Tuesday, June 19, 2018

My introduction to Mendix and low-code application development

As explained in my previous blog post, I started a new challenge two months ago and joined Mendix, a company that develops a low-code application development platform. Because I am receiving many questions about the platform and low-code application development in general, I have decided to write a blog post about it.

Low-code application development


With Mendix, the idea is that instead of writing (textual) code, applications are developed by modeling (and configuring) various kinds of application aspects, such as the data model and graphical user interfaces.

Why would that be useful you might ask? It makes you a developer more productive.

As many seasoned software developers may probably already know, developing applications is typically a costly investment and time consuming process. Aside from implementing all desired functionality and making it work correctly, a developer typically also needs to solve many kinds of secondary issues, such as:

  • Memory management.
  • Interacting with a database for storage.
  • Pagination: Displaying a fixed amount of rows on a page for a collection of data
  • Making screens work on various kinds of displays, e.g. monitors, tablets, phones.
  • Deploying the application to a production environment so that it can be used by (possibly) a large number of end users.

For certain classes of systems, such as information systems, these secondary issues are frequently implemented over and over again, wasting precious development time and increasing the likelihood on errors.

With Mendix, most of these secondary concerns have been addressed in a reasonable manner, and primary functionality can be implemented by modeling and writing none to just a tiny amount of code, providing an incredible boost in developer productivity.

In addition to productivity, another objective of the Mendix platform is to reach a broader audience than just developers, such as business consultants.

A simple development scenario


What does the development process of a very tiny Mendix application look like? Typically, an application development process starts by creating a data model that specifies what kind of data needs to be stored (either in a database or in memory).


As shown in the picture above, in Mendix, a data model is created by drawing an ER (Entity-Relationship) diagram. For example, the example above defines a 'Contact' entity representing a contact person (with properties: first name and last name) and a 'Message' entity representing chat messages. A contact can send zero or more messages, as denoted by the 'Message_Contact' relationship.

After defining a data model, you may want to develop screens containing user interface components allowing users to inspect and change the data. In Mendix, these screens can be generated with just a few simple mouse clicks: creating a blank page, dragging and dropping a data grid to the page, and dragging and dropping the 'Contact' entity to the data grid:


In addition to an overview page displaying a collection of data items, we also want a page allowing us to change a record or to create a new record. This screen can be created by right clicking on the 'New' button and picking the 'Generate page...' option. The result is a page allowing us to edit an individual contact record:


Finally, to make the screen available to end users, we must add it to the navigation layout by creating a button that redirects the user to the overview page.

The result


With just a few simple clicks, we have already constructed a very small, but working application. For example, when clicking on the 'Run locally...' button in the IDE, we can start an instance of our test app and run it in a web browser.

The overview page looks as follows:


As may be observed by looking at the image above, the screen offers all functionality needed to work with a collection of records: navigation buttons, a search function, pagination, and edit functionality.

By clicking on an item in the list or clicking on the 'Edit' button, we can navigate to a page allowing us to edit the properties of a record:


After changing any of the attributes and clicking on the 'Save' button, the changes will be committed to the database.

Implementing all this functionality did not require me to write a single line of code.

Programming additional functionality


In addition to defining the domain model and generating views for all data elements, we may also want to program additional functionality, for example, a method that counts the amount of contacts having a first name that starts with an 'S'.

In Mendix, server-side functionality can be programmed by constructing microflows. Microflows use a graphical notation based on the Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN), a standardized graphical notation.


The above microflow retrieves all contacts from the database, sets an initial counter variable to 0 and iterates over all contacts. When a first name that starts with an 'S' has been encountered, the counter will be increased. Finally, it will return the counter value to the caller.

Microflows can be used to program many kinds of aspects in an application -- for example, they can be launched on startup, attached to buttons as event handlers, or attached as pre- or post commit hooks to data entities.

Other features


Besides the features described in this blog post, the Mendix platform has many additional features to offer, such as access control, internationalization, custom page layouts and collaboration tools (with a Subversion-based team server, and sprintr application managing the development workflow).

Furthermore, the deployment process of a Mendix application is completely automated in the Mendix cloud -- with just a few simple mouse clicks, your application becomes publicly available, without having to worry about managing a database or application server.

Finally, the platform is extensible -- you can implement custom actions in Java (server-side) and your own widgets in JavaScript (client-side) and there is an app store allowing you to download all kinds of pre-built third-party extensions.

Availability


You can sign up for a free Mendix account to start experimenting.

2 comments:

  1. This looks pretty neat, thanks for sharing!

    I am curious how your existing customers have been reacting to Mendix so far: in particular, do you think their real-world usage experience has lined up with the ease-of-use depicted in the pitch?

    As a programmer yourself, how do you feel about the expressivity/ease tradeoff inherent in the low-code approach?

    Thanks again, very cool!

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    Replies
    1. These are interesting questions!

      As a programmer myself, I consider programming languages, frameworks, and other solutions, tools to get certain kinds of jobs done. Each of these solutions have their own strengths and weaknesses.

      Depending on the kind of application you want to implement, you pick the right tool for the job.

      Now, Mendix is also a tool that fits in such a spectrum of solutions. For certain classes of applications, Mendix works really well and we have quite a few customers that are quite satisfied with it. I'm actually quite amazed by some of the real world examples I have seen.

      But there are always use cases for which Mendix itself is not adequate enough -- for example, an application may need features that are not supported by the runtime or the may require high performance. Or you need to develop various kinds of specialized applications, e.g. a compiler.

      Mendix applications can be extended with custom code, but if the amount of customizations that you may need is too high, then picking a conventional programming solution is probably more beneficial.

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