Low code versus no code, and what it means to enterprise software developers

Low code and no code are frequently lumped together, despite taking significantly different approaches. Here is what the debate means to enterprise developers.

The software industry is currently facing a massive wave of transformation driven by growing demand, evolving customer expectations, and fierce global competition. This has left enterprise software teams struggling to keep up with the constant pressure to innovate rapidly and keep widening skills gaps in check.

Every enterprise needs software, and off-the-shelf solutions can only go so far when it comes to meeting their unique requirements. However, while there is often a clear need to develop bespoke solutions, doing so often comes at a significant expense, especially when factoring in the ongoing costs of software maintenance.

Many of these challenges come down to the fact that traditional software development is costly and time-consuming and requires specialized skills that are in short supply and huge demand. This is why the case for no-code and low-code application development is growing all the time. According to Gartner, two-thirds of application development activity will be low code by 2024.

In this article, we will look at what that means for enterprise software teams.

What are low code and no code?

Both low code and no code follow the principle of extracting software development away from code in favor of visual modeling. To that end, they both use drag-and-drop interfaces to create and add features and functionality without the need for manual coding.

Although the terms ‘low code’ and ‘no code’ are both fairly new, the concept of visual software development has been around for over three decades. Visual Basic, for example, is a classic example of a low-code platform that existed long before the term even existed.

Of course, software development has come a long way since the early 90s to accommodate the meteoric rise of cloud computing, platform-agnostic computing, and myriad other technical innovations. To that end, today’s no code and low code development solutions go far beyond the limited capabilities of solutions like Visual Basic to accommodate advanced business logic and allow enterprises to easily reapply business rules across different platforms and interface types.

The main difference between low code and no code is the level of abstraction. As the terms suggest, low code may still require some coding, whereas no code requires none at all. While both solutions offer value in different use cases, they are far from interchangeable.

Below, we will take a deeper look into how the two approaches compare:


#1. Primary objective

Both low code and no code share the same primary objective of reducing development times, albeit to different degrees.

It is important to remember that reducing complexity also means limiting customizability and extensibility. You cannot, for example, expect to develop a highly complex and unique business application with a no-code platform. To that end, no code sacrifices a significant degree of customizability and control in favor of ease of use.

Low code presents something of a compromise between no code and traditional development. For the most part, a low-code development platform (LCDP) does all of the same things as a no-code platform, plus a whole lot more. Software developers can still enjoy the added benefit of greatly reduced development times, albeit while retaining the ability to add custom functions through a combination of manual coding and visually augmented design.


#2. Target audience

The biggest difference between no-code and low-code platforms is their target audience. While both are widely heralded for ease of use and speed of development, they are adapted for very different use cases.

Low-code platforms are designed for developers of varying skill levels. They do require some technical skills, including a basic knowledge of traditional software development. Their value lies in the fact they greatly reduce development times by limiting the need for manual coding, especially when creating routine functions and standard interface elements.

No-code platforms, as the term suggests, do not involve any coding at all. As such, they are intended for business users, rather than software teams, who have no knowledge of software development and programming. On the other hand, this also means that a true no-code platform inevitably has to make significant tradeoffs when it comes to customizability.


#3. Learning curve

Low code development still comes with a learning curve, while the learning curve with no code is typically minimal and akin to that of any other everyday business software.

Both solutions are aimed at business technologists, such as citizen developers, but learning curves vary considerably. However, low-code solutions can be highly effective learning tools in their own right. By making software development more accessible, they are well-suited to onboarding new members of a software team, as well as empowering citizen developers with only modest technical skills to achieve more. IT still needs to play a role to uphold the demands of governance and quality control, but that is also the case with no-code solutions, which may otherwise result in a rise in shadow IT.

Contrary to popular belief, no-code solutions still require technical expertise, albeit not in actual programming itself. No-code platforms have been widely adopted among business users who want to build databases, websites, and everyday business applications – but domain expertise is still an essential requirement in any use case.


#4. Customizability

No-code platforms inevitably sacrifice customizability for ease of use, since they are intended for business users rather than professional and citizen developers.

Low-code solutions offer varying degrees of customizability. Some are entirely closed-source ecosystems that cater to developing custom apps for specific platforms only. Others are fully open source and allow for total customization and extensibility. However, the highest degrees of customization typically require some coding, hence the term ‘low code’, as opposed to ‘no code’.

No-code platforms limit customization to pre-built templates. For example, a no-code web app creator might have user interface designs for which you can change fonts and colors and manipulate layouts. However, in general, functions and navigational elements will all be similar across the board. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that you cannot customize a no-code app to accommodate more advanced business logic or less common use cases.


#5. Platform openness

One of the biggest differences between no code and low code is platform openness, which is a vital consideration when it comes to digital sovereignty and vendor lock-in. Systems that are open allow users to change and control underlying functionalities, as well as retain complete control over where their data lives. They can also easily move data between different vendors and platforms. With closed systems, the options are far more limited, if they are even available at all.

Low-code platforms are inherently more open, but that does not mean it is always possible to move freely and easily between platforms. A truly open platform is one in which the underlying code is open-source, thus giving users total control over their digital sovereignty. With these platforms, there is no risk of vendor lock-in, and the only limitations to customizability, control, and sovereignty are those dictated by the skills of those who use them.

No-code platforms are generally more restrictive when it comes to platform openness. While end-users do not need to worry about things like platform maintenance and updates, the fact that there are no opportunities to apply custom code places strict barriers on functionality and control. Furthermore, no-code applications typically only work on platforms that are explicitly supported by their vendors. For example, the Salesforce Lightning platform only allows for the development of applications within the broader Salesforce ecosystem.


#6. Application complexity

By definition, abstracting software development from the underlying code means sacrificing a degree of functionality. While coding from scratch allows developers to create any application or function that the target platform supports, no code and low code environments rely on visual building blocks instead. This greatly reduces complexity, but it also means that there will only ever be a limited range of predefined application functions available. Precisely which functions and interface elements may be implemented depends largely on the degree of abstraction.

Low-code platforms have come a long way in recent years to the point they allow developers to build applications of practically any complexity. Which operating systems your low-code applications will support depends on the broader ecosystem. Some LCDPs are only intended to support the confines of a relatively closed ecosystem, such as Salesforce. Others are much broader in scope, allowing developers to create applications for virtually any purpose to run on any device or operating system. Even highly advanced use cases are possible, since resorting to coding where necessary allows developers to add unique, bespoke functions. An open-source LCDP gives developers complete freedom to build solutions of any complexity.

While they might be easier to use, no-code platforms are generally not suitable for creating complex applications for less common use cases. Instead, they are better suited for building everyday business apps, such as reporting and analytics tools and tracking apps. Moreover, most low-code apps can only be deployed in the public cloud and lack support for on-premises and private cloud infrastructure. Similarly, no code has limited extensibility, since it does not allow the creation of custom integrations.


Which solution is best for enterprise software teams?

Both no-code and low-code development platforms are intended to help software developers and non-developers alike create business applications using visual design tools rather than coding from scratch. Both approaches save time for professional developers, facilitate a more collaborative digital transformation environment, and make development more accessible. Both also strip away much of the overhead of software maintenance, since they are almost invariably offered as platform-as-a-service (PaaS) solutions. However, this is where the resemblance between the two ends.

No code

No-code solutions are likely to be of limited use to enterprise software teams. However, they are ideal for non-technical teams who need to create simple apps to address department-level problems.

Common use cases for no-code development include business intelligence (BI) reporting and dashboards, data-management applications, business workflow management solutions, and legacy migration apps.

The main goal of no-code platforms is to completely negate the need for the involvement of IT in the creation of everyday business solutions. However, this can also lead to a rise in shadow IT, in which IT teams lose a degree of control over and visibility into their environments.


Low code

Low code solutions present something of a middle ground between no code and fully-fledged manual coding. Precisely where they fall on that spectrum varies widely from one solution to the next. Some LCDPs are entirely closed environments, while others are fully open source.

The potential use cases for low-code development are vastly wider than any no-code platform. More sophisticated platforms are suitable for building everything from customer engagement apps, business workflow automation tools, omnichannel solutions, and even full-fledged CRMs.

Being aimed at developers of varying levels of skill and experience, low-code platforms can greatly augment the capabilities of enterprise software teams and ISVs. When it comes to meeting the demands of scale and agility, there is simply no better approach than low code.


High code

For the sake of completeness, we should also consider how traditional software development fits into today’s digital transformation environments. Also known as high-code when drawing comparisons to no code and low code, high code ensures unlimited functionality and complete ownership over every aspect of the software being built. However, open-source LCDPs offer complete control and ownership as well, thus further tipping the scales in favor of low code.

Traditional development is of limited use to most enterprise software teams, except in cases where coding might be necessary in conjunction with low-code development. That said, high code retains its value in use cases such as applications with very long lifecycles, solutions that require very unique interfaces, and solutions that need to work with unsupported legacy systems.

Ultimately, most enterprise software teams and ISVs should be embracing low code as a way to reduce technical debt, accelerate development cycles, and free up time to work on the more complex projects that still require coding.

Planet Crust is the creator and driving force behind Corteza, a 100% open-source low-code software development platform that lets you import data from any source and use intuitive drag-and-drop tools to create custom applications for your unique business needs. Get started for free today.

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