With so many low-code alternatives, what’s the best replacement for Lotus Notes Domino applications that have reached end of life?
By David Jakelic
If a number of applications based on Lotus Notes and Domino typically used to grow to hundreds or even thousands per organization, where do all these applications end up eventually? Have they already been replaced?
As opposed to Domino email migration, replacing Lotus Notes applications that have reached their end of life is often a tough nut to crack. Why is it so? With so many collaboration, workflow, and low-code alternatives, we shouldn’t argue that there is a lack of viable alternatives to Lotus Notes. Or, should we?
Finally, how many former Lotus Domino developers have embraced and mastered these modern application platforms in their “life after Lotus Notes?”
Let’s explore alternatives to Lotus Notes.
Seeking a Lotus Notes replacement
Before we get into the details, here are some general guidelines to bear in mind when searching for a Lotus Notes replacement, especially if you are still using Lotus Notes:
Tip #1: There is no such thing as a direct Lotus Notes replacement.
Instead of searching for a single do-it-all platform that would completely replace Notes and Domino, companies that have successfully migrated off Notes and Domino typically choose not just one, but multiple alternatives that are aligned with their general IT modernization plan.
So, alternatives to Lotus Notes exist. Plenty of them. None of those alternatives are perfect, but we all know — neither is Notes/Domino.
Tip #2: Never underestimate the complexity of a Lotus Notes application portfolio.
Application development in Lotus Notes used to be fairly simple. A few forms and views, plus a handful of rules and formulas here and there to get started. Then things usually got complicated.
The most complex applications are often the stickiest ones — those that certain business units cannot live without. Such solutions have been fine-tuned over the years to fit every specific business need perfectly. Thus, as an additional tip, you cannot overestimate the power of habits that some business units fall into with their old Lotus Notes applications. Estimate your efforts accordingly.
Tip #3: Take bold moves.
Yes, the “rip and replace” approach might be worth the effort here. This is a unique opportunity to repartition the entire application portfolio to better fit the current needs. Why not take advantage of that?
Applications that are ripe for decommissioning are those that are no longer actively used. Such applications are still running just for future reference to historical data and for potential legal requests. And largely because of inertia. In that case, all historical data should be extracted from Lotus Notes Domino databases into open standard formats, so the applications can be retired.
Similarly, for all applications that will be migrated away from Notes and Domino, the first step in this process is data archiving. Application data should be exported and archived in such a way that the data is detached from the Domino platform so that records can be accessed and searched independently until the end of their corresponding retention period. Only the current data from the old application should be extracted, transformed, and loaded into the new system. Finally, the old applications can be retired.
What’s your stand? We would like to learn which direction you chose. One of those described below, or some other? Take a quick (really quick!) survey on modern alternatives to Lotus Notes.
Let’s start with the obvious: Tons of applications have already been replaced by commercial software products (COTS, commercial off-the-shelf), most commonly by software as a service (SaaS).
Document libraries have been moved to SharePoint or other content services platforms. Knowledge bases are now hosted on corporate wikis such as Atlassian Confluence. Meetings and discussions are taking place today on Microsoft Teams or Slack, the hubs of a modern digital workplace. CRM, service management, and similar applications, which used to be developed on Notes and Domino, have now been replaced by Salesforce, ServiceNow, and other commercial packages.
The same has happened with almost every other application category.
But still …
Even though these leading commercial SaaS offerings have become so flexible and expandable that some of them have grown to be platforms in their own right, there are still so many tailor-made applications that cannot be simply replaced by commercial applications.
So, what can we do with highly specialized line-of-business applications or all of those point solutions spread across various business units?
Some IT groups tend to redevelop old Lotus Notes applications from scratch — especially those applications that have grown in complexity or in the number of users — so the new solutions are based on a general technology stack of their choice.
They appreciate flexibility of professional-grade programming languages, frameworks, databases, and tools. This flexibility is valued higher than the productivity that they previously enjoyed with Lotus Notes and Domino.
Popular NoSQL databases, such as MongoDB, can help former Domino developers feel at home when designing databases in which to store a variety of semi-structured documents.
… vs. low-code alternatives to Lotus Notes
At the opposite side from pro-code tech stacks are low-code application platforms (LCAPs).
Companies normally want to minimize time and complexity of in-house application development (after all, Lotus Notes owes its success to this), but they expect even more now: they need to produce consumer-grade applications — web and mobile — with the same set of tools.
Aside from that, an ideal platform should support the entire DevOps lifecycle, including deployment and monitoring, to prevent growth of an ungoverned “app jungle,” which could be a nightmare for the IT department. And it should also facilitate frequent changes in the future.
That’s why interest in such platforms is rising. According to Gartner, over 50 percent of medium-to-large enterprises will have adopted an LCAP as one of their strategic application platforms by 2023.
Forrester predicts that “by the end of 2021, 75% of application development will use low-code platforms, up from 44% in 2020.”
That’s a tremendous opportunity — for both software vendors (that fight is far from over) and corporate IT departments.
#3 HCL Domino
This might seem a bit odd, but the first alternative to classic Lotus Notes applications is — HCL Domino itself. After the product line acquisition from IBM, HCL Technologies has sped up the development of the Domino platform considerably. “Rethink what you know about HCL Domino,” they say.
New versions of HCL Notes and HCL Domino
HCL has been in charge for IBM Notes and Domino development since version 10 (released in October 2018). Since acquiring the IBM Domino product line in July 2019, HCL has released Domino 11 (December 2019), and the latest version: Domino 12 (June 2021).
HCL’s efforts are currently diversified and stretched too thin so the real focus can be easily lost. On the Domino platform alone (not to mention Connections and Sametime), they are trying to support just about everything: from LotusScript to Node.js; the old Notes client along with the Verse email client; the old Domino Designer and shiny new Domino Volt; Notes applications on iOS and Android (HCL Nomad); and even a lightweight Notes client in the browser …
Wait, Lotus Notes in the browser? — I hear you ask.
That’s right! You don’t need to preinstall anything. The browser dynamically downloads WebAssembly binaries and your old Lotus Notes applications get reincarnated within the browser. How amazing is that? Perhaps it’s not as cool as Apple II and Commodore 64 emulators in the browser, but it’s so much more useful for users who insist on this kind of backward compatibility (I’m looking at you rational IT guys who are still gathering the courage to say goodbye to Lotus Notes for good).
So, what future does the Lotus Notes client have? Does it mean that the reports of the death of Notes are greatly exaggerated?
No. It’s truly hard to believe that the HCL Notes client, together with its Nomad counterparts (mobile, web), will live long and prosper. HCL is keeping Notes alive for a good reason, but the company actually has another card or two up its sleeve. We’ll get back to that later.
Apparently, HCL’s team is still working in a “compatibility mode.” The company is doing its best to keep the remaining IBM Domino, now HCL Domino, customer base. It is understandable that they have to struggle with a huge backlog left by IBM. So, after the initial catch-up phase, we will finally see more clearly what the future holds for Domino: what is a short-term fix (to buy some time) and what are the strategic initiatives.
And that strategic initiatives are aiming for a low-code future. The most exciting addition to the HCL Domino product line is HCL Domino Volt — a low-code application builder for Domino. The product is still in its infancy, and lacks some important features such as serious support for rich-text data, but it has the potential to become the first option for Domino application development.
If you are looking to develop native Domino web applications, with responsive UI, web forms, views, workflows and approvals, HCL wants you to use Domino Volt.
#4 HCL Volt MX
Until recently, this product was off the radar for the Lotus Notes and Domino community. Now, HCL Software is willing to bet the farm on it.
Long story short, the product Kony Quantum was originally developed by Kony Inc. as a mobile app development platform, which evolved into an enterprise low-code application platform. Kony Inc. was acquired by Temenos, a banking software provider, so the platform was renamed to Temenos Quantum. HCL Software is now partnering with Temenos to further develop and market the platform to non-banking customers, under the new name: HCL Volt MX.
HCL is busy working on the product, and the integration with Domino is underway. But Domino is just one of many possible backend services and databases that Volt MX works with — from SAP and Salesforce to SQL, NoSQL, OpenAPI, and other services.
HCL positions Volt MX as a low-code development platform for professional developers (while Domino Volt is aimed at citizen developers). The platform’s strengths include support for both native and progressive web apps (PWAs), which means development for mobile without involving specialized iOS and Android developers, and deployment without dealing with app stores (in the case of PWAs).
With this product, HCL buys a ticket to enter the “market quadrants” for low-code application platforms, regardless of Domino. But Domino is also here to stay; Volt MX becomes a natural alternative to mobile app development for Domino, and will complement Domino Volt for web development.
More importantly, it’s a single “multiexperience” development platform (MXDP) that enables existing IT groups to quickly produce web, mobile, and even conversational apps for internal and external users.
HCL supports on-premises installations, as well as a container-based deployment model for various cloud computing options.
#5 Microsoft SharePoint
SharePoint — both online and on-prem — is undoubtedly the most popular option for companies transitioning from Lotus Notes. It’s a natural next step after the email migration to Office 365 / Exchange for many organizations.
But it’s also a source of much frustration, owing to unrealistic expectations.
On the one hand, SharePoint is an excellent alternative if you need to replace ancient Lotus Notes document libraries or Domino.doc or Quickr document repositories.
Similarly, SharePoint lists can easily replace some simple Notes applications.
On the other hand, SharePoint is not a low-code application platform per se, so it can’t be compared to Notes and Domino in that regard. SharePoint demands additional tools, or custom .NET development, or both.
Previous Microsoft’s tools for creating forms and workflows (InfoPath and SharePoint Designer) have been abandoned, so other vendors have filled this space, most notably Nintex and K2 (Nintex acquired K2 in 2020).
Microsoft got back with Power Platform and Office 365, clearly signaling that the future of SharePoint is in the cloud. Hybrid environments will be supported by on-prem gateways.
Organizations that have made significant investments in custom SharePoint solutions cannot simply move those solutions to the cloud (or even to the latest version of SharePoint Server in some cases!). So many of those who had migrated from Lotus Notes found themselves trapped once again by their then-new, now-obsolete custom solutions. They are facing yet another migration, this time to Microsoft 365.
#6 Microsoft Power Platform
As a rule of thumb, if you’re migrating Notes applications to SharePoint this year, it will likely be the cloud, Microsoft 365, or a hybrid environment. Now if you’re migrating to Microsoft 365, you’d be better off aiming for Microsoft Power Platform, not SharePoint.
In other words, if you are aiming for SharePoint now, you will likely be landing on the Power Platform anyway.
Now you can use Microsoft Dataverse as a data service in the cloud.
Dataverse is not a regular database. It sits on top of Microsoft Azure SQL and provides additional capabilities beyond the relational storage. These capabilities include mobile offline work; no-code business rules; advanced search and filtering; Office, Exchange, and SharePoint integration; managed data lakes; and more.
On top of the relational storage, Dataverse provides some business-level data types (e.g. customer, status, currency, activity), borrowed from the Common Data Model that’s well known to Microsoft Dynamics 365 users.
Office 365 users get a subset of these features (up to 2 GB) as Dataverse for Teams, along with entry-level licenses for Power Apps and Power Automate. By doing so, Microsoft is betting that a new class of apps, born inside Teams and shared through Teams, will proliferate across the enterprise.
So what’s the role of SharePoint now?
SharePoint is a content platform with sites, pages, lists, and libraries. It is the document repository for your document-centric solutions. With Power Automate on top of that, you can build a workflow solution without programming. Or, you may want to use Power Apps to create custom forms for SharePoint list items.
OK, that’s cool, but there are more things in business than what SharePoint was built for.
For example, invoices, orders, or any other multi-table structures — why should you mimic a relational database by linking multiple lists in SharePoint anymore? That can be properly designed in Dataverse, so let’s use the right tool for the job.
What about Lotus Notes specific structures? How do we implement response documents?
Document hierarchies from Lotus Notes can often be replaced with table relationships in Dataverse, and by linking table rows to documents in SharePoint. Word templates can be easily populated with field values from Power Apps forms (or from any external data via connectors).
If structured data isn’t your thing though, Azure Cosmos DB might be the way to go. While there was no direct connector for Power Apps to Cosmos DB at the time of writing this article, you can use Power Automate or Dataverse virtual entities to connect.
To summarize, we started with SharePoint, followed by Dataverse and Power Platform, and finally stepped out to Azure Cosmos DB, which is just one of many Azure services.
Should we be concerned about vendor lock-in at this point? Sure we should!
Power Platform is a PaaS. And PaaS is the most seductive kind of vendor lock-in possible. You know, IaaS allows for multicloud. SaaS is a set of discrete applications (until they start to morph into platforms). But a platform as a service … that’s a real trap for those concerned about dependency on a single cloud.
Certainly, you can take your data with you if you decide to move on. There are also a vast number of connectors and gateways so you can connect to any system, even to on-prem data sources. And you should be able to easily migrate your low-code solutions if necessary, shouldn’t you? But how did we get here in the first place? Haven’t application migrations been slow and tedious for firms being locked into Lotus Notes? And it’s not even a cloud platform.
Nintex is a company that did an excellent job of filling the business niche for SharePoint users who needed workflow automation and digital forms, which was largely untapped at the time.
Initially focused on SharePoint and Office 365, Nintex expanded its software to other content platforms and data sources. It’s now a mature and comprehensive platform for low-code process automation (workflow, forms, document generation, robotic process automation — RPA, eSignature), process management (mapping, approval, sign-off), and analytics.
Compared to Lotus Notes application development, and also custom development for SharePoint, Nintex has managed to position itself as a “glue” component, uncoupled from the underlying content and data storage.
That proved to be a great advantage: First, it allowed Nintex to ride the big wave of SharePoint proliferation, as well as to catch other waves: mobile, RPA, eSignature, and connectivity to other platforms.
Second, Nintex is more appealing to corporate IT, which is always concerned about the potential spread of uncontrolled quick and dirty solutions throughout the company. Nintex allows the IT group to retain control through features such as process mapping, analytics, and connectivity. It enables business units to automate their processes while relieving IT of the burden of maintaining hundreds of point solutions.
In other words, business users are happy because they have control over workflow automation, while IT is happy because the system is well-governed and requires less effort from their part.
Looking back, it seems that Nintex has made the right acquisitions at the right time: document generation for Salesforce (Drawloop), process modeling and mapping (Promapp), and RPA (EnableSoft). Finally, in 2020, Nintex purchased its key rival, K2, and the company is now busy aligning the two offerings and preparing the technology integration.
The remaining question is whether Nintex has grown strong enough as a Microsoft partner to thrive as a Microsoft competitor.
#8 Content Services Platforms
Whatever we call it — ECM or content services platforms — all businesses need at least some kind of document management and workflow system. Certainly, the latest and greatest versions of these platforms bring modern web and mobile experience, but the business reasons today are basically the same as when the popularity of Lotus Notes was on the rise.
OpenText, Hyland (which acquired Alfresco and Nuxeo), and IBM are traditionally the most prominent vendors in this market.
From our experience, only a small share of Lotus Notes applications are rebuilt on these platforms.
On the other hand, the ECM platforms often serve as record management systems or archives for historical data originated from Lotus Notes. The Lotus Notes content is extracted, transformed to PDF and XML, and then loaded into the new content repository.
Since Microsoft disrupted the ECM market, companies typically use SharePoint and Office 365 along with the traditional ECM platforms.
Most companies rather migrate Lotus Notes applications to Office 365 today, despite the existing ECM system. Or more precisely, if the Lotus Notes application being migrated is a department-level solution, Office 365 / SharePoint is almost always the preferred destination.
You probably won’t look at the Salesforce Platform as a prospective new home for your old workflow applications unless Salesforce is deeply rooted in your company.
But if it is — if your sales, marketing, and services operations rely on Salesforce — your company has already gone that way.
Salesforce is a perfect example of the “from application to platform” trend. They’ve progressed from a customizable CRM application to an expandable application suite and then to a fully fledged application platform.
Their low-code tools have evolved alongside the applications, and have been tailored to the needs of business users and operations professionals. Forms, views, formulas, and flows have long been the foundation for customizations and extensions.
Today, the Salesforce Platform consists of the three visual builders (Lightning): App Builder, Flow Builder, and Object Creator.
Flow Builder, the basic module for process automation, is being constantly improved from one version to another, and Salesforce is currently working toward workflow metrics.
Pro-code tools enable professional developers to create reusable components for the visual builders. The tools include Lightning Web Components, Visualforce pages, Apex (a Java-like language), and Salesforce DX. DX finally brings source-driven development end-to-end, so you can use it with your own Git repository and a CI set of tools.
What a relief it must be for a developer who got rid of Domino Designer!
For a Domino developer, a switch to the Salesforce Platform can be a paradigm shift, mostly because of the migration from a NoSQL database to the relational model. But the data model is simple and intuitive at the application level. Business objects, activities, and related records are easy-to-comprehend building blocks that let you get started quickly.
The user identity and access management are built-in, and are among the platform’s key strengths.
A working prototype of a typical case management application can be assembled just as easily as with Domino Designer (no-code). Understandably, some features will be missing (categorized views, for example), but some others will be built in no time (kanban views, dashboards, reports, and so on).
For some reason, document automation, which is one of the most critical features for CRM applications, is almost entirely left to third-party providers. Plenty of such solutions are available on AppExchange (Salesforce’s store for apps, components, and services).
Similarly, connectors to other systems and data sources can be found on AppExchange, while Salesforce’s own integration tool, MuleSoft Composer, may not seem to be appealing at first glance ($27,000 for three supported systems). Salesforce is likely to further integrate MuleSoft iPaaS into its portfolio in the future, but for the time being, these are separate platforms.
This makes Salesforce look like a premium class car manufacturer that happily charges for standard features as if they were car accessories. A general-purpose PaaS such as the Salesforce Platform should include a set of connectors in its basic edition, if you ask me.
It should be noted that Salesforce can seem clumsy at times. Beneath the Lightning surface, some accumulated remains of previous concepts appear, and some older functionalities are waiting to be replaced.
The underlying platform architecture was conceived around the turn of the century (yes, even cloud computing comes of age), and Salesforce has recently been working to modernize it.
These efforts have resulted in Hyperforce. This enables companies to deploy Salesforce on major public cloud platforms, instead hosting in Salesforce data centers. This is a major shift that enables Salesforce to stand apart from most PaaS providers by allowing companies to choose where their data is hosted, in line with the growing interest in multicloud deployments.
OutSystems is unlikely to cause the same a-ha moment that Lotus Notes used to cause when a business user tries to quickly create a custom application. For non-technical developers (or “citizen developers”), this tool may not be the best choice.
To get started, you need to download, install and run OutSystems Service Studio, which connects to your development environment in the OutSystems Cloud (hosted on AWS).
Then you can create web, tablet, or phone apps, or services with reusable logic and data. Mobile apps are based on Apache Cordova, and can be either native (iOS or Android) or progressive web apps (PWAs).
It’s a really great experience when you prototype a simple mobile app, switch from native to PWAs, read the generated QR code with your phone, and then instantly run the app.
OutSystems supports all deployment options: on-premises, private, or public cloud, or OutSystems Cloud. Its application server works on Windows Server, and requires either Microsoft (SQL Server or Azure SQL) or Oracle databases. It can also connect to external Microsoft, Oracle, IBM iDB2, and MySQL databases.
How does OutSystems actually work? Behind the scenes, it produces and compiles .NET code. To ensure that you are not locked into OutSystems, it allows you to detach and retrieve all of your programs and databases. You won’t need any kind of custom interpreter, runtimes, or proprietary libraries with that. However, it’s a one-way street; you can only do so if you wish to cancel your OutSystems subscription.
Pricing is based on the number of registered users, with the price per external user being 1/100th the cost of an internal user. The pricing is consistent for all deployment options, so if you host your applications with OutSystems, the hosting costs are included in the software subscription; for other options, the hosting is on you.
Additionally, there is a free edition for small organizations that includes up to 100 users, 2 GB databases, and an unlimited number of applications.
OutSystems was founded in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2001 and is now headquartered in the US in Boston.
Mendix was founded in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 2005 and is now headquartered in the US in Boston. Since Siemens acquired the company in 2018, it continues to operate as an independent subsidiary.
Like all low-code vendors, Mendix claims that its platform is an ideal new home for Lotus Notes Domino applications. It published a number of customer success stories to prove just that.
Continental, for example, was one of the businesses that had switched from Lotus Notes to Office 365, but it was still trying to replace hundreds of Domino-based applications. Continental evaluated many low-code platforms before settling on Mendix. The transition plan spans across several years, and includes a gradual process of building a new portfolio of applications, Domino application retirement and data archiving, and scaling of the new portfolio.
The Mendix platform supports the application lifecycle as early as with requirements management. You can track issues, user stories and tasks, and manage the backlog in the Mendix Developer Portal. Since it’s a fully integrated platform, end-users can provide feedback when using the apps, and the resulting user story or task can be scheduled and tracked down to redeployment of the application.
I believe it’s a great idea to include requirements management in a low-code toolkit. Not because this tool is better than Jira or other best-of-breed tools — it isn’t — but because it introduces pro-development best practices to all profiles of citizen developers who will adopt them. Despite the well-known mantra that “processes come first, tools come second,” good tools provide quick wins and also bring structure.
There are two separate application development tools (web-based), each positioned for different developer profiles: Mendix Studio, for business analysts or citizen developers without technical knowledge, and Mendix Studio Pro, for IT developers.
Although the two separate tools seemed redundant to me at first, I must admit it makes sense. Mendix did a good job of positioning the tools for each profile in a spectrum that they call “the developer continuum” from solution-focused to technology-focused developers (Studio > Studio Pro > Code).
This is a way to avoid a “low-code cliff,” where non-technical makers might create a solution to some extent. Then they’re faced with a cliff’s edge, and the only thing they can do is pass the problem to pro-developers. Unfortunately, this has often proved to be a one-way path. Once pro-developers took over the app, the non-technical makers would no longer be able to change it.
Mendix uses machine learning to detect best practice patterns across all accounts. It’s used in Mendix Assist, an AI component that offers contextual next-step suggestions right within the development tool. The objective is to make a novice user feel like they’re being led by an experienced coach.
The Assist component is much more advanced than code completion, says Mendix, and is not as annoying as “Clippy” (remember the Office Assistant?). For example, it can help you create the logic (a microflow in Mendix jargon) for a “Calculate” button, by examining the data model and the context on your page.
Mendix applications can be deployed to the Mendix cloud (which runs on AWS), public or private clouds, or on-premises.
Besides integrations through connectors, database integration, REST APIs and SOAP web services, you can also extend Mendix apps with Java. Mendix runtime is based on the JVM, so it’s possible to import and use Java libraries.
How does Mendix try to convince you not to worry about the vendor lock-in problem? They let you extract the entire application model and logic into Java code and database schema, by using the Mendix SDK.
ServiceNow has taken a similar route as Salesforce to become a PaaS provider: they created the Now Platform as a means of extending and customizing their SaaS applications.
With a strong presence among IT professionals who use ServiceNow for IT service management, the Now Platform has begun to expand beyond IT departments and into other business units.
For example, O-I Glass used ServiceNow to build hundreds of custom apps, as a result of their Lotus Notes migration project. Instead of just rebuilding the same old applications, the new solutions are optimized for the Now Platform and redesigned to meet the new business needs. O-I Glass decided not to move inactive data from Domino to the new platform. Old data was extracted from Domino and preserved in the independent Seascape archive.
ServiceNow invests in AI-based components and incorporates them into the platform. It recently acquired Intellibot, an RPA company that adds intelligent automation to the Now Platform workflows.
Wrapping up: Life after Lotus Notes Domino
Of course we couldn’t spend enough time with each of these platforms to be able to pick a favorite. But our customers did pick their favorite Lotus Notes alternatives. So, what do they say?
As always, it depends. If they have already invested in certain SaaS applications and are familiar with the customization tools, they are more likely to be staying under the same umbrella and will choose the vendor’s platform as well (Salesforce, ServiceNow). Mendix and OutSystems are inevitable in any comparison and discussion about low-code platforms, so they are viable alternatives to Lotus Notes. Many of those who have spent some time with SharePoint choose Nintex and K2. Just about every company develops or at least experiments with the Microsoft Power Platform. And there are always a number of organizations that favor HCL offerings.
What are your current favorites? Tell us in this quick survey.
Our advice? Take care of your data. Don’t leave valuable historical information in Domino NSF files, especially if you’ve stopped investing in Domino. Drop us a line and let’s talk about all the options.
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