieved with self-build apps. Jonathan Artus, lead consultant at software engineering business Softwire, says his business uses low-code apps with clients when they need to quickly build proof of concept products.

But he says low-code platforms struggle with large scale usage. "I think you will get to a point where you're hitting the tens of thousands and upwards of users that, because it's a high level abstraction that you're working with, you don't have enough access to the nuts and bolts of how the thing is running," he says. "I think doing it at a large scale, either for business to consumer or for large scale internal applications, it will struggle."

The platforms hide the underlying complexity of the software, he says. This is an advantage for the citizen developer, who doesn't need to get bogged down in the details. "What that means, though, is that where something goes a bit wrong or is too slow within the software you can't physically go through the platform to fix it."

Another area where low-code applications can struggle is integrating with wider IT architecture, says Artus. One of the limitations of the platforms is where the app requires direct access to third-party databases or there is complex orchestration across multiple APIs. "That is an area where low-code is going to struggle," he says. 

There are also concerns that organisations are essentially handing control of their IT infrastructure to outside parties, with a loss of control over the systems, cybersecurity and data privacy. Low-code platforms seem to exacerbate worries about Shadow IT, where systems and applications are created and run without the knowledge of the IT department.

But Appian's Maguire says: "I think it's the opposite actually. When we speak with senior I.T. professionals, they are challenged to increasingly build business applications for their customers - their internal business users - and they don't have the capacity or the bandwidth timewise. But low-code implements these solutions much quicker and addresses directly the business challenges. It's seen as a very positive solution."

Artus believes low-code apps could eventually account for up to 25% of business processes. A significant challenge will be adapting the platforms to the latest technology such as machine learning, natural language processing and big data. "The challenge they've got to crack is around business logic and data and the ability within low code platforms to actually to deal with large volumes of data being ingested into the systems, and then also to be able to represent complex business logic and workflows," he says.  "I think these are two areas where they don't really have a good answer now," he says. Low-code platforms will never completely replace IT as there will continue to be a need for middleware and services. "It is never going to touch the backend integration side of things," says Artus. "You're always going to need heavy-duty back office systems."