Build it or buy it? Do you need a custom web application?

Frank Zinghini

Founder & CEO
custom web application and development

Your business needs to build a web application. The first (and possibly the most important) decision you need to make is whether to build a custom web application or buy a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) product.

There are many COTS products on the market, and there are instances where this is clearly the best choice for your web application, but there are also just as many instances where custom web application development is the smarter choice—especially in the long run.

Here we’ll provide you with some thoughts—and questions you should answer—to lead you to the best decision for your business.

First things first: Define the business need

Many businesses put the cart before the horse and assume a popular COTS solution will work without properly analyzing it first.

This can result in a longer-than-expected development process (because you wind up needing extensive customization), more money spent, and a product that does not even deliver what you really need.

Avoid falling into this trap by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Why do you need a web application?
  • What do you expect it to do?
  • What do you want to achieve with it?

Some technical questions to consider are:

  • Do you need any unique features?
  • Are there any compliance issues that need to be addressed?
  • Will you need the application to integrate with any third-party or proprietary in-house software?
  • Are there any architectural restrictions or requirements, such as a preferred framework, web server, or browser?

This does not need to be a lengthy process, but it can save you headaches and money if you clearly define your business need before you start looking at solutions. It sounds simple, but countless businesses skip this crucial step and wind up wasting their budget to get an application that doesn’t solve their problem.

Once the business need has been defined, you can identify the existing COTS platforms that provide the infrastructure you need to achieve your business goals. There are three pillars—build, usage costs, and support and modifications—that you need to assess as you compare COTS platform options to web application custom development.

The three pillars

1.    The build

Take a close look at potential COTS platforms with the following questions in mind:

  • How do they work?
  • How would you need to customize them to meet your business and technical needs?
  • How different are your actual needs from what the platform does out-of-the-box?
  • Are there any limits to the customization options that may prevent you from getting what you need?

Other questions must be considered if you are trying to determine if you have the required in-house staff and expertise to build a custom web application:

  • How hard would it be for them to build it?
  • Can they deliver all of your business needs?
  • Do they have the necessary skills to do it?

Compare what your in-house team can deliver against what a COTS platform will—you might be surprised.

Keep costs in mind as you assess. COTS solutions will still require some customization. The costs associated with this can be pricey, as the skill set is specialized.

If, for example, you decide to use Salesforce as an out-of-the-box Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution, it is unlikely that any of your in-house software engineers will be able to perform customization work.

This is a specialized area that comes at a premium price—and it must be factored into the decision-making process. You either need to track down, evaluate, and contract specialists, freelance or otherwise (which is always a turbulent process), or spend time and payroll training your own employees on this specialized, typically difficult process. Either way, it’s going to cost you.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that you can instead invest that time and money—plus a bit extra—to developing your own custom web app from the ground up. Estimate the time and resources it will take an in-house team to build a custom web application, and compare the costs.

2.    Usage costs

There are usage costs associated with off-the-shelf solutions. Pricing structures can vary, but typically include some type of annual subscription or licensing fee and a per-user cost. Calculate what this will cost you over the long-term life of the web application.

There are no usage fees when you build your own web application, though there will likely be hosting fees, whether you host the application in the cloud or in your own data center. These costs are usually minimal, but should be considered.

3.    Support and modifications

Your web application will change over time. The costs associated with these modifications should be part of the overall decision process.

Changes to a COTS platform will mean going back to the same pricey specialists every time you want to make a change. If you wound up training one of your existing employees instead, then that employee will have to switch tasks to solve the specific problem with your COTS app—and that’s usually all overhead.

On the other hand, if you build a custom web application in-house, you own the code and your team knows it well. You have more flexibility when it comes to maintenance and modifications, and the costs associated with these aspects are substantially lower.

Custom web application development services

You may decide a COTS is not the right choice, but you do not have the right expertise in-house. A third option is to work with a custom web application development service. This is more expensive than building in-house, but can still be more cost-effective than an off-the-shelf solution that requires extensive customization.

Custom web application development does not require the same level of specialized skill as customizing a COTS platform. You just need a team that is skilled in web application development, not in Salesforce, SAP, or WordPress specifically. Reduced specialization means reduced cost—and further changes and features added post-production can be obtained at this lower cost.

Another benefit of using an outside firm to build a custom web application is that they have a deeper level of expertise from years of experience focused on custom web application development. You can benefit from all areas of their expertise, from design, usability, and coding, to security and quality assurance.

There is no clear-cut winner in the case of buy versus build when viewed in terms of generalities. But there is always a clear winner in each specific case.

Follow this guide so you don’t end up going down the wrong path—losing money, wasting time, and building a web application that does not meet your requirements.