Custom vs. Off-The-Shelf Software

Project planners may confront a choice of whether to purchase and then possibly adapt off-the-shelf (OTS) software or hardware, or to ask an internal tech team or an outside vendor to build custom software. If it is unsure which to use, a party should ask the following questions:

Does OTS software already exist that would meet the needs of the project?



Does that OTS software need to be modified or adapted to meet the needs of the project? If so, to what degree?



Does that OTS software need to be modified or adapted to meet the needs of the project? If so, to what degree?



Is the total cost of the OTS software, including purchase, installation, configuration and modification, within the project budget, both in the short- and long-term?

Yes                             No

If so, does the OTS software have a history of requiring upgrades or changes that might conflict with any modifications made by the party’s tech team or vendors?



Is a vendor needed to implement or support the OTS solution? Is such a vendor available?

Yes                             No

What support is available from the OTS software company? Do they offer day-to-day customer support, and/or will they install and configure the software themselves?



Does the OTS software have particular requirements that may be difficult for the party to fulfill? For instance, “cloud” applications are based online rather than on a specific office computer and typically require consistent internet access, which may not be available in all technological settings.



Does the OTS software meet the party’s security needs? If not, will security require additional software, such as a network firewall?

Yes                             No



Will the OTS software be able to scale/grow to meet the party’s future needs, and will scaling require additional costs such as software modifications, bandwidth or data storage?

Yes                             No



Will either a custom or an OTS solution require the purchase of additional hardware?

Yes                             No

If there are project goals that cannot realistically be met by OTS software, a custom solution may be the only answer. If so, the party should ask:

Is a vendor available that can create the custom software?

Yes                             No

Can that vendor maintain the application in the future? This process includes installing upgrades and patches to the software, and to any associated systems it requires.

Yes                             No

Is the custom software within the project’s cost parameters?

Yes                             No

Is the custom software designed to scale and grow as the party’s needs change?

Yes                             No

Is the custom software tied to the vendor that created it? Will other technologists be able to maintain and upgrade it if the original vendor is no longer available?

Yes                             No

For more considerations, see the sections on choosing tech tools and on  tech firm selection.