By George Pitagorsky | Follow on Twitter!
Comparing Best of Breed and Monolithic Solutions
There is an ongoing debate that seeks to decide whether a single integrated suite of applications (whether from a single vendor or developed in-house) is better than a collection of best of breed products when it comes to solution architecture. There is no easy answer. There are pros and cons to each strategy and the possibility of hybrid solutions that address the needs of a given situation.
What most people do agree upon is the need to address the interplay among all of the systems and procedures in an environment, organization, community, etc. This need includes user experience (UE), for example is there a unified user interface as opposed to having to move from application to application depending on the task at hand). It also includes business intelligence requirements which integrate data from different business functions for high level reporting. Is there an easy way to extract and transfer data? Is enterprise data free from unnecessary redundancy and confusion as to the data of record?
[RELATED: Best of Breed Philosophy]
Advantages and Disadvantages
The principle advantages of the best of breed approach is that
- 1. Each application is relatively easy to implement
- 2. The application is generally feature rich and more likely to be state-of-art
- 3. Vendor staff are more specialized in the specific subject area being address by the application and can provide support and advice beyond the technical level. Best of breed applications often fill a functionality gap in monolithic systems. They lead to architectures that can be more flexible and enable localized change of applications.
The integrated solution - e.g., an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) suite or Project, Program and Portfolio Management suite - has the advantages of:
- 1. Having everything in one system without the need for interfacing individual applications from different vendors
- 2. Having a single vendor
- 3. Often being more economical, for example by simply turning on functions in an already purchased ERP system as opposed to procuring or building the functionality
How to decide?
As with any decision, start with a clear understanding of the issue and the criteria for deciding.
The issue is NOT whether best of breed or integrated solutions are best. That is a question for academics and philosophers. The practical question is whether one or the other, or some hybrid combination of the two, is best for your situation. Are you implementing a business intelligence system, project management suite or an integrated suite of operational business functions like ordering, receiving, accounts payables, inventory and accounting?
The basic criteria for making the decision are:
- Will you gain from the difference in product quality - additional and more effective features and functions, more intuitive User Interface, ramp up time for users?
- Will you make use of the vendor's subject matter expertise? Will the specialized knowledge of the vendor in the application's use be available, affordable and of value?
- How complex is integration? Does it involve two way real time, interactive conversation or is there a simple exchange of data? How likely are technical difficulties that lead to finger pointing? How will data integrity be managed?
- What is the cost of ownership? Licenses and operational, enhancement and maintenance costs?
- How flexible and resilient will the solution be? Will evolving needs and requests for change be addressed in a timely and cost effective way?
- Is the vendor reliably stable for the long term (your expected life for the product)? Is the vendor resilient enough to sustain both growth and retraction? How central to the vendor's business is your application?
- What is the cost of exit? What is the level of effort required to replace the application?
Best of breed solutions are more attractive when the application area is for analysis and reporting rather than transactional operations. Software design 101 teaches that any system is a pipeline of data passing through processes or functions. Ideally, each function is autonomous of the others, except for the data being passed. This means that any function can be replaced without effecting the system as a whole, if the new function takes in the same input and delivers the same output as the function it is replacing.
Unfortunately, the ideal is not always achieved. In some systems, functions are coupled in ways that make them more impacted by changes in other functions and often in ways that are difficult to predict.
Let’s look at a couple of examples. Business Intelligence (BI) applications take data from multiple sources and enable analysis and reporting to inform business decisions through the creation and distribution of alerts, dashboards and reports. Primary input is transactional data, often from multiple business functions. Secondary data can come from news feeds, social media or other systems. If you are using an ERP system for transactional processing is the ERP's BI functionality as good as you need it and want it to be?
Will the ERP vendor pay as much attention to enhancing the BI functionality as to enhancing core business processing functions? Will the exit from the ERP system (should one be necessary) be easier and less costly if you are using a best of breed BI application from another vendor?
Which product and vendor will give you the service you need? Can the product easily accept data from multiple sources with little or no programming required? Will application users have a seamless and consistent UI for their work and how important is that? What is the learning curve? How quickly and easily will users be able to come up to speed in their use of the system?
Does the vendor provide effective training materials, courses and coaching for users? What are licensing fees? What leverage do you have to influence the ongoing evolution of the tool?
In another situation, if you are addressing an ERP application in a distribution company, what would you gain from using an inventory or ordering application from another vendor? Would the complexity of an interactive solution that requires a dynamic management between applications of orders, receipts, sales, fulfillment, inventory levels and payables worth the benefits of the best of breed system?
It Depends - No One Right Answer
Of course, the answer depends on the nature of the applications in question and the needs of the business.
There is no one answer to the question of whether to use a best of breed or an integrated solution. The answer depends on your situation and values. Taking an enterprise-wide view, informed by local needs, costs (including total cost of ownership and technology debt), benefits, risks and long term strategic implications must be assessed to make an effective decision.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George Pitagorsky, PMP, integrates core disciplines and applies mindfulness meditation and people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. George authored Managing Expectations: A Mindful Approach to Achieving Success, The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict in Projects and PM Foundation. He is a senior teacher at the NY Insight Meditation Center.