The idea behind low code applications development is not new, yet mentioning it to people in the IT industry is still likely to be met with a quizzical look and some variant of, "Sorry, what?".
It is certainly something that many people, including this writer, have called for as an essential way of getting business people with just a modicum of technology smarts to pull together the business process applications they require themselves, rather than have to brief developers to do the job for them.
Yet quietly and with little fuss, Washington DC-based Appian has been providing the tools to do exactly that since its formation by current CEO Matt Calkins, in 1999. Indeed his tongue was only partially in his cheek when he said that he took the company public recently at least in part for the publicity it would bring. The $75 million IPO hit the market towards the end of May and according to the Wall Street Journal, immediately rose 35% on the $12 a share stock price.
As Jon Reed pointed out earlier this year, interpretations of the low code approach vary greatly, and for some it extends to development tools such as Wordpress, which is widely used as the basis for personal and (generally) smaller business websites. Calkins, talking with diginomica earlier this week, takes a different view so far as Appian is concerned.
This is not least because he sees it as a tool capable of providing all the Business Process Management tools the largest corporations are likely to require, all created by the business process managers themselves, he explains:
I see is it as the antidote to the classic model of developing applications using the well-known legacy business management applications. This is where the options are to spend five years and $50 million getting the application to do what the business requires, or take a reference implementation of the software and then change the business so it can fit what the applications can do.
The company claims that applications can be developed ten time faster than traditional coding approaches, and once developed they can be modified and updated on the fly without having to stop productive operations.
The BPMN way
Key to what Appian is providing is its use of the Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) standard as the base platform on which all applications are developed. This gives users a set of process components to work with that are, in Calkins’ view, rich and comprehensive enough to map out and model any business process they require, no matter how complex or esoteric.
That means there should be no need for users to resort to writing code to cover unusual requirements, to the point where doing so is not possible with Appian. This is more readily enforced because it is available to customers as a cloud service, where the whole application development process can be managed and controlled.
This way, it also allows Appian to manage the security of the applications. It also allows the applications to run on multiple platform types and can be adapted to work with new software technologies as they come along. Calkins says:
This means that user applications are both unique and up to date. So users are not stuck in the past because it can be changed to whatever platform is appropriate in the future. The key goal is to get users out of the technology debt hole.
As an example of this he stated that Appian is particularly well equipped to allow business managers to resolve one of the longest-standing problems for the banking community, that of replacing old, mission-critical applications, often written in Cobol by developers who are now long dead and were never trained in the importance of good applications documentation – and for which even the source code is now long gone. These applications only run on old systems, such as Digital Equipment PDP-11 and Vax hardware, where there are now precious few that know how those systems operate.
Yet the jobs these applications do are vital to the banks staying in business, so much so that those companies live in some fear of the machines failing, and no-one has yet really found a good way of reverse-engineering the code. Keeping them going is, therefore, still a multi-million dollar business opportunity.
Such applications could have the process mapped using BPMN and the results tested and validated by comparison with the existing legacy applications. Once satisfied, users could then not only switch off the old systems, but also move the applications to whatever platform was considered most appropriate out in the future. And as it would then be created using a mapping and modelling notation, it would be particularly well-documented.
This could be one of those occasions when a company has to wait 18 years to be an 'overnight sensation', but Appian’s capabilities do seem to hit a likely sweet spot for many business users, and solve that problem of business people requiring either access to good applications developers, or comparable skills themselves.