Jul 20 2021

Low-Code vs. No-Code Development Platforms: What’s the Difference?

In recent years, organizations have sought to customize their applications and try new ideas without technical knowledge. New development techniques could offer a way forward.

Perhaps this scenario sounds familiar: Someone has an idea they want to experiment with but setting that in motion would require a development team.

In the past, this could have been too high a hurdle for organizations without access to such a team. However, visual programming has grown significantly recently thanks to two separate phenomena: low-code development and no-code development. These approaches promise to put development resources in reach for those who might not traditionally be considered developers.

“The growing appetite for digital transformation and the increasing complexity of IT systems means that software has become a driving force for functionality and automation,” says Seth Robinson, senior director for technology analysis with CompTIA.

Now, businesses that were previously limited to ready-made options for managing their technology tools can now build to their own needs. “They want to customize, so they’ve been investing more in software development,” Robinson says.

These techniques can benefit organizations of all sizes. Gartner projects a 22.6 percent growth in the market for low-code development in 2021, boosting it to a $13.8 billion industry. To harness this power, teams must understand key differences between these two types of tools to determine which fits their needs.

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What Is Low-Code Development?

Low-code development involves software with a front-end interface that allows graphical plotting of a series of desired commands in the building of an application.

Low-code interfaces have long existed. Some early examples include Adobe Flash and Microsoft FrontPage. Both could be built largely with graphical user interfaces (GUIs) but allowed end-user customization for users wanting to maximize their capabilities.

The modern low-code revival is partly thanks to the growing efficiency of the application programming interface (API). Consumer-focused tools like IFTTT make it easy to tie APIs into smart homes, for example. These benefits can be applied to business processes as well, allowing organizations to create interfaces that meet their unique needs.

What Is No-Code Development?

While low-code development requires minimal programming for customization, no-code development manages development resources within the GUI alone. This means there’s little or no need for additional programming to tweak the final result. This could be a builder for a mobile application or a database tool that ties into an analytics dashboard.

“As the names imply, low-code development still employs some amount of hand coding, whereas no-code development is almost exclusively performed with the GUI,” Robinson says.

These tools are also steeped in history. Apple’s formative late-’80s HyperCard technology was one of the earliest mainstream examples of no-code technology (and the engine behind the iconic ’90s video game Myst). Claris, an Apple subsidiary, still produces FileMaker, a low-code database tool even older than HyperCard.

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Common modern tech tools including the content management system WordPress and spreadsheet tools like Microsoft Excel could be considered no-code. The most recent uptick in no-code platforms has been around building fully individualized applications with a hand-coded quality. With APIs and cloud-based technologies, you can get a lot further today without writing a line of code than you could have a decade ago.

The Benefits of Low-Code Development vs. No-Code Development

Easy to use and quick to implement, both these approaches have gained momentum in the startup space. As a 2020 Forbes expert panel noted, low-code allows users to quickly build applications to test new ideas or modernize legacy applications, all at a low upfront cost.

Robinson says that both techniques can expand the reach of programming capabilities to nontechnical individuals, but those with programming knowledge can benefit as well.

“By working within a set of defined parameters, individuals without deep programming expertise can build functional applications,” he says. “This enables more capability at the layer where companies are trying to build differentiation, so it seems that low-code/no-code will simply drive more activity and job opportunity toward the task of building software.”

Organizations should be aware of the potential security and maintenance challenges associated with building new applications, according to Robinson. “With so many new applications being built, new vulnerabilities will be created,” he says.

IT departments must also consider how these tools will be managed. A recent Harvard Business Review article notes that there are potential cost savings to be had with these techniques, but their simplicity can create the potential for “shadow IT” problems down the line. These challenges can be mitigated by understanding what your organization’s needs and solutions are, and CDW’s Digital Velocity Solutions can help address these questions.

What Is Low-Code Automation?

One variety of low-code development is an approach called low-code automation, which merges the benefits of low-code and no-code with workflow automation processes. This approach can be used to create bots that enable business optimization.

Robotic process automation (RPA) is a form of workflow automation that is often used in low-code settings. A 2018 CIO assessment of RPA notes that it isn’t as in-depth an approach as artificial intelligence, but it can speed up some more complex workflows and can even be integrated with techniques such as natural language processing and machine learning.

What Are the Best Low-Code and No-Code Development Platforms?

The low-code and no-code spaces are quickly growing, and there are several providers suited for different use cases and technologies. Some established and emerging options worth looking into include:

  • App Engine by ServiceNow. The ServiceNow platform, originally built for IT services, has earned widespread use and is seen as “a low-code platform of the first rank” according to a recent assessment by Forrester. App Engine aims to simplify the process of application development at all levels, creating opportunities for different types of organizations, including the federal government.
  • PowerApps by Microsoft. Plugging into the Power BI analytics platform, PowerApps can create internal tools that leverage the capabilities of a company’s existing suite, including the Azure cloud platform.

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Examples of Low-Code Development and No-Code Development

Depending on the tool, nearly any type of application can be built with low-code or no-code methods. Mobile apps for e-commerce, for example, expanded during the pandemic as retailers large and small suddenly found themselves having to build infrastructure with mobile in mind. Traditional development processes were simply too complex given the business need. As a result, low-code tools found a major foothold in the online shopping sector during 2020; nearly three quarters of the top 50 retail apps were built with low-code elements, according to one recent assessment.

Departments can also use these approaches to streamline internal tools. Areas of businesses that might have once struggled to integrate technology into their processes are finding ways to leverage no-code or low-code technologies in disruptive ways. For example, the Society of Human Resource Management recently reported that HR teams are increasingly building no-code applications, such as analytics dashboards. “Part of the reason I think HR presents such an opportunity for this technology is there is a sweet spot of a lot of manual, spreadsheet-based processes and a lot of users without technical backgrounds,” says Trevor White of Nucleus Research in an association blog post.

These techniques can also help manage IT operations. The IT department in particular is a perfect candidate for low-code and no-code approaches because of the time-saving automation potential there.

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