Open-source code platforms — in part, because they’re often free — have long been a popular choice for digital service creation and maintenance.
In recent years, however, some agencies have turned to low-code solutions for intuitive visual features such as drag-and-drop design functionality. As Forrester Research notes, low-code platforms are "application platforms that accelerate app delivery by dramatically reducing the amount of hand-coding required."
The U.S. Geological Survey, for example, has relied on open-source platforms for 30 years and started using low-code software on select projects in 2014.
The agency found less experienced developers could employ the software to produce quality work, and in turn accelerate production, says USGS Associate CIO Tim Quinn.
“The framework allowed our experienced developers to complete more complicated implementations without a lot of configuration or rote code hassles,” Quinn says. “In an agile environment, velocity is everything; low-code options provide the tools to meet our quality and schedule goals. Plus, deployment is simple.”
Trading Flexibility for Convenience
The convenience comes with a trade-off, however: Low-code products don’t typically allow for as much design flexibility as open-source code, says John Rymer, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester.
“When you are working in a programming language with a specific database and structures and schema, you can control every aspect of the architecture,” Rymer says. “One of the reasons a low-code strategy dramatically reduces the amount of code you need to write is because there’s a framework sitting underneath those graphical tools — you sacrifice a bit of control to gain speed.”
By creating a new product, users are often the sole responsible party for updates. For applications developed with the assistance of open-source code, agency leaders need to determine when, and how, they will adopt any new release components.
Conversely, products from a low-code Platform as a Service vendor, such as Oracle’s Project Visual Code development tool, can remove the need for that type of infrastructure management, says Siddhartha Agarwal, Oracle’s vice president of product management and strategy.
“With open source, you get the source code for free — but after that, you have to manage, operate and secure the code,” Agarwal says. “When you use a platform like ours, we take care of updating run times and applying security patches.”
Some agencies view those features as a low-code selling point because it lessens some of their risk, says Bill Bodin, chief technology officer at enterprise mobility provider Kony.
“Government agencies want to put security into applications as an automatic feature,” Bodin says. “And they want to do it in such a way they can easily maintain the application.”
Choosing Between Low-Code and Open-Source Solutions
Because each platform offers unique benefits, determining whether a low-code or open-source solution is best for an upcoming project is a challenge. In some cases, developers may opt for both.
The USGS ScienceBase data catalog, repository and delivery system, which provides a robust API to help track and share project information, contains a mix of low-code and open-source elements. This includes the low-code tool Spring Boot, which determines file type and file access rights, and open-source components such as GeoServer, which provides mapping services for files that contain geospatial data.
“We’re often developing product lines that are a mix of low-code software platforms and open-source applications,” Quinn says. “It gives us some advantages to be efficient, flexible and have high-performance options for USGS to collect data and visualize workflows — I don't see it as an either-or proposition.”