Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Custom, COTS and Platform Development

Approaches to Line of Business Application Solution Development

Whether you are looking to write a brand new line of business (LOB) application, consolidate multiple existing LOB applications onto a standard platform, or modernize a 15 year-old legacy mainframe application, there are several approaches to consider in today’s marketplace.


Custom Development

Historically, and likely the way that your existing applications were created is via custom development to your exact specifications. However, custom development has shown to have some significant disadvantages:

  • Significant re-investment in the common “plumbing” services for each and every application
  • Lack of UI standardization and usability resulting in increased training costs and lower user adoption
  • Most organizations struggle to correctly and completely define the requirements resulting in inadequate and incomplete solution
  • You get ONLY what you ask for. EVERYTHING else becomes an extra cost and effort.
  • Stuck in the perpetual “technology refresh” cycle. (Technology already out-of-dated before even going to production.)
  • Lack of modern standards support (UI, integrations, services, etc.)
  • Lack of budget and resources to support today’s needs around Cloud, Mobility, Social Computing and Big Data.


COTS and SaaS

As a result of the challenges and cost of custom developed solutions, there has been a significant swing to ready-made, pre-built, applications usually referred to as Commercial of the Shelf (COTS) software.

In their Market Trends paper: “Application Services Shifting to Information- and Asset-Based Business Solutions” (1), Gartner documents very clearly the market shift from custom application services to COTS and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) approaches. Some key drivers for this shift are:

  • Business managers are driving application decisions with preference toward packages and SaaS solutions
  • Demand for COTS and SaaS solutions now exceeds the demand for custom developed solutions.
  • The Nexus of Forces (3) (Cloud, Mobility, Social Computing and Big Data) is permeating virtually all application implementations
  • IT organization roles are shifting to managing technology, architecture and vendors
  • Shift in service portfolios to more architectural and information-centric and implemented through a series of small projects

While this trend towards COTS and SaaS solutions is seen across all domains, it is especially amplified within the Public Sector. In “Market Trends: Government Vertical-Specific Software” (2), Gartner discusses the ever increasing trend within the government at all levels towards more COTS and SaaS solutions targeted towards specific Public Sector missions like administration and finance; health and human services; public safety and criminal justice; and transportation and public works.

Unfortunately, COTS and SaaS have their own shortcomings.

A significant challenge encountered with COTS solutions is that they represent the vendor’s understanding and interpretation of the business needs in the particular vertical domain that the COTS application is targeting. Additionally, many COTS applications have minimal capacity for the individualization of their offering to your specific business needs. When we consider the Pareto Principle (Also known as the “80/20” rule), it can be applied to assert that the COTS application will only meet 80% of your needs out-of-the-box. But, what about the other “20%”?



Custom Development vs. COTS

Thus, when we compare custom development versus COTS software solutions, they can be summarized as:

Custom Development

Exactly what you want, but costly with limited lifetime


Pre-Built and vertical-ized, but exactly what they want

The common response to these two choices is that it seems like we are stuck between a choice of two extremes. On the one hand, you don’t have enough time and money to continue with custom development for all your LOB applications. Yet, on the other hand, you may need more flexibility and functionality than what a vertical specific COTS solution offers you.

Thankfully, there is third approach to line of business solution development: That of the Platform Development approach.


Platform Development

If the “80/20” rule for COTS applications implies that the COTS or SaaS solution will meet “80%” of your needs out-of-the-box, this is a great thing! But what about the other “20%”? Are you forced back into a partial custom development approach? Do you just “do without”?

Enter the realm of Platform Development.

With a LOB Platform development environment, like that of the Microsoft Dynamics xRM platform, you get the best of COTS and SaaS (the “80%”), the ability to leverage domain and vertical solutions, coupled with an extensibility framework that allows you to safely create the individualized “20%” that is specific to your particular business and mission requirements. Thus, we gain the efficiencies and economies of COTS + pre-built vertical solutions + individualization for specific line of business needs.


By adopting a Platform-based approach to LOB application development, modernization, and consolidation, we gain some very specific benefits:

  • Cost Reductions, and Avoidance
    • Common plumbing provided by the platform. No need to ‘recreate the wheel’
      • Database management
      • Security model
      • Web service enablement
      • Cloud enablement
      • Mobility enablement
      • Analytics enablement
    • Increased user adoption due to standardized user interfaces and user experiences
    • The ability to support multiple discrete LOB applications on a single deployed platform via multi-tenant architectures
  • Shorter time to value, Increased productivity
    • Common Platform features and functionality operational out-of-the-box
    • Domain accelerators providing the generalized domain and mission specific functionality out-of-the-box
    • Scalable to meet the most demanding business environments
  • Increased flexibility
    • Native extensibility to safely create both domain accelerators and specific business solutions
    • Point-and-Click dynamic configuration tailored to specific business and mission needs


Dynamics CRM Platform Examples

Following are just a few examples of Public Sector agencies that have successfully adopted an agency-wide application of Dynamics CRM as a platform development environment.

Commonwealth of Virginia



Built unique business solutions on a single Dynamics CRM platform to support multiple agencies across the state:

  • Department of Historic Resources
  • State Board of Elections
  • Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services
  • Virginia information Technology Agency
  • Secretary of the Commonwealth
  • Governor’s Office

Pennsylvania County Commissioners


Using Microsoft Dynamics CRM as a platform, developed rich flexible applications for:

  • Functionality for Each Department
  • Reporting and Dashboards
  • Streamlined Flow of Information
  • Flexible Deployment Model
  • Improved Public Safety
  • More Efficient Processes
  • Better Insight across all agencies

United States Department of Homeland Security


In support of multiple Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-wide initiatives, a cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) solution is being deployed using the Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform. This SaaS offering deploys and scales business operations such as records management, scheduling, reporting, tracking campaigns, mission and workforce activities, and budgets. Within the DHS, Microsoft Dynamics CRM is used by the Transportation Security Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Coast Guard.

United States Veterans Administration


The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) transformed the Veterans Benefits Administration National Call Centers and its Pension Call Center by using Microsoft Dynamics CRM. Through the VA’s Veterans Relationship Management (VRM) initiative, the VA used Microsoft Dynamics CRM to integrate access to 13 different databases, which previously had to be individually queried and are now viewed simultaneously. This not only makes the call agents’ jobs easier, enabling them to recall veteran information more quickly, it also gives veterans timely access to healthcare, claims status and business information. “Microsoft Dynamics has helped VRM provide a platform to help millions of veterans and their families each year,” said Maureen Ellenberger, director of VRM. “To date, over 1 million calls have been better supported using CRM. We are already planning expanded deployments to other VA call centers.” In addition, the Federal Case Management Tool (FCMT), also built on Microsoft Dynamics CRM, is greatly supporting wounded warriors as they transition into VA care. The modernization of the VRM and FCMT programs has enabled the VA to strengthen its services to veterans.


Summary (A Hybrid Approach)

As with most things in life, reality lies somewhere towards the middle. Even with rich platforms like Dynamics, it is still inevitable to come across niche situations where you must still write custom code. Fortunately, with the adoption of a platform development model and technology stack, both the quantity and complexity of the remaining custom development need will be greatly diminished.

By adopting a platform development solution like Dynamics and leveraging COTS-like domain specific accelerators and solutions you can effectively achieve the proverbial “80%” of your business needs out-of-the-box. Additionally, the platform enables advanced functionality around Cloud, Mobility, Social, and Big Data that you may not have been able to provide at all without the platform’s assistance.

For the remaining “20%”, the platform’s native extensibility framework provides you with an industry standard and safe mechanism to individualize and tailor both the platform and domain solutions to meet your very specific business and mission needs; ultimately reducing your costs, increasing your productivity, and serving your customers and constituency more efficiently.












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