Application integrationOff-the-Shelf VS. Customized

When it comes to application integration, the decision to go with an off-the-shelf system versus building a customized system can be mystifying. The solution that is chosen will inevitably affect how seamless the integration will be and the number of benefits for both the organization and the end users. Without properly considering these factors, the result can be like trying to finish a puzzle with pieces that just won’t fit.

Increasingly, organizations seem to be choosing off-the-shelf solutions rather than products that are built specifically for their needs. In large part, this is due to the fact that, after conducting the research, they find that off-the-shelf solutions are less expensive in the long run. With all the choices of systems available in the market, one would think it would be easy to purchase a content management system (CMS), for example, or an enterprise resource planning system (ERP). However, not only does more choice lead to more confusion, it also widens the potential window of error. Even a cursory exploration of the market will identify a number of software types which meet requirements. Worse still, there are dozens of conflicting reviews for these packages. Choosing the right solution then becomes a highly perplexing task: Whose opinion should you trust? Which package is the best? Can you build a better solution? Do you know how to build a better solution? Each of these questions should be answered by determining your requirements – a task that becomes a project of its own.

Three broad steps can clarify the decision about the solution that fits your organization. The choice to go with an off-the-shelf or customized solution will depend on three key factors: the reasons your organization is looking at an application (the specific decision drivers), the selection criteria you need to follow, and the extensive research that compares and contrasts the vast array of choices available to you. Begin by plotting these milestones in a project plan. The plan will guide the steps in the process and will be a useful reference point as the implementation rolls along.

Step 1: Determine the Decision Drivers

The first step in deciding between an off-the-shelf and a customized system is to identify all the factors that will affect your decision. An effective needs assessment is an important first step as it will help to identify the key decision drivers as well as other business requirements that will justify the need for the application. A useful technique to help capture the information you require is a survey – paper-based or on-line – which can be accompanied by interviews with key players. Analysing the findings will provide insight on the key decision drivers for your organization as well as the nature of the requirement.

One important decision driver involves the existing systems that are in place. These systems may be either bound for replacement or intended to integrate with the new system. More importantly, if you are looking to integrate a system such as a CMS into your infrastructure, you should first check if your department has already implemented – or plans to implement – a similar system. Your group may be able to benefit from research for an implementation that has already taken place.

Of course, cost is important in integrating a new system. Not only should the initial cost of purchasing or creating a system be considered, but the long-term costs of maintaining the system should also be explored. An evaluation of the overall expense associated with purchasing an off-the-shelf solution should consider a variety of variables including licensing fees, maintaining upgrades and technical support. Similarly, custom-built systems should consider cost increases resulting from scope creep or inaccurately predicting the amount of work required.

After comparing the costs of implementing your new system, you should also look at what your organization will get in return. Choosing a system that will yield a positive return on investment, or ROI, will justify your decision to make such a large investment. In the case of obtaining funding, strong ROI will convince senior management that the investment will pay off in the long run – after all, one of the key functions of implementing a CMS or ERP is to help remove your organization’s inefficiencies, which subsequently leads to a reduction in operating costs.

Regardless of what type of solution you choose, you must also consider the availability of your resources. If you purchase an off-the-shelf solution, you must ensure resources to handle the customization, maintenance and upgrades; liaison between the organization and technical support will also be required. Alternatively, if you are building in-house, you will require a dedicated team that includes project managers, systems analysts and architects, usability experts, information architects, designers, programmers and testers. It is critical to ensure that this team has time to dedicate to this initiative and that on-going operations of your organization are not interrupted. Even more important, you must ensure that your team has the skill sets to take on a project of this magnitude.

Another key driver in this decision is the time it takes to implement the system. Generally, it takes longer to develop a system in-house than to purchase an off-the-shelf solution. However the learning curve of the individuals who will be customizing the off-the-shelf solution must be considered.

Application integration: Case studies

The following examples confirm how specific client and project requirements determine the type of solution that should be used in choosing between off-the-shelf and customized solutions.

Case study 1

In 2001, a proposed portal related to accessible transportation in Canada required a preliminary design, prototype research and a basic strategy. A content management system was required for the Web site so that content providers across Canada could submit content that would later be edited and approved by the content officer. A list of mandatory and desirable criteria was compiled to assess off-the-shelf content management systems. Approximately eight CMS packages were considered, but none met all the mandatory criteria. These items included CLF compliance, compliance to W3C Priority 1 and Priority 2 checkpoints and support for both official languages. In view of that, a customized CMS was developed through a combination of an Oracle database in the back end and Active Server Pages (ASP) to interface with the data. This allowed content providers to submit content through a secure channel and gave the content officer access to many administration type functions.

If this same project were to take place today, the situation could be quite different; several content management systems have since emerged that comply with these criteria.

Case study 2

Early in 2003, a federal government agency sought to assess the interest in, and investigate the business requirements, technical requirements and development of the implementation plan for an Internet-based video messaging system. After conducting the research, consultants recommended that the client purchase an off-the-shelf solution. It was clear that the labour, time, and effort required to build a custom solution were far greater than buying an off-the-shelf solution. Another critical factor was that most custom-built solutions of this nature have a tendency to run over budget, due either to scope creep or to challenges associated with predicting the amount of work required. Other key decision drivers included a recognition that the requirements for the system were likely to evolve and change while incompatibility issues could arise as surrounding systems need to be replaced and new requirements emerge and systems are integrated. Consequently, for this specific project, it was agreed that since building a customized system may have eventually required the rebuilding of the entire product, it made more sense to integrate an off-the-shelf solution, as many software vendors offer upgrade packages to deal with the evolution of systems.

Step 2: Compile a list of criteria

Once the decision drivers are identified, you can start to compile a list of criteria of what the system can do. This list should contain both mandatory and desirable criteria. Such a list can go a long way when researching off-the-shelf solutions, but it is also useful when building a customized system in-house.

Step 3: Research and analyze

Once you are satisfied with your list of criteria, you can begin to research the off-the-shelf solutions available. Try to look at a variety of sources to gain a comprehensive view of your options. Vendor sites, non-vendor reviews, white papers and discussion groups provide detailed descriptions and personal opinions. If possible, you should also look at what other departments or organizations are doing. Don’t be afraid to contact colleagues and see if they have been through the same process. As well, take advantage of trial software offered by vendors. Each of these activities could save you much time and effort.

To make things easy, use a spreadsheet or database to track your findings. As you conduct your research, check off which criteria items are met. When you are done, you will be able to see which software best meets your criteria.If no off-the-shelf system meets all your mandatory criteria, you may wish to build a custom solution.

Whether your organization has 50, 500 or 5,000 people, the process for deciding between off-the-shelf and customized solutions is the same. The final choice depends on the requirements of the organization. Making the right decisions will benefit end users by allowing the technology to function at its optimum level and result in better information management and improved operational effectiveness.

Gil Nasrallah ( is a director and senior consultant with Intoinfo Consulting Group of Ottawa.