beawolf - Fotolia

Get to know low-code/no-code tools from major cloud vendors

With the help of low-code or no-code services, application development doesn't have to be so painstaking or strenuous. Learn why cloud providers are getting in on the action.

With the launch of Amazon Honeycode, all the major cloud providers now offer low-code/no-code tools. These services have accelerated awareness about this emerging technology, but they're not alone.

Low-code/no-code tools bridge the gap between SaaS and custom-built applications created by developers. When properly implemented, they enable faster application development, lower costs and increased digital dexterity for employees outside IT.

And while low-code/no-code services lower the bar for business users to experiment with building simple applications, they have their downsides. They introduce problems around scalability, security and customization that IT teams may have to address.

The offerings from Amazon, Microsoft and Google are not as flexible as some third-party tools but they work well for companies committed to a single cloud platform. See where their tools fit in the broader scope of low-code/no-code tools on the market.

Low-code vs. no-code for enterprises

Low-code and no-code tools offer complementary approaches for creating applications. Low-code accelerates development but requires basic software development skills. No-code platforms enable business users with no coding experience to create applications using a spreadsheet and organizing widgets on a UI canvas.

When these tools are used correctly, CIOs can reduce the size of development teams while quickly delivering specific categories of apps that meet their business needs, said Patrick Hubbard, technical product marketing director at SolarWinds, an ITSM tools provider.

Smaller development shops are turning to low-code/no-code tools to keep pace with larger firms because their designers can focus on application flow rather than complicated programming logic.

The no-code tool ecosystem has huge potential, said Carri Craver, founder and CEO of UX Design Cravings, a UX consultancy.

"I have always had to depend on development teams to execute my ideas and those of my clients that I design. That is very quickly a constraint that is going away," Craver said.

With low-code/no-code tools, Craver found that she can deliver a fully functional project in about half the time it used to take just to design it, and with less need for experienced developers.

Big Three tools

Out of the three major cloud vendors, Microsoft has the most fleshed out collection of low-code services as part of its Power Apps platform and complementary tools.

The platform works in conjunction with Visual Studio, so developers can build more sophisticated applications. It supports data from other vendor platforms such as Oracle and Google Sheets, but its strongest feature is its ability to connect to Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Office 365.

Power Apps is one of the most popular and strongest vendor offerings in the low-code/no-code market, but the licensing structure is complex and frequently changes, according to Mrinal Rai, principal analyst at Information Services Group, a technology research and advisory firm.

Microsoft also offers a collection of low-code tools to supplement basic application development including Power BI, Power Automate and Power Virtual Agents. These tools can be used alone or in conjunction with Power Apps.

Google acquired AppSheet in January 2020 and will soon retire App Maker, the vendor's first low-code development tool. AppSheet, which is integrated with Google Cloud, has a similar spreadsheet programming model to Power Apps. Google's low-code/no-code tool includes a rich palette of capabilities that support features like maps and location services, machine learning and process automation.

"The greatest strength is its ability to connect with platforms other than Google's own productivity suite," Rai said.

AppSheet can build no-code applications for SaaS apps like Box, Salesforce or Office 365. However, one concern about Google has been consistency in its long-term strategy. It has not announced a migration strategy for AppSheet users, which may encourage some users to look for alternatives.

Google recently announced some major AppSheet improvements and better integration with the Apigee API management services. But this move is more about Google bundling several of the services in its portfolio into a new offering called Business Application Platform, Rai said.

Google also announced some workflow automation capabilities that Rai feels help position the service as direct competition for Power Automate. "It certainly aims to enhance and strengthen Google's position in the market," he added.

AWS was late to the game with its Honeycode offering, which was rolled out in mid-2020. Honeycode includes templates for basic applications and APIs to interact with other applications. Although the initial release doesn't boast any differentiating features, it has increased the competition in the low-code/no-code tools market.

Honeycode's biggest strength is that it is a managed service. The cloud provider can do some of the work around managing security and keeping the applications running smoothly. Honeycode also reduces overhead around provisioning a database or mastering front-end design skills.

However, this tool does limit application development to the drag-and-drop features offered by Honeycode. Also, there are issues of governance pertaining to possible configuration problems from user error.

Rai cautions that these apps could increase more shadow IT usage and add to the woes of enterprise IT. Managers should ensure that both the data and code for these applications are stored in a secure manner. It's also important to evaluate whether the code is accessible to other users of the platform or internally from different user roles.

Third-party tools promise more flexibility

The cloud providers aren't the only ones with low-code/no-code tools. Microsoft and Google include some support for services running across different cloud or on-premises applications, but this remains an area where third-party, agnostic services have an advantage.

"The big players need to ramp up their low-code offerings to allow for greater flexibility, or the third-party tools might as well eat them up," said Muralidharan Palanisamy, chief solutions officer at AppViewX, an IT automation platform.

Be sure to evaluate other low code vendors -- such as Mendix, OutSystems, Appian and Salesforce -- that may provide better development flexibility and back-end application support. These other offerings also support better IT features for creating guardrails for compliance and security.

Third-party vendors also rank well when it comes to being able to clearly define and support different developer personas within an enterprise, such as IT leaders, business leaders and citizen developers. ISG's Rai says these other vendors may be innovating better than the cloud players. For example, Salesforce introduced the ability to integrate blockchain capabilities into B2B apps.

Smaller no-code platforms such as AppGyver, Wix Editor X and Landen also provide a better development experience than the cloud providers' offerings or even some of the larger no-code players, Craver said. These smaller and usually more recent platforms focus on the specific needs of a type of user, such as UX designers or specific industries.

"Amazon's product especially is definitely not for the typical no-coder," Craver said. "I suspect their audience is large corporations already using AWS, not for people who care about moving fast."

Next Steps

Power Fx: Microsoft's low-code language for Power Platform

7 Microsoft Power Apps benefits for content managers

AT&T uses Quickbase platform and RPA for efficiency

Dig Deeper on Cloud app development and management

Data Center