Why low-code? Why now? Here are some of the driving forces behind the burgeoning low-code movement
(this article originally appeared in DevOps and was written by Bill Doerrfeld)
If you’re keeping an eye on the tech tooling landscape in 2020, you may have noticed the buzz around low-code. Countless low-code platforms are being funded and coming to the market. In fact, Forrester estimates that spending in the low-code category will exceed $20 billion in 2022.
But, arguably, visual programming models are nothing new; FileMaker is 35 years old, for crying out loud. WYSIWYG web editors are just as old. Providers including Outsystems and Appian have similarly supported visual code generators for decades. So, what’s with all the low-code hype? Why low-code, and why now?
Well, a new generation of low-code is emerging, spurred by some unique forces. I recently talked with Peter Nelson, vice president of Claris, an Apple subsidiary, and maintainer of FileMaker, on the current market factors driving advances in the visual programming space.
Low-Code, High Interest
Below, we brainstorm top forces stimulating the low-code trend, from a pressure to automate internal processes to a lack of developer talent and COVID–19. This list is not exhaustible, but hopefully offers a window into why the low-code movement is gathering steam.
There is a pressing need to automate internal processes to maintain business agility.
Release velocity is quickening. Across the board, all companies face the need to automate their internal operations. Companies require workflow automation for form generation, data retrieval, and database-driven functional apps, among other things.
The low-code industry had become a bit stale up until about five years ago when things started to change rapidly, Nelson said. “Recently, we’ve seen an explosion in the low-code no-code space.”
The emergence of next-gen low-code tooling runs parallel with the emphasis on rapid, continuous-release strategies. New UX layers that appeal to citizen developers empower more actors within an organization to embrace DevOps and enable quicker deployments.
Lack of Developer Talent
Businesses lack programmers with proper skill sets.
Code.org tracks 666,534 open computing jobs nationwide, yet only 71,226 computer science students graduated into the workforce last year. That means roughly 89% of open positions cannot be filled with the talent on hand.
IT faces a labor shortage. Drag-and-drop visual models enable problem solvers to quickly string together a workflow, avoiding tracking down the right IT department or PHP developer.
Nelson feels low-code can rectify the labor gap and act as more than just a temporary bandage. “You aren’t sacrificing long-term viability,” he said. “These aren’t temporary solutions that you need to grow out of.”
Nuances of cloud integration workflows are challenging to maintain.
Think of all the cloud-based business utilities an average user consumes: Slack, DocuSign, Dropbox, Google Drive, Salesforce, etc. If a problem solver is automating a unique internal process, they’re likely creating an event-driven workflow between these apps. This means cloud integrations have become very important.
Web APIs do offer a standard communication format between cloud-based microservices. However, each connector has its nuances, and manually programming actions between them can be time-consuming. Not to mention the implications of supporting third-party dependencies such as authentication time-outs, versioning breaking change and uptime monitoring.
“Integration within no-code did not exist 10 years ago,” Nelson said. Fast forward to 2020, and ProgrammableWeb cites 23,000 public APIs. Low-code platforms have emerged as a glue between properties, solving the integration hurdles.
“You can build anything with the right legos,” he noted. Similarly, workflow automation requires stringing together the right components. “You don’t need to be a developer to do this.”
Hybrid styles mean platform-agnostic development layers become more important.
Hybrid cloud, multi-cloud, multi-device. The world is accessing data from multiple sources and storing it in multiple places. Thus, business applications must be flexible in a platform-agnostic world.
A 2012 Cisco Systems study found 95% of organizations allow employee-owned devices. In 2016, Systonic found 87% of businesses rely on workers to access their smartphones. Now in 2020, a fully remote economy clocks into work on their personal devices from home.
In this remote paradigm, web-based collaboration is an absolute necessity. Users should encounter the same digital experience regardless of the device used or where they’re located. However, even though users are remote, not all servers are remote.
“We’re slowly shifting toward cloud-native,” Nelson said. “But on-premise[s] still takes the lion share.” With concern looming over container-based cloud deployments, some high-security institutions could remain on-premises for some time.
Thus, business workflows require platform-agnostic capabilities that can talk with both on-premises and cloud-native servers. Low-code platforms are acting as an agnostic layer, catering to these hybrid modalities.
Low-code democratizes access to machine learning and AI.
“Today, you can learn how to stand up a database and interact with it from a YouTube video,” Nelson noted. “However, you can’t integrate AI, or scale it easily. The problem statement has changed.”
Low-code platforms abstract the back-end complexity of AI, enabling object recognition, language analysis, predictive analysis, risk scoring, and other abilities. Some even can train new machine learning (ML) models.
Low-code enables companies to leverage powerful AI without much investment. For example, Outside Insight recently reported how low-code platforms are democratizing AI, while consulting firm Delloite assembled TrueVoice, a voice analytics platform built on a low-code platform using behavioral and emotional AI.
“If you can attach machine learning to the automation of business processes, I think you change multiple industries,” he said.
COVID–19 amplifies the pace of digital transformation.
Digital transformation has always been there. But now, you can’t ignore it. “COVID isn’t actually changing anything, it’s accelerating things,” said Nelson.
In the wake of COVID–19, companies may wholly depend on virtual business. For example, Take Allstate Insurance, which now receives 90% of claims using virtual tools, up from 11% in pre-COVID times. Low-code helps these brick-and-mortar companies quickly onboard to new technologies.
To supplement traditional business models, some industries will take digital transformation even further, becoming legitimate tech companies with externalized SaaS. For example, take speaker designer Dolby’s transition to online media transformation as a service.
Next-gen low-code emphasizes reusability and externalization more than predecessors.
Anyone who follows the Bezos mandate of externalization from day one knows how valuable internal infrastructure can be. The tools you build should always be reusable by anyone on the network.
So, if you’re introducing an abstraction layer to build new software, you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot. Low-code has a potential downside of inhibiting code ownership and stunting the ability to externalize valuable infrastructure.
Whereas older low-code platforms may have caused these concerns, Nelson views modern platforms as more malleable. He noted that with low-code widgets and data accessible via APIs, “internal processes, management work, by definition, are exposable.”
A Low-Code Revitalization
Low-code, no-code, some-code, workflow automation; call it what you will. Citizen developer platforms have taken on much interest (not to mention much funding) in recent years.
The need for increased accessibility to advanced workflow automation seems to underpin the low-code movement. But what else is powering recent transformations? To review:
- Rapid automation: Companies need to create frictionless business processes easily and rapidly, and change them on the fly.
- Developer scarcity: The workforce lacks qualified candidates. Low-code fills this gap in the market.
- Integrations hurdles: Internal apps involve many cloud integrations. Low-code can support these connections, enabling users to link event-driven workflows visually.
- Hybrid requirements: Users demand ubiquitous network access no matter device or cloud type. Low-code can act as an agnostic layer.
- Democratization of AI: AI empowers analytics and business intelligence projects, yet machine learning is difficult to implement. Low-code is abstracting this complexity.
- Reuse and externalize: Newer low-code platforms are better designed to expose data and services.
All this adds to a confluence of forces, giving rise to a low-code tidal wave. “This is the time where everything is coming together and is possible,” said Nelson.
What do you see as spurring our current generation of low-code?