Friday, July 15, 2011

Buy a BIG box solution, build your own, or move to Web 2.0?

The Problem

Ever since the immortal promise of "information at your fingertips" that Microsoft made in the 1990s, people have been able to truly manage their own data and have their information at their fingertips. The MS Office suite of software tools has performed a huge supporting role in this arena. MS Word lets you compose anything you wish.

However, a review of your maintenance, project, STO (Shutdown, Turnaround or Outage), or MS Sharepoint folders shows you just how many DOC and DOCX files are in existence in your department. Many of these files are simply forms that hold valuable data that could, and should, be stored in an easily retrievable mode.

The effective storage of data would cause a huge reduction in document-based forms, which in turn would reduce the number of files that need to be reviewed by analysts and auditors when studying your project’s history.

MS Excel, like MS Word, has played its part in the creation of untold millions of spreadsheets that hold data that should rightly be stored in more appropriate and well-designed databases. Microsoft did ride to the rescue—they provided us with MS Access, a database tool that, like Excel, allows the masses to tie ourselves up in knots developing ad hoc databases to hold data in small amounts while allowing us to continue being smug that we still have information at our fingertips. No one else can access this data—but I can, and that’s all that matters.

Imagine the huge cost to corporations, governments, and institutions that these ad hoc MS documents, spreadsheets, and databases represents! They are costly to maintain, they are out-of date as soon as they are saved. They are redundant because there are so many copies of each. They take up huge amounts of space. The list of bad effects goes on and on. These issues and drawbacks are well known to IT departments, yet they often continue to actively encourage users to keep their information at their fingertips—implying that it is less costly to do so. And so the chaotic situation grows more chaotic every day!

So what is a logical alternative to this unsustainable situation? I see three options:

  • BIG Box Solutions from Solution vendors
  • Solutions Developed In-House
  • Web-based Solutions, also known as Web 2.0 solutions

BIG Box

As you would expect, many companies have provided a huge array of potential solutions. Mostly, these are focused on vertical markets. In the work management space, where I have my exposure and experience, companies such as SAP, Indus, IBM, Oracle, and countless others (these are just the big boys) have database products focused on areas such as Accounting, Project Management, Maintenance Management, Asset management, etc. These are typically LARGE systems that require LARGE budgets and HUGE amounts of time and people to configure and deploy.

Many companies have already been down this path and the industry has a huge store of anecdotes about the successes and failures of these BIG systems. ROI does not manifest itself for years and a huge upfront cost is the norm. Due to the large cost, failures are spectacular. If you can afford it, this might be right for you. In a time of slimmer budgets though, it seems to me, these solutions are not the obvious best option.

Home-grown - In-house Development

So, what about simply getting what I need from a local software shop or contractor? Maybe our IT department has a few computer geeks that could easily throw a database solution together and we would be good to go. It would cost less, plus we get just what we want. Training would be easy too as we have the people on staff.

Another word for this approach is customized solution.

Here, too, there is a huge anecdotal record of successes and plenty of failures with this approach. In-house developers typically do not have the passion for the subject and are not necessarily experts in the specific business requirements or the state-of-the-art development tools. The resulting product is often under-whelming, late, and a disappointment to all but the initial users and designers—assuming there were any.

Problems are compounded when the primary developer leaves or is moved on to another project. While inexpensive initially, maintenance costs will add up as user requests for changes come in. ROI is pretty quick and having dedicated support is pretty nice—until the provider gets focused on other, newer, and more exciting development projects.

To me, this option seems like a good way to go to prototype your ideas—if you have a good support team. However, sooner or later you will need to face the music; maintenance and keeping it functional in newer environments will be tough to do and get tougher due to the non-scalability of such applications.

Web 2.0

With the advent of Web 2.0 (applications on the web) a new solution option has appeared that provides a great opportunity for companies to finally solve these problems of huge numbers of ad hoc files created in ad hoc tools and the associated data loss. The incredible speed of improvements in the mobile space also helps these Web 2.0 apps to flourish on ubiquitous handheld devices such as pads and phones.

In addition to the ease with which these apps can be used, the web has ushered in a new pricing model: It is possible to get the the benefit of these apps for a small per user cost for the use of each app. Imagine that! No licence fees as you are not running the software on your system. The system is hosted in the secure, easily accessible cloud. Also, you pay no maintenance fees as these are built in to the user rates. You may have to pay a fee for the size of your database if it exceeds a threshold amount. And there may be a fee for bandwidth usage. These should all be fairly insignificant compared to costs incurred with the traditional BIG Box solutions and also the home-grown solutions.

Web 2.0 allows the solution to feel like a traditional (non-web) app. A well-designed solution allows for configuration to meet your specific needs. You should have virtually no costs associated with additional development.

Conclusion

You guessed it. I think that the time has come to make the switch to the Web. Find your ideal vendor and start saving money. The sooner you do this, the sooner you will realize the benefits of that promise in the 90s. You really can now have useful, actionable, timely, accurate, secure information at your fingertips. Finally!

Sound too good to be true? Get in touch for a workout of the TeamWork Solutions.

Note: All product and company names referenced in this article are the property of their respective owners.

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