When it comes to achieving the right software solution for the business, the build versus buy argument has been raging for decades. But as the financial climate puts ever greater pressure on organisations to improve business agility, neither offers a viable solution. Businesses cannot afford to incur the cost of bespoke development yet the inflexibility of a packaged solution will constrain business change.

Instead, growing numbers of organisations are considering the possible benefits of application platform technologies that promise to deliver custom solutions at the price point and timeframe of a packaged alternative.

Chasing Agility

In today’s economic marketplace, business agility is key to sustaining success. Whether it is to enable process change to improve efficiency and drive down costs or rapidly exploit an emerging market opportunity, business leaders need to be able to innovate, fast. Indeed, according to recent research.

Yet how many organisations, especially in the SME sector, are discovering that bold plans for business change are stymied by the constraints of the IT infrastructure? With limited budgets and resources, organisations are struggling to achieve the changes required to speed business innovation.

How many have discovered that an inflexible packaged software solution cannot deliver the required process change or essential information resources required to support entrance into a new market? Or that a lack of available IT resource will mean the organisation has to wait weeks, even months, for even minor software changes to be made?

This is nothing new – attempting to customise a package or building bespoke software from scratch has always been a challenging and often expensive exercise. The problem now is that organisations need the IT infrastructure to be far more responsive to new operational demands; yet, having pared investments down to the bone, there is no money to afford the consultancy and software development expertise required to deliver the right solution in a decent timeframe.

Build or Buy

So what are the options? In an ideal world, organisations would opt to build bespoke software every time. The solution is tailored to meet exact business needs and it is easier to attain a technology platform that works seamlessly with the existing infrastructure. Unfortunately there is a massive price tag attached and there is likely to be several months of designing, coding and testing – time which most modern, agile businesses can ill-afford.

It will always cost businesses more to develop a particular functionality from scratch than to purchase comparable functionality within a packaged solution. As a result, for the majority of organisations, the costs and risks associated with developing highly specialised line of business (LOB) applications are truly prohibitive.

Yet packaged solutions, while less expensive and theoretically quicker to deploy than bespoke developed solutions, do not fit the business and can be very difficult to change once in place. Operational processes typically have to be changed to reflect the design of the software, and users need constant additional training to help them move between solutions designed to work very differently.

Furthermore, each time a new LOB solution is required, an organisation will end up with another set of underlying technologies and a complex, expensive integration challenge. Add in the costs associated with managing many vendor relationships, and introducing yet another solution to the user base, and the incremental costs of these packaged solutions are significant.

The return on investment from either bespoke or packaged software can therefore be disappointing – while the business is still struggling to achieve its strategic innovation objectives.

Achieving Innovation

Nirvana, of course, would be a packaged solution that could be rapidly customised to meet an organisation’s specific requirements without compromising the ongoing upgrade path, delivering the exact functionality requirements of the business and without the price tag associated with traditional bespoke development.

Impossible? This is the promise of application platforms, such as Microsoft Dynamics xRM, which are designed to accelerate the development of relational business (or LOB) applications. xRM builds on the Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform to deliver any relationship management based LOB solution, from resource management to patient management.

The speed of development is achieved through the use of reusable application services which can be adapted and extended to create many unique applications, and, in the case of Microsoft, standard technology building blocks that are already in use such as .NET, Microsoft Outlook and Office.

With a multi-tenanted architecture, organisations can build and run many LOB applications on a single platform. This creates a far more coherent IT infrastructure and offers users a consistent application feel that minimises the training overhead.

Unlike traditional bespoke development that relies on software coders, application platform technology allows organisations to build on the underlying relational database using point and click development tools. Key concepts such as database fields, data relationships and workflow are automatically handled by the underlying application platform layer.

This enables an organisation to rapidly develop skills to create their own LOB applications in response to business demands and deliver the required solution. Indeed, it is estimated that an organisation can create a new solution from scratch in the same time frame it takes to deploy a traditional packaged application.

Conclusion

Organisations are facing a tough challenge with pressure to achieve unprecedented levels of business agility countered by the continued freeze on either capital expenditure or development budgets.

The rapid development opportunities of application platforms solutions have significant appeal on many levels; from the convergence of disparate, standalone LOB applications and systems into an integrated, unified application platform to the speed with which new solutions can be delivered to meet highly specific business needs.

Perhaps it should be no surprise, therefore, that according to Forrester Research, approximately 75 percent of IT leaders globally anticipate a shift towards application platforms. The writing is, finally, on the wall for traditional, slow, old fashioned software development.