How the low-code revolution could change your software

Using a low-code platform, companies can build software applications through visual drag-and-drop flowcharts. Here's what that means for your business.
25 April 2018

Can you just draw your app to get it ready? Source: Shutterstock

Companies need enterprise software applications. Because of this, companies employ full time or consultant programmer developers and systems operations staff to build them.

These same companies need to change and modify what their software applications do as their enterprise shifts product lines, areas of focus and geographical markets. Software has been built like this for some time now. This is how software works.

Things could be changing. Let’s appreciate the fact that the enterprise software industry itself has been around since the 1960s if not slightly before.

We have over this last half decade built a lot of the component functions that we need. There’s no need to build a calculator function inside an application, we can often slot that in as a ‘chunk’ of software code from elsewhere. Or, in the new world of cloud, we can ‘expose’ our application to that calculator function through an Application Programming Interface (API).

Building with sandboxed objects

What all this leads us to is the world of low-code and, in some cases, no-code. Using a low-code platform, companies can build software applications using an essentially visual drag-and-drop flowchart that expresses the passage of data through various ‘object’ stages to perform the functions that users would want from an enterprise app. Each ‘object’ is a sandboxed composite piece of a wider application – when brought together, various objects can create a new application.

Leading the Forrester wave for this space is Reston, Virginia USA headquartered Appian. Forrester’s Cloud-Based Dynamic Case Management Q1 2018 report also lists TIBCO, IBM, Hyland, Pegasystems, Newgen and bpm’online in this space.

But it is Appian creating more noise than most right now having just gone public and releasing more functionality updates than its competitors.

Appian is used to create applications, yes, but not exactly any application. This is software designed to build apps that are used for ‘case management’ at an enterprise level. This could be anything from an app that looks after user issues during an event, the execution of a programme of legal compliance activities or indeed the running of a whole retail store.

“Whenever anything inside an enterprise’s operational processes has to be done in a consistent, enforceable and auditable way, then Appian can be used to control and manage the business [task in hand],” said Malcolm Ross, VP of Product for Appian.

“Any element of business can be managed inside Appian. Only perhaps an Internet of Things (IoT) ‘edge’ computing device with ‘highly specialized data throughput’ requirements would be hard to fit.”

Appian’s approach to low-code development runs closely in parallel with the principals of Business Process Management (BPM). Its low-code technologies offer drag-and-drop, visual development for UX design, process design, rules design and other related development functions.

CRUD functions, not cruddy

This technology is intended to form the ‘substrate layer’ and base from which software applications themselves can be created. In real terms, it manifests itself as a collection of ‘process components’ that can be used to map and model any business process and bring forward the software functions needed to serve it.

The data held in persistent storage inside an enterprise organization will typically always be exposed to what computing programmers call CRUD actions: Create, Repeat, Update, Delete.

Appian partner Luxoft has this year developed a blockchain adapter for Appian. This means that Appian ‘apps’ can now use blockchain’s immutable distributed ledger technology as part of their functionality. Global head of digital platforms at Luxoft is Naresh Kirpalani.

Explaining that most use cases in customer, product, operations and shared services domains lend themselves very well to low code platforms, Kirpalani says that low code apps are end-to-end fully-fledged pieces of software.

“Low code providers need to focus on two areas to ensure continued growth. They need an ecosystem of integrated tooling, like hosting and development tools to help deploy the solution quickly and efficiently. Having a code builder by itself is not sufficient. Secondly, they need to establish a diverse partner ecosystem so applications and accelerators are available for businesses to launch applications; but also so there are enough skills in the market for future,” said Luxoft’s Kirpalani.

Don’t code it, draw it

Appian CEO and founder Matt Calkins is convinced that his company’s vision for the future is the right one. He is confident enough to state that Appian will reduce the amount of time it takes to build a low code application by half with every major iteration of the Appian platform.

A kind of Moore’s Law for the low-code generation, if you will. “Don’t code your next app, draw it,” enthused Calkin in an interview with TechHQ, referring to his firm’s visual flow chart approach to application creation.

The low-code no-code revolution is still very much in a state of still-nascent flux. Appian and others are changing ‘some’ application development, but not ‘all’ application development.

The low-code generation is starting to get used to the opportunity to draw not code, but software developers themselves are unlikely to find themselves out of a job any time soon. Indeed, it is the hard-coders that build the objects used in the low-code world and Appian itself requires a ‘programming brain’ to use.

Some of your next software packages will have been high-code hard-code constructed and some will be low-code no-code. Either way, the road ahead is full of code.