The open source vs. low-/no-code debate

The open source vs. low-/no-code debate
Jul 12, 2021
3 MIN. READ

As the federal sector looks to overhaul its IT infrastructure, two software options are vying for its attention. But which platform will suit it best is proving to be something of a conundrum. 

Open source or low-code/no-code? U.S. federal agencies are on the fence over the question of which software will better drive missions and help them achieve their goals.

Low-code/no-code, drag-and-drop software that enables citizens and office workers to easily take on coding functions, is currently a big trend in agencies. Its simplicity is gaining traction over open source software, an often community-supported method of coding that an agency can tweak to meet its needs.

Both platforms have advantages and drawbacks.

Secure business process automation: Low-/no-code 

Low-code/no-code works well for repetitious tasks, which don’t need a high degree of customization or high performance, according to John B. Owens, former CIO at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, writing in GCN. Owens points to the processing of standard forms, for example, which is an act of “data collection, secure storage, and workflow with routing, notification, and basic data analytics: a highly repetitive set of well-known and well-defined user interactions.” 

Low-code/no-code solutions are generic instead of specific. They solve the most common business problems for not just government, but across a spectrum of industries. In that sense, they’re user-friendly, agile, and ideal for standardized processes (read more about how low-/no-code platforms help agencies achieve speed-to-mission).

These platforms also come with built-in security clearances. This allows the software to easily establish itself on the government’s fedRAMP list, the list of cloud software from which federal agencies have authority to purchase.

However, while low-code/no-code can handle 80% of the lifting where a good deal of customization of data is required, that last 20% could take a long time to establish. The more complex the business logic, and the domain—the requirements, terminology, and functionality of your software program—the less effective low-code/no-code programs become due to their largely generic nature.

Flexible, affordable, and customizable: Open source

As evidenced by Code.gov and other open source software sharing platforms, the federal government is embracing open source development to lower code spend while improving code quality across agencies. Across the pond, the Central Digital and Data Office of the U.K. Government also advocates for open source development. They provide a handy checklist of things to consider when deciding on open source or proprietary software.

Among the factors the office advises to take into consideration are: Does the solution do what you need it to? Does it meet the needs of your end users? What are the solution’s initial and ongoing costs? If the solution is open source, how widely is the code already adopted, and how mature is it?

Open source software has a total cost of ownership that is generally lower than proprietary software. It is free of licensing costsoffering agencies access to code and the ability to implement solutions.

As with low-code/no-code, open source has its drawbacks. The individuals and companies providing open source software could stop supporting it without warning. And arguments can arise over intellectual property, which could lead to agencies using open source suddenly finding themselves on the hook for millions of dollars’ worth of licenses.

Finally, while open source advocates maintain the software is secure, hackers have nonetheless discovered ways to gain access to its code, then wait, and deploy damaging malware or trojan horses hidden within open software’s complicated ecosystem.

No single solution is the best

Ultimately, no single solution is going to serve an agency across the board. Low-code/no-code does many things well but falls short where customization is needed. Open source is flexible—and boasts a considerable amount of collective power and knowledge—but has its own set of pitfalls.

Deferring back to John B. Owens, he notes that low-code/no-code, open source, and even commercial-off-the-shelf solutions all have their place. His recommendation? That agencies “engage experts to help them assess their agency’s needs and select the right solution that balances cost, features, time, and performance.”

So, even if a one-size-fits-all solution may never arise, with the right expertise and insight the perfect solution needn’t be out of reach.

To hear more from Kyle on open source vs. low-/no-code, including findings from ICF's original research and a look at how federal agencies are taking advantage of these technologies to advance their missions, read our latest eBook, Open source vs. low-/no-code: Which should federal agencies invest in?

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