Developers use programming languages to program and build software. This has always been the way it has been done for what is now over half a century. But now, in addition, software application developers can also use low-code (and in some cases no-code) platforms and tools to provide welcome shortcuts that inject elements of pre-defined business logic into the application development process.
But low-code is still code, because low-code is not no-code (which is more fundamentally a drag-and-drop experience) and so low-code is still essentially a toolset that is meant to be used by fully-fledged software programmers with qualifications and experience in computer science.
What low-code offers are efficiencies, timesavers, template-based toolsets, pre-defined routes to software integration and a whole host of pre-loaded shortcuts to other web- and cloud-based services, which in some cases could be whole platforms in and of themselves (such as Salesforce for CRM for example).
Software plumbing & engineering
This is the space that low-code software platform company Appian operates in. The company has now built a head of steam in terms of the number of functions on its platform. So much so that Appian now wants to self-style itself as an ‘orchestrator of connected systems’, so that developers can build apps on the platform and allow Appian to handle all the plumbing and engineering needed to make all the internal and external interconnections work.
It’s a logical enough progression. First, build a low-code platform that allows you to build certain contained elements of application functionality more quickly. Second, start building all the connectivity points and data transmission synapses needed to interconnect those low-code apps to other services and information streams around the web and cloud universe itself.
“Appian and its competitors in the low-code space have a crucial role to play in enterprises today, because they can help address three really important challenges that are all hitting businesses at the same time. First, digital transformation (although perhaps no longer ‘sexy’ as a marketing term) is a huge deal; around 63% of CEOs are currently under significant pressure to deliver on those investments. Second, there’s a huge skills shortage across the board in enterprise tech: we [at IDC] estimate that by 2020 in Europe alone 90% of organizations will be affected, meaning about $91 billion of revenue opportunity will go unrealized. And third, a new wave of business automation – driven by interest in AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – is driving organizations to automate routine tasks in multiple business functions, from sales and customer service to HR, IT, finance and procurement. Platforms like Appian can help with skills issues, act as an ‘orchestrator’ for new automation initiatives and potentially then help to turbo-charge a whole plethora of digital initiatives,” said Neil Ward-Dutton, VP of digital transformation, AI and automation practices at IDC Europe, in a direct comment made in line with this story.
With this its latest software release, Appian has expanded the Appian AppMarket’s library of no-code connected systems and User Interface (UI) component plug-ins. These are packaged integrations to specific 3rd-party functionality and systems. Who makes these integrations? Answer: everyone. They are built by Appian, its partners and (in some cases) by customers using Appian’s own Integration Software Development Kit (SDK) for building 3rd-party integration plug-ins.
Examples of connected systems connections and plug-ins includes a no-code integration between Appian and the aforementioned Salesforce; an option to orchestrate and manage Automation Anywhere robotic process automations from inside of Appian; integrations to location and directions services from Google Maps for interactive display in an Appian interface; and the chance to manage Amazon Web Services (AWS) S3 data stores and access S3 objects directly from an Appian interface.
Come SAIL away
Appian is also looking at the application design process and wants us to come SAIL away – SAIL in this case standing for Appian’s own Self-Assembling Interface Layer (SAIL), a framework designed to allow automatic creation of user interfaces based only on a data model.
What is a data model in simple terms? Well – for want of a technical but still (hopefully) easily digestible definition – let’s call a data model an abstract diagram that shows where data travels, how its relationships are defined, where it flows to in terms of Input/Output, where it resides and what its attributes and operations are. According to Appian, the latest release of its software makes the above data model-to-interface creation easier with a new no-code visual interface for creating data store queries.
“Query creation is used in every application and is one of the most challenging tasks in application design. Appian’s new Visual Query Editor allows designers to create queries faster and with fewer errors, while requiring less expertise to get started. The Visual Query Editor is fully integrated with Appian’s Interface Designer and new-evolved Paging Grid,” notes the company, in a press statement.
Appian has also tabled new certification standards measures and new DevOps features that offer code review and monitoring functions that work across application elements including process models, data, rules and interfaces.
How Low-Code Actually Builds Works
Let’s go back to our original question in the title of this piece to ensure that we have answered the question: How Does Low-Code Software Actually Build Apps? We know that low-code software gives developers pre-defined business logic, we know that it offers a shortcut to creating ‘forms’, which are an essentially element of so many applications today… and we know that it can shoulder the integration responsibilities that many enterprise apps will need to perform.
What Appian is also doing is bringing complete functions forward so that they can be added (the technical term would be specified) through its low-code controls. The sexiest of the new functions from Appian would have to be its Appian AI service that offers Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven by Google Cloud Platform. The means that developers can add elements of AI (such as image recognition and sentiment analysis, for example) into an application, directly from Appian.
Why is this important and why is it typical of low-code? AI is important just because it is… but it’s apropos to try and offer it as part of a low-code platform play because it takes time and lots of admin to set up a Google Cloud Platform account, so being able to ‘inject it’ via low-code controls would appear to make a lot of sense.
Will low-code rule us all?
Is this the future of software then and should we expect low-code to rule the way all software is built in the future? The answer is: it depends, on at least three cornerstone truths, if not more.
The penetration of low-code depends upon the industry type. For example, the financial services industry has already moved forward onto cloud platform technologies more than, say, the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry.
The penetration of low-code depends upon the industry make up. Using the same two verticals (above) again, the financial services has no real research & development (R&D) activity compared to the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry. This means that the ‘matrix’ of functions needed in a piece of low-code software for each industry type is different — and this in turn means the nature of application development itself differs at a base level.
The penetration of low-code also depends upon the the number of disconnected disparate systems that an individual customer might have installed.
Appian’s VP of global products for pharma & life sciences Evjatar ‘Evi’ Cohen explains that many times large company could have a handful of ‘different instances’ of a large database (SAP or Oracle perhaps) due to mergers and acquisition… and these different instances will often fail to be able to talk to each other and exchange data. How much ‘spaghetti’ tangle that exists in any given enterprise will affect how fast it can move to low-code.
This last (above) example of disconnected IT would mean that bringing low-code to bear in this situation is tougher to start with. But, equally, it is exactly the rationale and business proposition that gave rise to the development of Appian 20-years ago in the first place i.e. it provides a higher-level abstraction above all the interconnectivity concerns.
We’re on a journey towards low-code and in some cases no-code and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) are going to be our friends along the way. This technology is rapidly surfacing and business users can expect to be exposed to some application creation options soon as they face the prospect of becoming citizen developers.
Will you, as a businessperson, be able to use any of these technologies to build the next big thing? Potentially yes, that’s the idea, so please get thinking.