This content is part of the Essential Guide: Guide to practicing cloud-native development

Cloud-native low-code platforms rival third-party options

To choose between native and third-party low-code tools, application development teams need to weigh the benefits of consolidation against the risk of lock-in.

As the adoption of no-code and low-code platforms grows, some businesses struggle to decide whether to stick with a third-party vendor or adopt a native offering from their cloud provider.

A no-code or low-code programming tool enables you to write software with minimal custom programming. Enterprises can implement most of the functionality with pre-built features and APIs, and most of these platforms provide graphic interfaces that let users point and click to build an application. These tools have assumed a larger presence within businesses, where they open up application development to nontechnical staff.

There are about a dozen major no-code or low-code platforms currently on the market. The majority are from third-party vendors, such as Appian, Zoho and OutSystems, that are not in the general-purpose, public cloud hosting business. Typically, a team can create low-code software with these platforms and then deploy the software to any public cloud host.

But top cloud providers, such as Microsoft, IBM and Google, have also entered the market. These big names can be an easier and more attractive option, but they come with their own risks.

Cloud-native tools

The consolidation of cloud infrastructure and services can ease management and monitoring. In some cases, the use of a low-code tool that is part of a larger cloud platform you already use can advance that strategy, and decrease complexity and cost.

No-code or low-code platforms from major public cloud providers include the following:

  • App Maker on Google Cloud Platform;
  • Mendix on IBM Cloud; and
  • PowerApps on Microsoft.

Additionally, AWS plans to build a low-code platform for its cloud.

Lock-in risks

However, these native tools do present some risk -- particularly around vendor lock-in. The level of risk varies among providers. Microsoft PowerApps and Mendix are both relatively agnostic low-code platforms. PowerApps, for example, provides connectors that enable applications to connect to third-party infrastructure, and users can create custom connectors for resources that are not officially supported. Mendix, for its part, retains its independent, pure-play roots, despite its integration with IBM Cloud.

In contrast, Google App Maker is tied closely to Google Cloud Platform. This tool poses the greatest lock-in risk because it is designed specifically to create applications that will run in Google's cloud using Google resources.

As multi-cloud architectures grow in popularity, a low-code platform that is bound to a particular cloud vendor might become less appealing. Even in cases where a cloud vendor's low-code tools do not pose a high lock-in risk, they will almost certainly be less flexible within a multi-cloud architecture compared to a third-party tool.

User expertise

In general, low-code tools from cloud providers also require a higher degree of technical sophistication for application development. For example, even though users don't have to be seasoned programmers, they do have to understand the nuances of the APIs and databases of their cloud provider to use the low-code platforms effectively.

In contrast, databases and other additional resources on third-party low-code platforms are designed specifically for use with low-code applications. This makes them easier to use and sets them apart from public cloud resources, which are intended for a wide variety of uses and are typically administered by professional IT staff.

If you need to build a range of low-code applications, cloud providers' native tools -- which support more general-purpose development -- might be the better fit. But if your low-code application development needs are more niche, you might be better served with a platform that caters to that specific focus. For example, if your goal is to build CRM applications, Salesforce's low-code programming tools will likely suit you better than those of a public cloud provider.

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