But developers should not simply dismiss low-code platforms and their capabilities. Businesses require more application development than most IT teams can deliver or support. IT may not use a low-code platform for everything, but it can help accelerate development and provide additional benefits.
I’ve been covering low-code, no-code, citizen development, and other rapid development tools for almost two decades. Today’s platforms enable teams to deliver, support, and extend a wide array of applications. They are used in digital transformations to deliver customer experiences, streamline workflows, automate data integrations, and support data visualizations.
Many companies have used low-code platforms to develop applications in response to COVID-19, to modernize legacy applications, or to automate integrations across multiple platforms.
Low-code platform advantages
Low-code platforms are far more open and extensible today, and most have APIs and other ways to extend and integrate with the platform. They provide different capabilities around the software development lifecycle from planning applications through deployment and monitoring, and many also interface with automated testing and devops platforms. Low-code platforms have different hosting options, including proprietary managed clouds, public cloud hosting options, and data center deployments. Some low-code platforms are code generators, while others generate models. Some are more SaaS-like and do not expose their configurations.
Low-code platforms also serve different development paradigms. Some target developers and enable rapid development, integration, and automation. Others target both software development professionals and citizen developers with tools to collaborate and rapidly develop applications.
I selected the seven platforms profiled here because many have been delivering low-code solutions for over a decade, growing their customer bases, adding capabilities, and offering expanded integration, hosting, and extensibility options. Many are featured in Forrester, Gartner, and other analyst reports on low-code platforms for developers and citizen development.
I excluded enterprise platforms that offer low-code capabilities, such as Salesforce, SAP, ServiceNow, and Cherwell, and other business process management (BPM) platforms, project management tools, workflow applications, and data visualization platforms. Recently, public clouds have gotten more serious about low-code. I plan to cover the low-code options on AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud in a future article.
Low-code platform use cases
It’s a misnomer that businesses select and use low-code platforms only for simple workflows, integrations, forms, data visualizations, and spreadsheet replacements. Allow me to debunk this myth.
From the list below, developers are using low-code to rapidly develop customer-facing applications, engineer data-intensive workflows, and automate integrations. Many of these are sophisticated applications that connect to multiple systems and have a mix of capabilities enabled by the low-code platforms and other capabilities created by software developers via extensions.
Here is a sample of the applications developed on these platforms.
- Appian enables developers to rapidly build solutions for enterprise business needs, such as defining applications that support a customer journey, optimize business operations, and enforce compliance with policies and regulations. Ryder used Appian to develop a mobile-first reservation system and cut down time-to-transaction in half. Bayer integrated multiple back-end systems for clinical trials and automated processes to reduce reporting time from hours to minutes.
- Boomi Flow caters to automation use cases, mobile applications, embedded workflows, and organizational collaboration. Trucking services company AM Transport used Boomi to reduce electronic data interchange (EDI) costs by 50% by ingesting and analyzing data from Salesforce, ERP systems, and multiple transportation management systems. Universities such as Cornell, University of Sussex, and Flinders University use Boomi to integrate across multiple platforms, update virtual learning environments, and streamline onboarding.
- Caspio helps businesses build custom applications by optimizing customer experiences and internal workflows. Tennessee Department of Health built an IT asset management system that monitors 20,000 state assets. J-W Power, operator of the largest compressed natural gas fleet in the US, deployed custom portals, intranets, and over a dozen IT/operations applications.
- Mendix excels in use cases that would traditionally require a wide range of technical and business expertise, including customer-facing applications, mobile experiences, and replacements for shadow IT. Rabobank delivered an improved, consumer-facing, digital customer experience with Mendix that also reduced IT costs by 50%. Zurich Insurance Group rapidly developed FaceQuote that provides prospective life insurance quotes by soliciting a selfie.
- OutSystems helps businesses develop applications in three broad categories: legacy modernization, workplace innovation, and customer experience transformation. Using OutSystems, the city of Oakland transformed digital services for citizens with a single sign-on portal, and Humana developed a customer experience application to help people find COVID-19 test locations.
- Quick Base is predominantly used to provide real-time visibility into the dynamic operational processes in an organization. Geisinger Health System used Quick Base to develop a COVID operational app that reassigned employees and filled the gaps where there were critical needs. Other companies like Metso in the oil and gas industry and Enel Green Power North America also developed applications to support COVID-related operational changes.
- VisionX is particularly powerful in situations where complex data sets exist in combination with custom processes for which out-of-the-box software is either unavailable or not flexible enough. Some examples include fleet management for ski area vehicles, scientific project management for collaborative research, and configuration and asset management for quantum computers.
Low-code, the SDLC, and devops
Low-code platforms have different capabilities and approaches to support the development lifecycle. Some focus on rapid, simplified development and largely support the full development lifecycle on their platforms. Others take this one step further and offer different experiences and integrated capabilities that enable software development professionals and citizen developers to collaborate on application development. The low-code platforms targeting enterprises offer more integration with devops tools and hosting options.
Here is a summary of how different low-code platforms enable application development, integration, extensions, testing, and deployment.
- Boomi Flow offers an open architectural stack based on REST APIs and an extensive library of integration connectors. It has a built-in debugger and automatic versioning, and supports multiple tenants for development, test, and other lifecycle needs. Developers can also integrate with Git, GitLab, Jenkins, and other source code systems.
- OutSystems provides the specialized tools required by diverse members of a project team, and the development steps are tied together with a layer of the platform referred to as TrueChange. OutSystems states that there are few reasons for developers to have to revert to traditional coding when building applications on their platform, and developers can seamlessly integrate custom code when required.
- Quick Base is an entirely integrated stack that automatically generates and hosts the applications. Developers can test functionality with the Quick Base sandbox, extend functionality with the RESTful API, and leverage Quick Base Pipelines for drag-and-drop integration and automation capabilities.
- VisionX is a Java low-code platform that integrates with the Eclipse IDE and supports bidirectional code generation. This architecture allows developers to work with any version control and mainstream test automation platforms. Applications can be deployed using Jenkins or other CI/CD tools and run in application servers such as Tomcat, WildFly, and GlassFish.
Low-code platforms address the need for speed
What’s universal in speaking to these low-code platform providers is their desire to help businesses and developers respond to the increased need to develop internal workflow applications, customer-facing experiences, integrations, and automations. They are not trying to do away with coding, but taking steps to partner with developers and improve their ability to develop and extend world-class applications.
Developers should never stop learning, testing, and experimenting with new tools and paradigms. If you’ve shied away from reviewing and testing low-code platforms, now’s the time to roll up the sleeves and attempt a proof of concept.