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Enterprise apps to bring bespoke BACK FROM THE DEAD

Yo SME sysadmins, break out your Hammer pants, it's the '90s again...

Build a business case: developing custom apps

Sysadmin blog The '90s saw a boom in the development and acceptance of Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) software. Ever since, various analysts and pundits have predicted the marginalisation of custom software development. In the SME space, it has been hard to argue; the past two decades have seen COTS software dominate. But with the emergence of Platform as a Service (PaaS), I am seeing this change.

As an easy example, the word processor (and office applications in general) COTS market has proven wildly successful. Developing your own could only politely be described as a niche endeavor. If this were the sum totality of sample size, I could understand how some individuals might arrive at the conclusion that COTS software is killing bespoke coding.

But office apps aren't the moneymaker. They are a communications and data storage protocol. We put information into the application and it saves that information using one of a handful of defined standards. Someone views the information (either by opening a file, viewing it on a web page or via dead tree) and possibly supplies comments.

A sufficiently advanced email or instant messaging system with enough user buy-in could probably replace the vast majority of office application use cases. (Facebook has yet to figure this out, but when they do I suspect Microsoft will not be pleased.) Office apps were the low hanging fruit of application software and were quickly commoditised.

But the real moneymakers for most businesses are the financials packages and the various and sundry bits of industry-specific software they run. The modern COTS financials package generates invoices, tracks where the dollars went, manages inventory, worries about tax rates, and creates charts, reports, graphs and so forth. Despite this, companies are constantly bumping up against issues of limited flexibility and inadequate reporting.

Industry-specific software does everything from controlling various bits of industrial hardware to tracking fleets of vehicles and optimising their routes. Most industries have a COTS vendor or three serving their particular niche.

Unfortunately, these vendors tend to be slow to react to feature requests and extant software may not line up with the business processes in place. Given that the competitive advantage of many businesses relies on the uniqueness of their business processes, altering the business to meet the demands of the software is rarely a viable option.

Additionally, one of the more unfortunate realities of the software industry is that most software doesn't play nice with others. Worse, a great deal of it was designed specifically to be impenetrable; the better to lock you in to the "ecosystem" of the vendor.

Competitive pressures on businesses of all sizes are driving demand for greater application integration, and better metrics. Today's SMEs are meeting these challenges with bespoke middleware. Taking the information from this application and feeding it into that one in a reliable fashion; assembling data from multiple sources into a single coherent and comprehensible whole. In industry lingo this is Enterprise Application Integration (EAI).

Enterprises have been doing this since the beforetime, but SMEs are starting to starting to obtain a clue here as well. PaaS gives small developers an easy platform to code to; once the infrastructure stuff is out of the way, they can busy themselves with the important task of gluing the various bits together. There are certainly COTS middleware applications, but these are largely aimed at large enterprises. Microsoft's BizTalk is a popular example. "Adapters" are used to tie together common enterprise applications offerings such as Siebel, SAP or Dynamics. Integration with common SME apps, however, is generally somewhat lacking in COTS middleware.

Integration with industry-specific software requires custom coding, and most of the COTS middleware packages are a lot for the typical SME sysadmin to wrap their head around. (They are a specialisation unto themselves.) It is far easier in many cases to knock something together on a PaaS platform and build out features as needed.

Many SMEs are just now taking their first few cautious steps into the wild world of bespoke software development, while others are venturing a little further from the nest and getting more ambitious. Two decades after the COTS revolution, the bespoke software industry still has plenty of life left yet. ®

Build a business case: developing custom apps

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