Monday, March 2, 2009

Web Operations: Are you developing an asset or a liability?

"Buy vs. Build". It's a term you hear repeatedly with it comes to businesses weighing their options for application and systems management solutions. But as anyone who spends time in the web operations trenches knows, the reality is always something closer to "build vs. build". Buy something from a software vendor, use open source tools, develop something from scratch - in each situation there just isn't a one size fits all option and there is always going to be custom integration involved. This reality was previously covered in Alex's "Stone Axes" post.

So being resigned to the fact that there is a "build" aspect to any solution, the next critical choice then becomes what guidelines you impose on your organization to steer their design choices. The most pervasive design criteria seems to be technical completeness or elegance. From a technical architect's purist point of view this makes sense; but what this often fails to take into account is the business impact of those technical decisions.

While many technical design options might seem to have identical business impact on day 1 (they cost roughly x to develop and provide feature y), what are the true cost of those decisions down the road? Have those decisions put the company in a position to continuously leverage those design choices into increasingly greater returns? Or have those decisions placed an anchor around the company's neck that they will be weighted down by, and paying for, well into the future? To put it into loose economic terms: have you developed an asset or a liability for your company?

What would be an example of building asset? Using off the shelf open source tools and only developing thin layers of integration where they need to plug into your existing systems.

What would be an example of building a liability? Writing a custom system that mirrors the available functionality of existing off the shelf tools, thereby saddling your company with the sole responsibility for the forward progress of the design and maintenance of that tooling.

The asset vs. liability concept is one that obviously needs to be flushed out quite a bit more. In any case, it's shocking how infrequently companies actually analyze the long-term business impact of the technical design decisions made about their tooling.

(Note: Thanks to Lee Thompson for framing this as an asset vs liability debate)

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