An irrational(?) fear of low-code solutions

I see no-code and low-code (or is is locode?) advertised and sold as a good thing. The “replace the programmer” movement has long existed. But it scares the hell out of me – let me tell you why and maybe you can tell me why I’m wrong.

In many ways ERP systems are the original no-code platforms. They are sold as “no coding required, just configuration”. Over the years I’ve worked with many clients who have, or are building, such systems. SAP, Oracle and Dynamics are the best known but there are many of others like Agresso and several descendants of PickOS (e.g. Rocket) which are similar.

Like no-code/low-code, these systems claim configuration is all that you need. While you might be able to programme these systems if you really need too (SAP has the Cobol ABAP language, while Microsoft offer X++ for Dynamics) they aren’t sold or marketed that way. But this is where the problems start.

Configuration is more than just clicking on settings and navigating down to a checkbox. You are instructing a machine how to work and those configurations need testing. While you can safely assume the system knows how to calculate 15% sales tax on a transaction is it applying the rules correctly? What about exemptions? And, in the case of VAT, the location?

As I’ve said before, this creates at least a cultural problem because the people who “configure” these systems (which might mean using ABAP, X++, table configuration, SQL like rules and more) don’t consider themselves programmers. That in turn means they shun things like testing, source code control, versioning and ideas like cohesion, coupling and abstraction.

In fact, some of the systems I’ve just mentioned don’t even support these ideas. When I first encountered SAP I tried to have a conversation with a “consultant” (not a programmer note) and discuss versioning. I failed, the gap between their model of the (SAP) world and mine was so different we were speaking different languages.

I’m told SAP has got better but in some no-code ERP systems there is no concept of exporting configuration. You can create and test your changes on one machine but if you want the same thing on another you have to go and repeat your pointing and clicking. This just seems brain-dead to me.

This might all work in the small but as your solution grows and grows, as you need to make changes in many places, it becomes more complex. And since there is no source to control and no concept of versioning how do you go backwards? What if your configuration is wrong and you need roll-back? Go and reverse your point and click.

This also bodes badly for testing. As the rules and options get more complex you will want to test them to make sure all the changes work together as intended. How do you replicate them to a new system? – if you are lucky they are all in an XML configuration file but now you are back to source code control which is foreign to many non-programmers. Worse still, because these system have few options for “unit testing” (or just small tests), you tend to need to test the whole thing which makes tests more complicated to create, slower to run, and less useful.

Next think about recovery: what if your machine is hacked or just fails? Even if you can move the configuration to another machine how many of your systems are dependent on the name of the original? – after all, machine name is a configuration option, your non-programmers probably haven’t abstracted it and worst of all, you have to manually find and change every example.

Perhaps worst of all, your configuration, your solution, is very very dependent on your platform. In my younger days I ported C++ from Unix to Windows and back. It could be tough but you could do it. Try porting your no-code solution to another platform. No-code means lock-in.

Many of the practices which make programming into software engineering are about creating a road back: version control, source control, build, deploy and, of course, tests. The problem is that when no-code solutions throw away code they may be throwing away all of these things too.

So, am I irrational to worry about no-code and low-code? – if some no-code/low-code advocate would like to explain to me how these problems are addressed I’d love to hear from you.

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