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28 February 2012

Buy or build? Neither!

By Andrew Clifford

Web-based development and deployment could get around the perennial buy-or-build argument.

I was discussing a client's situation with a colleague. The client has a lot of bespoke systems, and my colleague was saying how they would be better off moving to packaged systems.

I was going to argue back, about how bespoke systems can offer better value, when I realised I had had this discussion so many times before. There is a general bias against bespoke systems, but some people (like me) constantly argue in favour of them. Why?

A lot of it stems from career paths and previous experience. Some of us start out as programmers, others in other roles. Some developers move on, but some of us (me included) are still actively developing decades later.

Those of us who are steeped in development are not scared of bespoke systems. We understand how they work, and how to get them to do our business' business. I have seen many ill-fitting but expensive packaged solutions, which seem such a poor substitute for well-tailored, good-value bespoke systems. Unlike a package vendor, the developers have the best interests of the business at heart.

Those not intimately involved in development see it differently. Bespoke systems are expensive and take time. You have to work with awkward and uncommunicative developers (like me), who don't understand the business and just confuse you with technical mumbo-jumbo. There is little control over the process, and nobody takes proper responsibility. Unlike developers, the vendor understands your business.

There is some truth in both positions.

When you first develop a system, it can meet requirements well, and, provided it is not over-ambitious, it can be cheaper than implementing a large package system. In this sense, the developer mindset is reasonable.

But through time, bespoke systems turn to mush. Layer upon layer of modification plays havoc with structure. It is impossible to justify reworking the system or upgrading the technology. The system is neither cheap nor responsive. The real advantage of packaged systems is that this is someone else's problem.

In IT, we have been having this buy-or-build argument for years. But now there is a way round it.

It is becoming increasingly viable to develop and deploy using web-based platforms, like SalesForce.com, or even our Metrici Advisor service. There are three advantages to this.

First, the service will provide the vast majority of the system for you - data management, user interface, user management, and so on. You only need to develop the parts that are specific to your requirements, which is only a fraction of the code required for a bespoke system. As well as speeding development, this hugely reduces the tendency of the system to turn to mush.

Secondly, the provider of the environment will take care of all the infrastructure for you - from how backups work, to making sure that the system continues to run on current technology.

Thirdly, if you want a packaged solution, you may well be able to subscribe to one delivered through the same platform.

This approach can give the best of both worlds. The fit and value of a simple bespoke development, with the management and control of a packaged solution. Could this become the norm?

Next: Going exponential

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