What is vendor lock-in, and what does it mean for low-code software development?

Many low-code platforms are closed-source ecosystems tied to specific vendors, which means vendor lock-in is a common concern – but there are exceptions.

If you purchased music over the Apple iTunes store prior to March 2009, you could only play it in the iTunes media player software. Everything in your music library was locked into that one ecosystem. If you wanted to use another media player or device that didn’t support the iTunes app, your only option was to buy all your music again from another vendor. This is a textbook example of vendor lock-in.

While vendor lock-in is frustrating for consumers, it can be disastrous for businesses to the point that it can completely derail their digital transformation strategies. It’s a common issue in cloud computing, for example, because many vendors take deliberate measures to prevent or discourage their customers from switching to another vendor. As such, it can be very difficult to migrate databases between platforms, and there may be high data egress fees when doing so.

Vendor lock-in in low-code software development


Vendor lock-in is an especially serious concern in low-code software development. Low-code platforms make building business apps and automating workflows much quicker, easier, and more accessible, but they often come with a trade-off in the form of vendor lock-in. In a closed-source environment, you also have no opportunity to modify the underlying code if there’s a problem with it. Your only hope is that the vendor will fix underlying platform issues, and that can take months – if it even happens at all.

Many low-code development platforms are also tied to a relatively limited set of use cases, as defined by the vendor. For example, the Salesforce Lightning platform allows users to create custom apps and extensions for their CRM and ERP platforms, but they will still be tied to the broader Salesforce ecosystem. Migrating apps and data to a different environment comes with great complexity and, in most cases, any customized apps have to be reconfigured from scratch.

Another common example of vendor lock-in in low code development is when vendors allow you to sell or distribute any apps you build, but only on their own marketplaces. For businesses wanting to leverage low-code to create customer-facing apps, this means they end up playing second fiddle to their vendors, not to mention paying high commissions. If they want to branch out into different marketplaces, their only option is to start over.

Vendor lock-in in low-code development encompasses several other aspects as well. Aside from the creation of standalone applications, many closed-source ecosystems provide limited data access and control. Unless organizations have complete access to and control over their data assets, they’ll be unable to achieve true digital sovereignty. This can be especially problematic in highly regulated industries like healthcare, government, or finance, as well as for companies whose services span boarders and jurisdictions.

In an effort to counter these concerns, many low-code vendors claim that they don’t have ‘vendor lock-in’, but often that’s not actually the case. Some may depend on proprietary systems to generate code and platform libraries that aren’t easily accessible or transferable. Others may make extensive use out of open-source code, but still have closed-source dependencies that can become big barriers if you want to migrate to a different infrastructure. It’s vital to thoroughly review the small print to understand how open the platform really is.

What are the business benefits of an open low-code platform?

One of the most prominent advantages of low code development is that it can greatly reduce your technical debt. However, that’s far less likely to happen in a closed-source environment. A truly open platform should have the following characteristics:

  • You can integrate your apps with others
  • You can use open-source components
  • You can access and edit the underlying code
  • You can run the platform in any environment
  • You can connect to any data source
  • You can have as many users as you like
  • You can create as many apps as you like
  • You have complete ownership of everything you create

By using a platform that meets the above criteria, you can enjoy all the benefits of low code, while still having the flexibility you need to grow and adapt to constantly changing needs. Given how dynamic today’s technology-driven market is, that degree of agility is a valuable benefit to have on your side.

The best low-code platforms present something of a sweet spot between the relatively closed nature of no-code platforms and the complexities of traditional software development. A low-code solution should make it easy for citizen developers to create common business apps and workflows without ever having to write a line of code. However, having access to the code lets professional developers stay in control and step in when you need a feature for which there are no visual development aids available.

An open low-code platform goes even further by giving you control and ownership of the actual platform itself. For example, professional developers might program in a new app component that’s specific to the needs of their organizations. Even more importantly, however, is the fact that businesses get to retain full visibility and control over their data, which is vital for ensuring adequate protection against privacy and security threats, as well as alignment with regulatory directives.

Low code solutions present the perfect opportunity to build a software environment that works for you. No off-the-shelf solution can provide that degree of customizability. However, a closed ecosystem can severely limit the opportunities of adopting a low-code approach by allowing only surface-level control and customization. That’s why the open source licensing model is a natural fit for low-code. Simply put, it lets you break free from the shackles of any one vendor or platform and create modern apps with absolutely no limits.

Planet Crust is the principle supporter and developer of the Corteza low-code platform, one of the few truly open-source solutions in the industry. That means there’s no risk of vendor lock-in, and you’re free to use the platform in any way you wish. Get started for free today.

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