Low-code and no-code are two new software development solutions — how do they compare?
The demand for hyperautomation and IT modernization has grown, but enterprises have been struggling to align with these trends because of the current limited availability of developer talent. Many IT projects get relegated to the “pending” file due to a shortage of resources with specialized technical skills. As a result, operational inefficiencies continue to exist and time-to-market — a crucial factor for businesses to remain competitive — is compromised.
To address these challenges, low-code and no-code software development solutions have emerged as viable and convenient alternatives to the traditional development process.
What is low-code?
Low-code is a rapid application development (RAD) approach that enables automated code generation through visual building blocks like drag-and-drop and pull-down menu interfaces. This automation allows low-code users to focus on the differentiator rather than the common denominator of programming. Low-code is a balanced middle ground between manual coding and no-code as its users can still add code over auto-generated code.
Examples of applications that lend themselves to low-code development include business process management platforms, website and mobile app development, cross-department tools like appraisal management software, integration with external plugins and cloud-based next-gen technologies, such as machine-learning libraries, robotic process automation and legacy app modernization.
Jamil Spain has a few great videos on low-code and no-code that we'll include for a deeper dive on the subject.
What is no-code?
No-code is also a RAD approach and is often treated as a subset of the modular plug-and-play, low-code development approach. While in low-code there is some handholding done by developers in the form of scripting or manual coding, no-code has a completely hands-off approach, with 100% dependence on visual tools.
Examples of applications suitable for no-code development include self-service apps for business users, dashboards, mobile and web apps, content management platforms and data pipeline builders. No-code is ideal for quick-to-build standalone apps, straightforward UIs and simple automations, and it is used in calendar planning tools, facility management tools and BI reporting apps with configurable columns and filters.
Low-code and no-code automation
A low-code application platform (LCAP) — also called a low-code development platform (LCDP) — contains an integrated development environment (IDE) with built-in features like APIs, code templates, reusable plug-in modules and graphical connectors to automate a significant percentage of the application development process. LCAPs are typically available as cloud-based Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) solutions.
A low-code platform works on the principle of lowering complexity by using visual tools and techniques like process modeling, where users employ visual tools to define workflows, business rules, user interfaces and the like. Behind the scenes, the complete workflow is automatically converted into code. LCAPs are used predominantly by professional developers to automate the generic aspects of coding to redirect effort on the last mile of development.
Examples of such automation platforms include low-code application platforms, intelligent business process management suites, citizen development platforms and other such RAD tools.
In a no-code development platform (NCDP) — also sometimes called a citizen automation and development platform (CADP) — all code is generated through drag-and-drop or point-and-click interfaces. NCDPs are used by both professional developers and citizen developers (non-technical users or non-developers with limited or no coding skills).
Low-code and no-code: Similarities and benefits
Both low-code and no-code are similar in that they aim to abstract the complex aspects of coding by using visual interfaces and pre-configured templates. Both development platforms are available as PaaS solutions and adopt a workflow-based design to define the logical progression of data. They share many benefits due to the common approach:
- Democratization of technology: Both low-code and no-code solutions are built with the objective of empowering different kinds of users. This reduces dependency on hard-to-hire, expensive specialists and technologists.
- Productivity enablers: Low-code/no-code increases the velocity of development, clearing IT backlogs, reducing project timelines from months to days and facilitating faster product rollouts.
- Quick customer feedback at less risk: Prior to investing significant resources in a project, low-code/no-code allows developers to get feedback from customers by showcasing easy-to-build prototypes. This shifts the go/no-go decision earlier in the project schedule, minimizing risk and cost.
- More build than buy: While commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products can be expensive and have a one-size-fits-all approach, low-code and no-code incentivize in-house customization, shifting the needle towards “build” in the buy vs. build dilemma.
- Architectural consistency: For crosscutting modules like logging and audit, a centralized low-code/no-code platform ensures design and code consistency. This uniformity is beneficial while debugging applications, too, as developers can spend their time troubleshooting issues rather than understanding frameworks.
- Cost-effectiveness: Low-code/no-code is more cost-effective than from-scratch manual development due to smaller teams, fewer resources, lower infrastructure costs and lower maintenance costs. It also results in better ROI with faster agile releases.
- Collaboration between business and IT: Business and development teams have traditionally shared a push-pull relationship. However, with more business users participating in development through the low-code/no-code movement, there is better balance and understanding between the two seemingly different worlds.
How is low-code different from no-code?
There is much overlap between the two approaches (exacerbated by low-code and no-code platform vendors’ confusing positioning) despite subtle feature differences between their solutions. However, there are important differences to consider:
Low-code is aimed at professional developers to avoid replicating basic code and to create space for the more complex aspects of development that lead to innovation and richness in feature sets. By automating the standard aspects of coding and adopting a syntax-agnostic approach, it enables developer reskilling and talent pool expansion.
No-code, on the other hand, is aimed at business users who have vast domain knowledge and may also be slightly tech-savvy but lack the ability to write code manually. It’s also good for hybrid teams with business users and software developers or small business owners and non-IT teams, such as HR, finance and legal.
No-code lends itself well to front-end apps that can be quickly designed by drag-and-drop interfaces. Good candidates are UI apps that pull data from sources and report, analyze, import and export data.
Also, no-code is ideal for replacing monotonous administrative tasks like Excel-based reports used by business teams. Such projects don’t get prioritized easily by IT but could be a lifesaver for business teams. It’s also well-suited for internal apps that do not carry the burden of extensive functionalities and for small-scale business apps with less development budget.
Low-code, with an exhaustive component library, can be extended to applications with heavyweight business logic and scaled to an enterprise level. Also, to integrate with other apps and external APIs, connect to multiple data sources and build systems with security guardrails that need the IT lens, low-code is a better alternative than no-code.
Low-code requires more training and time to onboard, develop and deploy as it offers more opportunities for customization. But it’s still considerably faster than traditional development.
No-code, being highly configurable and all plug-and-play, takes less time to build in comparison to low-code. Testing time is also reduced because there is minimal risk of potential errors normally introduced by manual coding. Here, it’s all about ensuring the configurations and data flow are set up correctly.
Open vs. closed systems
Low-code is an open system that allows its users to extend functionality through code. This means more flexibility and reusability. For instance, users can create custom plugins and data source connectors to fit their use cases and reuse them later. But it’s worth noting that newer upgrades and patches of the LCAP need to be tested with the manually introduced code.
No-code is a more closed system can only be extended through templated feature sets. This means restricted use cases and access to boilerplate plugins and integrations, but it’s easier to ensure backward compatibility as there is no manually written code that could break future versions of the NCDP.
Shadow IT risk
While this has been a concern for both low-code and no-code platforms, the risk of shadow IT is higher with no-code, which requires little or almost no intervention from IT teams. This could result in a parallel infrastructure that’s not closely monitored, leading to security vulnerabilities and technical debt.
However, the fact that low-code is still under the fold of IT teams can help ensure better governance and control.
Low-code scores over no-code in its support for scalability and cross-platform compatibility. Adding custom plugins and custom code opens up the possibility of a wider range of implementations and working with multiple platforms.
No-code has less extensibility and limited potential in connecting to legacy systems or integrating with other platforms. Therefore, it addresses a narrow set of use cases and has a reduced ability to scale.
When to use low-code vs. when to use no-code
Both low-code and no-code have their individual strengths. The similarities between the two don’t make this an easy decision either. The best way forward is to assess the current requirements and make a choice accordingly.
Here are a few questions to determine user needs:
- What are the goals of using the low-code or no-code software?
- Who are the users? What’s their programming expertise?
- What is the scope and scale of the problem to be solved?
- Does the build require custom integrations with external and internal applications?
- What is the turnaround time needed?
- How much control do users want to retain over code?
- Does the application need to deal with confidential data or factor in security considerations?
The two key questions here are: What is the application for, and who is going to build it? While both these are important questions, it’s better to use a goal-centric approach than a user-centric approach — that is, the what is more important than the who.
If the use cases are complex, require integrations with other on-premises or cloud apps, have customer-facing or business-critical requirements or need to be deployed across the enterprise, low-code is the preferred option. In this case, even if users do not have the requisite expertise in programming languages, partnerships with IT teams or training programs can resolve the challenges.
Low-code and no-code with IBM
Working with IBM, you’ll have access to low-code and no-code intelligent automation capabilities that allow subject matter experts to automate processes without depending on IT.
- Build your own digital employees to automate everyday work with IBM Watson Orchestrate.
- Model your business processes visually with IBM Blueworks Live and pass the output to IT to import into workflows.
- Classify and extract information from your business documents quickly, easily and accurately with IBM Automation Document Processing.
- Make predictive decisions in a business-friendly environment with IBM Automation Decision Services.
- Empower your business users to build their own bots using IBM Robotic Process Automation, as Lojacorr Network did, boosting process execution efficiency by 80% without hiring staff and without prior programming language experience.
- Integrate applications using simple, web-based tooling with IBM AppConnect.
- Set up file processing pipelines that interconnect business units and external partners with Aspera Orchestrator.