In the cloud, code doesn't need developers

Automated approaches to development are gaining ground, but have their limits and won't render professional developers obsolete

Codeless development environments, which rely on models and templates for building applications rather than strict coding, are gaining a foothold. But they are limited and won't render professional developers obsolete, observers of these technologies say.

Platforms from companies such as OutSystems and Mendix have emerged in this development niche, and with them comes growing interest in codeless tools, says analyst David Norton of Gartner. "We're seeing SMBs who are trying to lower costs" by looking at high-productivity, model-driven environments, he says.

Also driving interest is frustration with IT and business units that want to handle their own development. An official at Software AG, which is a player in the codeless development market, concurs. "Businesses do not want to be dependent on IT to get everything done," says Pankaj Malviya, senior vice president and general manager of application PaaS at the company.

"I see a lot of interest and a fair amount of adoption," of codeless environments, says analyst John Rymer, of Forrester. He cites software vendors participating in the market ranging from Mendix to Salesforce.com and Microsoft with its SharePoint collaboration platform.

Mendix, OutSystems, and Software AG vie in codeless dev

Mendix bills its cloud-based platform as the app platform for the enterprise, or PaaS for the business user. "We help our customers dramatically cut down the time it takes to build new apps," says CEO Derek Roos.

"Instead of writing code, you basically model your app," he says. "It's a drag-and-drop-like interface." Application services are provided for building metadata-driven applications. Programs built in Mendix can be extended with Java or JavaScript.

OutSystems offers a visual, RAD (rapid application delivery) approach to development. With the OutSystems Platform, Java and .Net applications are generated. "This [system] has been built to build any style of complex apps," says David Holmes, vice president of marketing at OutSystems. Enterprise Web and mobile applications can be built, and reusable modules and components are featured.

Software AG moved into the codeless development space when it acquired cloud platform vendor LongJump this spring. The service has been rebranded AgileAppsLive. Visually developed, process-driven applications can be created without writing code, such as an employee onboarding system, Malviya says. These can be deployed in private or public clouds, on-premise or to mobile devices.

LongJump client Economic Modeling Specialists, which provides Web-based tools for looking at labor market data, has used the platform to fashion record-keeping applications. The company is moving over to AgileAppsLive. A junior developer has been designated to work with the platform, says David Wallace, project manager at Economic Modeling Specialists.

"We basically explain to him, 'Here's what we want to do, here's the kind of report we need,'" Wallace says. The developer then figures out database fields and can build workflows and automated triggers. "It has a workflow built into it."

LongJump enables building of forms-based business applications, Wallace says. "[It] has saved us a ton of money, a ton of time," he says. "It's just a flexible, prebuilt structure that really lets us fly."

Codeless approaches can be limiting

Still, these tools have their limitations -- particularly when it comes to integration. Integrating with mainframes via codeless platforms can be an issue, Norton notes, and a skill set has to be acquired. "The limitation of any high-productivity environment or model-driven environment is it needs a different set of skills [than] traditional language-based development like Java or .Net," Norton says. Application builders need to deal with abstraction and models.

While acknowledging that "codeless" development expands software building beyond just developers, Rymer sees the risk of vendor lock-in. "These are completely proprietary environments, most of which are provided by small vendors." He also rejects the term "codeless," saying, "These environments allow delivery of simple applications without writing code. But in the real world, there's usually some [code] somewhere in the project." He cited integration as a place where custom code is needed.

Java and .Net developers will not be losing their jobs over the codeless environments, Norton says, and there will always be a need for developers who could build something such as a complex billing system faster in Java than it could be done in Unified Modeling Language In some corporations, abstract- and model-based approaches to development do not fit in with the culture, according to Norton.

But productivity can be much greater with the codeless tools. Users can become productive in a matter of days, Norton says: "Once you get people trained up, their productivity can be eight to 12 times higher" than with standard development using Java or .Net.

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