When choosing the right software for your business, you will be faced with two options:

1. Custom software
2. Off the shelf software

The high level of risk involved in investing in new technology makes acquiring a new software system a daunting task. To minimise these risks, organisations need to consider several key factors in choosing the software solution that will best suit their business needs.

Two factors that need to be considered at the initial evaluation and acquisition stage include requirements gathering and total cost of ownership estimations. The outcomes of these factors are significantly different between an OTS (off the shelf) system and a custom system.

One of the first tasks to perform when selecting a software solution is to gather a list of requirements that the new system must meet. These requirements can usually be broken up into three categories:

1. Must haves
2. Should haves
3. Nice to haves

On larger projects, although not always the case, it’s reasonable to assume that an off-the-shelf solution will have a more difficult time meeting all the requirements (without any customization required). It’s important to note that many off the shelf products these days do allow customization. A custom built solution will be designed from the ground up to meet the business’ requirements and to mirror existing business processes.

So, OTS systems should cover all or most of the ‘must have’ requirements, some of the ‘should have’ and quite possibly none of ‘nice to have’ requirements. Custom solutions are designed to cover all business requirements, with features limited only by the creativity and technical capabilities of the software developer contracted to develop the solution.

Estimating the total cost of ownership is an important task when selecting a software solution. Businesses must consider software licensing costs, support and maintenance costs, hardware upgrade costs, training and lowered productivity costs during the transition to the new system.

For many people, the answer is fairly simple. They will simply purchase off the shelf software for the sake of saving both money and time. However, depending on the industry you’re in, this may not be correct, nor the best option. Many business owners fail to take into consideration the problems they can experience by using off the shelf software.

Off the shelf software can be either free (open source), cheap, or quite expensive (depending on what you have selected), however what you need to be aware of is that with the majority of off the shelf options they will come with ongoing fees, licensing costs, and possible upgrade costs. In addition, you have no control over the source code of the software.

Purchasing off the shelf software may very well help you solve specific problems, but may sometimes not be 100% compatible with your goals/needs. If you choose to buy off the shelf software, it is important to make sure it is powerful enough to fulfill the needs of the project it is being used for. Conversely, don’t be scared off by a situation whereby the off the shelf product is capable of meeting all core goals of the project, and then custom development can be used to fill any specific gaps, this is a great option and sometimes the best option. And of course, before you purchase any software, it is important to look at the support that is offered and the costs associated with this.

One item that will help you in making a decision between software off the shelf or custom developed software solutions, is the scope. The scope can simply be defined as the size of the project. The scope will help you establish the very specifics requirements of the project, and then in turn greatly assist in working out whether custom development, or an OTS solution will be the best path. Don’t forget to look at factors beyond or not included in the scope, such as integration of the new application with your existing environment.

At the initial acquisition stage, off-the-shelf solutions can meet primary requirements but demand greater flexibility from the business. Custom solutions offer greater flexibility and can therefore be designed to meet business needs very specifically.

At the deployment stage, off-the-shelf solutions generally have established training courses and material however place greater demands on businesses to change their existing processes. Custom solutions can be designed to mirror existing business processes, however require training material to be developed from scratch and can be prone to ‘requirements creep.’

At the ongoing maintenance and evaluation stage: off-the-shelf solutions can sometimes be limited in terms of catering for changes to business structure and processes, however they have well developed support infrastructure and regular updates.

Customised solutions can be modified to fit the changing business requirements; however businesses will need to establish their own support channels and policies to support the users of the new system.

Both options have distinct advantages and disadvantages at various stages in the product life cycle. The ideal system should combine the advantages of both types of software solutions while minimising the risk and the cost of each solution’s disadvantages.

Newpath WEB recommends sitting down with the proposed development partner, and discussing the project in detail, and seeking professional advice on whether an OTS solution is the best path forward, or if in fact custom development may be the right way to go. Either way, be sure to confirm they are capable of offering both options, otherwise they may be motivated to only offer one option – the one they can make money on.

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