The use of low-code tooling is rapidly growing and provides tremendous opportunities for organizations to speed up their development process while saving on cost to build those applications — and the reason that the editors of SD Times declared 2021 “The Year of Low Code.”

A February report from Gartner found that the market for low-code development tools is expected to total $13.8 billion in 2021, an increase of 22.6% from 2020. Gartner added that the surge in remote development during the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to boost low-code adoption even despite the ongoing cost optimization efforts at organizations. 

Currently, many different types of tools are growing in demand under the umbrella of low code. 

Specifically, low-code application platforms (LCAP) are expected to remain the largest component of the low-code development technology market through 2022, increasing nearly 30% from 2020 to reach $5.8 billion in 2021, the report stated.  

This is followed by the growth of other low-code technologies such as intelligent business process management suites, multi-experience development platforms and robotic process automation (RPA). 

Recognizing this tremendous opportunity for growth, all of the major SaaS vendors currently provide capabilities that incorporate low-code development technologies, Gartner found.

It enhances the capabilities of developers to be more agile and enables them to try out new technology. 

“It’s really the idea about a composable enterprise, which is taking your business and creating it as a set of Lego blocks so they can be built in new and interesting ways often using services across any of their digital touchpoints,” said Andrew Manby, the vice president of product management for HCL Software’s low-code platform, Volt MX.

Low-code solutions are primarily made of three main parts, according to OutSystems in a blog post

  • a visual IDE that enables users to define the UIs, workflows, and data models of your application; and the ability to add hand-written code where necessary;
  • connectors to various back ends or services;
  • and automated tools for building, debugging, deploying, and maintaining the application in test, staging, and production.  

However, there is variety among the low-code tools out there. 

While some serve as a visual database front end, others focus on niche business needs such as case management. Some are outside the realm of actual application development such as RPA and then there are no-code tools that cater more to business users and citizen developers. 

The no-code side of it is really components, widgets, modules, templates, and all of these things that provide the guardrails for the business to construct whatever output it is. It’s usually pre-integrated with something. So if it’s a standalone solution, then the data is inside the database and it’s typically kind of just a simple relational table, explained Jason Wong, a VP and analyst on the design and development team at Gartner. 

“ ‘No code’ as a term seems like it’s trying to now exceed or supersede low code as if to say we’re somehow newer and better than low code just as much as low code in the past five to ten years has taken off as a way to replace rapid application development and RAD tools, so it’s a huge phenomenon,” Wong said. 

Low code for all 
One of the key benefits of low code is it reduces the barrier to entry for building applications for certain use cases. 

“If you need something constructed for a government agency, now you can have a business analyst understand all of the process mapping and can learn these tools and start building applications,” Wong added. 

Also, the pandemic has created a huge need for rapid digital transformation as organizations had to change how most of their businesses operated within days, and many organizations started looking to low code for that quick switch and to offer additional capabilities to their customers. 

“We see the catalyst of the pandemic created a surge in activity and adoption of low-code platforms and the reason for that was companies and government organizations were dealing with highly dynamic and acute changes to core processes that they had to adapt to,” said Jay Jamison, the chief product and technology officer at Quickbase. “And the promise and value of low code is the ability to quickly build, deliver, and iterate on business critical applications.”

The desire for extended capabilities resulted in a surge in demand of developers which could not be met. 

“Never have we had a greater shortage of developers who can actually build the systems that are needed. And when you have that huge gap in terms of the demand for digitization and the lack of supply of engineering talent, low-code platforms are sort of filling the breach with quick ways,” Jamison said. 

This will allow for more collaborative cross-functional activities between developers, IT, and users, according to Gartner’s Wong. 

“It’s not going to be the business handing over requirements to IT or to a professional development team,” Wong said. “It’s going to be these collaborative cross functional activities. This is what Gartner calls a fusion team where you will have professional developers and the business users, in some cases, citizen developers that might be responsible for one specific form or specific automation of parts of a workflow.”

New users and new use cases for low code
Citizen developers who are business users with little to no coding experience building applications with IT-approved technology are now on the rise as well. 

Gartner estimated that about 41% of employees can be classified as business technologists who are technology producers outside of an IT function, meaning they don’t report to a CIO or CTO. Gartner also predicted that half of all new low-code clients will come from business buyers that are outside the IT organization by year-end 2025.

These business technologists are now a huge addressable market for vendors to sell to, particularly the no-code providers, Gartner’s Wong said. 

And these employees are also getting more comfortable with bringing some of these low-code solutions into their organizations to solve very specific targeted problems, according to HCL’s Manby. 

“So it’s the aspect of enabling the developer to work with the designer and the business stakeholders to develop something which is compelling and elegant and this type of platform allows you to do that,” Manby said. “Frequently, it’s someone in sales who wants to get something done, maybe they’re creating a top customer list and they’re interacting with their CRM of choice whether that’s Dynamics or Salesforce. We’re seeing people who were involved in the release management process building checklists or quality certifications through the development process. We’re seeing even our marketing team, I would say 50% of our marketing team use our low code product.” 

Just as low-code tools are used more commonly by different parts of an organization, the use cases for the tools have expanded as well as companies try to apply low code to their specific industry’s problems. 

Some common applications of low code are for processes that are currently spreadsheet-driven. Before, organizations would have to email out a spreadsheet, have everyone fill it out and send it back, and then the business side would  have to cut, paste, and merge the data together. Now, everyone can just input their data, and the low-code application does the job of merging that data to a central location. 

Manby added that some common sectors where low code shines are those where people are innovating around the business and the safety and compliance realm so something like making sure an oil rig is going through a maintenance cycle and everything is okay. 

In addition, Quickbase’s Jamison said low code can be used effectively around the supply chain and the “last mile” areas that connect to and around ERP systems. 

“ERP systems are traditionally pretty challenging to extend and they aren’t super flexible. And so what we find is customers appreciate the opportunity to be able to connect a low-code platform into different ERP systems so that they can get that last mile customization and flexibility that they need to drive the impact that they need in their business,” Jamison said. 

Low-code tools can also spin up ways to organize supply in the healthcare system, an especially important use case, as of the pandemic, Jamison explained. This can help tackle problems like how do I get the right nurses, the right ICU equipment, the right doctors that are certified for the right parts of my network, so that I can balance my supply with the demand and low-code tools can quickly help users create those applications during a pandemic. 

Other areas include total quality manufacturing auditing where organizations want to track the state of total quality manufacturing across a number of plants in a company’s purview. 

“It’s very difficult to do that in Excel, very difficult to do that tracking in real time and measurement benchmarking in something that’s a single flat Excel file that’s being shared across many sites because the data is often out of date and so on,” Jamison said. “You need the ability to have a scalable set of data that you can sort of look at and view with many different visioning techniques so that the HR system and the procurement system and the people that are trying to drive different outcomes, whether it’s a resource thing or managing finances or checking quality, they can all have what they need.”

Overcoming limitations of low code
While low-code solutions improve agility and cost-savings among their many benefits, they aren’t the silver lining to all of an organization’s problems on its own. 

More modern full-stack developers might hit a ceiling more quickly as to what they could do with the platform. To fix this, low-code vendors are building out solutions with extensibility in mind so that developers can go in and write Java or JavaScript to create a component. 

“So in that regard, the professional developer can still go outside the boundary of the local environment, but they still have to follow the prescribed way to write those components,” Gartner’s Wong said.  

If developers want to go all the way up, they can also write some service in AWS or Azure, whether that’s through a function or a microservice, they could then write an API that could be consumed by the low-code platform. 

“So while there are ways to go around the limitations of a low-code platform, the ceiling can vary quite a bit between tools,” Wong said.  

It’s also important to put in guardrails to prevent any security compromises and to prevent shadow IT. Now, as low-code solutions are more SaaS-based, they can be more easily managed from a security perspective. With SaaS, users have role-based access controls. They can see the apps that they built and who’s using them and if they’re effective or not. If they’re noted, then you can deprecate them or roll it back and go improve it, Wong pointed out. 

“So the analogy that I like to use is the difference between a professional race car driver and your weekend warrior, your go-kart driver. So if you go go-karting you know, you are operating in a safe environment. Even if you crash, you don’t have too much damage. The tool is the go-kart,” Wong said. “You can regulate the go-kart to go 20 miles an hour, or you can let it fly at 60 miles an hour.” 

Establishing proper training and creating policies can prevent shadow IT and many organizations are building out training programs on how to implement low-code tools properly.

“We invest a tremendous amount of R&D effort around leadership in governance, and in  controls and capabilities that can ensure that we are a solution for it in the realm of trying to sort of control shadow it,” Quickbase’s Jamison said. 

Some vendors are also offering low-code approaches to ISVs in which companies that are delivering a vertical ERP or CRM can add a modified version of a low-code tool such as Reify so that customers can add additional screens or customize new ones, according to Charles Kendrick, the CTO of Reify and Isomorphic Software

This can be especially useful for applications in which customers need customizability. 

“A lot of low code is for ‘tactical apps’ — applications created in larger organizations where it makes sense to build your own custom applications, because it’s a strategic advantage,” Kendrick said. 

Low-code tools can also work with other technologies in tandem such as automated dependency impact analysis and debugging, packaged mobile apps for the app stores in one click, and automatic adjustment to allow for new technology. 

Another limitation that low-code vendors are working to fix is low-code platforms buckling under a heavy workload when it’s time to scale or integrate with existing systems. Many vendors are looking to automation to solve this problem. 

“A lot of RPA vendors call themselves low code or even no code, but basically, they are automating away a lot of the activity and actually eliminating the interface,” Gartner’s Wong said. “So automation is really an important trend in low code now because AI will have a lot of automation and AI will replace the code data.”

While low-code tools and tool adoption is still very early on, the events of last year have really propelled it as one of the biggest technology trends of today. 

“We’re in the early innings for sure,” Quickbase’s Jamison said. “It seems as though the last year has really catalyzed the need because the requirements that the industries and governments and educational institutions all have is they’ve got to digitize their business to better serve their constituents, their stakeholders at all levels, whether it’s customers, whether it’s employees, whether it’s shareholders, whether it’s their community, they have to be more digital.”

“I think people are still at the phase of trying to understand what type of low-code platform they really need and what they are trying to do,” HCL’s Manby said. “I think we’re on the cusp of people understanding, well, what else do I need to do to make those apps more functionally rich.”