Ask the IT Consultant

Jun 8 2009   12:00PM GMT

The Buy/Build Software Decision: Still With Us After All These Years.


Question:  I am thinking of implementing a new point of sale system for my retail operation.  I have been using a 20 year old homegrown system.  What is the current thinking on the relative merits of buying a COTS (Commercial off the Shelf) system as opposed to building a custom platform?

In the past, retailers were faced with few options for a COTS system for POS systems.  Moreover, most available COTS systems didn’t provide the flexibility or the specific functionality that most retailers wanted or a clean integration into their back-end inventory, fulfillment or financial systems.  At best, this could mean a messy manual data migration or, if the system wasn’t flexible enough it could mean the need to build expensive custom interfaces.

If you build it yourself, you’ll get exactly the functionality you want, but can you afford the time and cost to develop it in-house?  If you haven’t built such a system for awhile or ever, it is quite likely that you don’t have the in-house expertise to ensure you will get it right the first time.

What a difference from a few years ago.  Today, there are many good choices for COTS POS systems for a retailer to select from.  Most have enough functionality to meet both a retailer’s present and future needs; and they generally include clean integration paths into common back end systems.

Nowadays unless you have very specialized needs, it is more than likely that selecting a COTS solution is going to be less expensive and faster to deploy than building it from scratch.  The tradeoff is you might not get all the functionality you need or you might get features you might never use.   To determine what is best for your situation, you will need to examine the cost/benefit analysis of each approach based on the key criteria for the new system (functionality vs. cost/time to deploy).  As you go through cost/benefit exercise the best alternative should emerge; the one you can successfully justify to your CEO or CFO!

About the Author:

Robert Johnson, Director of Product Marketing at Atrion Networking Corporation where he’s responsible for market analysis, developing new products and the company’s managed services business line. Robert is a 30 year veteran of the IT industry having held positions with executive strategy and marketing positions with CGI Inc., Deloitte Consulting and Digital Equipment Corp.

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