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Low-code tools serve BI customer needs

With easy-to-use tools for application development a growing trend among BI vendors, Yellowfin CTO Brad Scarff discusses the motivation behind them in part one of a two-part Q&A.

Until recently, low-code tools for developers were seemingly the domain of software giants like Microsoft and Salesforce, but in just the past two months a spate of business intelligence vendors entered the fray by including such features in their most recent platform updates.

In November, Looker introduced both a development framework and in-product marketplace for developer tools in its Looker 7 update and Yellowfin unveiled Dashboard Code Mode and Dashboard Canvas in its Yellowfin 9 release. This month, Sisense included embedded capabilities aimed at helping users create enterprise-grade applications in its fourth-quarter update and Alteryx rolled out an integration with Tableau Hyper as part of Alteryx 2019.4.

Just as there are now a host of tools aimed at making the management and consumption of data easier, the new trend of providing low-code/no-code tools for developers aims to make the application development process more simple.

Brad Scarff, CTO of Yellowfin, one of the early leaders of the trend, recently took time to answer a series of questions about the recent surge in low-code tools for developers coming from BI vendors.

In part one of this two-part Q&A, Scarff delves into both the overall history of low-code tools and what motivated Yellowfin to introduce them in its most recent update. In part two, he talks about Yellowfin's foray into the market of low-code tools for developers and what such tools might mean for business users in the years to come.

Are low-code tools for developers -- and perhaps even no-code -- a new phenomenon, or is this something that has been around for a while?

Brad Scarff, Yellowfin CTOBrad Scarff

Brad Scarff: The specific terminology of low-code/no-code or low-code development platforms is becoming increasingly common; however, the actual concepts themselves are not new. The ability to build different types of applications, workflows or other technical outputs by assembling prebuilt components through a user-friendly IDE [integrated development environment] and then augmenting that where required with small amounts of coding -- versus building entire applications from scratch -- has been around for many years. Think back to the fourth-generation languages popular in the 1990s like PowerBuilder, Gupta SQLWindows (later Centura), and to a lesser extent Visual Basic. Many of these fourth-generation languages gained prominence in the client-server era but did not survive the move to web-based applications, so most developers in this area reverted back to lower-level programming languages and techniques.

Why then the recent resurgence of low-code features?

Scarff: The surge in popularity of this concept may be driven by a number of factors. For example, increasing sophistication and technical abilities of traditional business users coupled with the increasing prevalence of coding and data subjects on degree curricula, growing demands for new applications with limited resources to meet them, and the accessibility and ease of use of cloud-based computing platforms.

So, while not necessarily new in a broad sense, are low-code tools for developers a new phenomenon for BI and analytics vendors?

The surge in popularity of this concept may be driven by a number of factors. For example, increasing sophistication and technical abilities of traditional business users.
Brad ScarffCTO, Yellowfin

Scarff: For the most part, from the onset BI tools were developed for business users and primarily employed drag-and-drop style interfaces. There are a small number of exceptions where vendors evolved from a developer heritage, and have added drag and drop on top of their coding interfaces. In recent years, BI vendors have been adding the ability to embed visualizations into applications through the addition of APIs [application programming interfaces] and in some cases the ability to extend BI content via code.

Often this capability has been implemented in a limited fashion -- for example, the ability to integrate custom charts -- and has required users to learn a proprietary language, or the coding and no-coding worlds do not interoperate seamlessly.

What sparked Yellowfin to enter the fray, introducing low-code tools for developers in the Yellowfin 9 update in November?

Scarff: Yellowfin was always designed to be a platform that could be used by a broad range of users in an enterprise, from the most technical through to business specialists. Our interface was primarily designed to work in drag-and-drop mode through which any data can be modeled, transformed and assembled into a range of visual content for business users to consume -- charts, reports, dashboards, stories. In addition, many software development companies have selected Yellowfin to provide the analytics components of their solution, leveraging our platform rather than coding an analytics solution into their products from scratch. These companies typically use web developers to embed Yellowfin visual components into their application using Yellowfin APIs.

We saw an opportunity to blend these two worlds together in order to give greater power and flexibility to enterprises, and enable improved productivity and integration options for software companies.

So it is really just now that Yellowfin began introducing these easy-to-use coding tools to appeal to a broader audience, right?

Scarff: These were key problems that we aimed to solve in Version 9 -- in particular, opening up the platform to allow unlimited customization, ensuring familiar languages could be used without the need for another proprietary tech skill, and building a customer experience where no-code and low-code merged seamlessly together.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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