No-code/low-code app development evolves from loathed to loved
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Remember when application development was done only by IT? Those days are gone forever. Today, line-of-business (LOB) departments that expect near-instant results have a new weapon: cloud-based, no-code development tools.
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Some LOB managers are turning to no-code application development tools as a way to circumvent a recalcitrant CIO or IT department lacking the time and budget for cloud application projects that aren't considered high priority. Yet, IT can benefit by divesting itself of simple development projects that do not place intellectual assets in jeopardy. The CIO who condones such departmental application development can even be perceived as a forward-thinking facilitator.
For the Sarasota Memorial Health Care System in Florida, IT welcomed the opportunity to jettison development of a mobile app designed to help visitors use their iPhones and iPads to navigate the facility's corridors without getting lost. "We built an application that displays cloud-resident maps on a user's phone or tablet and uses BLE [Bluetooth Low Energy] with iBeacon to pinpoint and mark the current location," said Charles Westcott, a senior digital developer not in IT, but in the hospital's marketing department. A counterpart for Android devices is slated to go live in the fall of 2015.
No-code dev responds to GPS problem
Westcott and Sarasota Memorial's IT department mutually agreed on the MobileSmith Inc. no-code development platform, combined with beaconing technology from Gimbal Inc. MobileSmith was selected largely on the strength of the Raleigh, N.C., company's track record with other medical institutions. Sarasota Memorial chose the BLE and iBeacon combination after an experiment using GPS technology was unable to pinpoint altitude with sufficient accuracy to determine on which of a building's floors a visitor was located. Using the representational state transfer (REST) API simplified tying the mobile application into the hospital's map database and will form the basis for the next data-integration phase: extracting and displaying doctors' information and office locations.
Theresa Lanowitzfounder at voke Inc.
"These tools are not evil," said Theresa Lanowitz, founder of advisory services at research firm voke Inc., based in Minden, Nev. "Good no-code tools can make IT appear more innovative and makes a CIO more aware of what's going on throughout the company. What this does do is get rid of the command-and-control type of IT, but IT does need to be aware of which tools are being used and act as a mentor, not an adversary."
Andrew Leigh, vice president of products and alliances at no-code tool maker Jitterbit, based in Alameda, Calif., is even blunter in his assessment about a no-code approach. "I don't know if it's good or bad for IT, but it certainly is inevitable," he said. "In this age, every employee of every company should be thought of as an employee of IT, and that means IT needs to shift its vision to be companywide -- not just departmental."
That inevitability is nothing new, according to Leigh and Lanowitz.
"Twenty-five years ago, everything was coded," Leigh said. A custom accounting system that took Leigh and his colleagues four years to build in C++ was replaced just a few years later with a package from Oracle. Packages of that ilk are now giving way to cloud-based software as a service, he said.
Departments have long tinkered with their own app development, including PC-based DOS utilities that proliferated across the LAN, said Lanowitz. "IT had to learn to contend with this."
Though hard coding was indeed the norm, code generators for mainframe development that ran on PCs under MS-DOS existed as far back as the mid-1980s. One particularly well-known platform was ACCOLADE (A CICS COBOL Online Application Development Environment), perhaps best remembered today only for its cleverly crafted acronym.
Debatable security risks for no-code
As with all application development, the security of apps built with no-code tools is, rightfully, a key concern. "IT could possibly make an app more secure by coding it from the ground up, but IT often does not have the time, money or security expertise" said Grant Glas, founder of no-code tool maker App Press LLC, based in Indianapolis. "IT is going to flex its muscle and ask how you are storing data. But, at end of the day, that app will save hundreds of development hours."
Leigh suggests the complete opposite, that building applications without writing custom code actually benefits security rather than jeopardizing it. "Custom code is the most brittle part of any IT architecture," Leigh said. Just a few years ago, Salesforce faced routine criticism for security, simply because it was in the cloud and not under the direct control of IT, he said. "But, look at the last 12 major breaches in the news. Not one was against a cloud service; they were all against internally developed and coded systems."
Andrew Leighvice president of products and alliances at Jitterbit
Glas also noted that no-code tools routinely make use of cloud services for storage, likely more secure than anything an in-house IT department can conjure up on its own. "We store data with Amazon Web Services. I think it's fair to say that is a very secure platform, far more secure than anything IT can build."
For MobileSmith, which lists several medical institutions as customers, compliance with federal health privacy regulations added another layer to the security picture. The company hired security services firm nGuard Inc., based in Charlotte, N.C., to certify that its technology is a secure service for its healthcare customers and their end users.
"The two key issues for these tools are performance and security, and it's important to test for both on a variety of networks and devices," said Lanowitz.
Avoiding shadow IT
No examination of no-code tools is complete without acknowledging the specter of shadow IT, sometimes called stealth IT or citizen IT. According to IDC's 2014 CIO Summit, 42% of shadow IT projects occur because LOB department heads seek faster results than IT can deliver, and 36% of these LOB managers are sufficiently tech savvy to drive their own IT projects.
The result of putting no-code tools in the hands of LOB departmental managers is distributed application development. Depending on one's viewpoint, that can be seen as good or bad. While it is a way for businesses to get new servicees into production quickly, it is working openly in partnership with IT that yields the most positive technical and political results, according to Dave Landa, COO of Kintone, a San Francisco-based maker of no-code tools. Acquiring tools of this type without IT being aware is not a recipe for success, he added.
Shawn Mills, president of security firm Green House Data, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., agrees that secrecy serves no purpose. "In my experience, only about 8% of shadow IT projects are even known to the CIO," Mills said. These projects occur largely because LOB managers simply tire of waiting for IT as the competition moves ahead. It's not healthy, he said.
By contrast, an IT department that champions LOB technology efforts is itself seen as moving the business forward.
For Sarasota Memorial's Westcott, IT's support of no-code tools benefits everyone. "We can deliver information to patients quickly and securely, and free up IT to concentrate on critical core medical applications," he said.
Regain resources with no-code messaging