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When do you really need custom application development?

Miguel Valdes Faura CEO and Co-founder, Bonitasoft

The custom application development market is growing at a rapid pace and capturing a huge amount of mindshare in today's business climate. That's a given. But is this market the "future of enterprise software," as thought leaders debated several months ago in a forum on bpm.com? Not necessarily. And is custom application development the right solution for most application development needs? Not really.

According to Forrester, in 2013 companies spent $542 billion on custom-built software, applications, and middleware alone. That's not just big multimillion dollar customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) projects, either—it's the things companies build on a daily basis to support their employees, processes, and systems.

As software eats the world, beware the bite

Custom applications are exploding because of one simple fact: the entire world today runs on software and applications. We run software everywhere—on local machines, in massive data centers, in the cloud, and on personal devices.

Forbes has said that if you're in business today, you're in the software business. Forrester argues that a company's competitive advantage is directly tied to how well it develops and delivers the software its business needs.

Custom applications are helping to fill this market need—but at a cost. Each of those applications costs a ton of money, not only to build but also to update and support each year. In 2014 alone, the cost of supporting and maintaining an application increased by 29 percent. There's no end in sight to these maintenance cost hikes, either.

The good news is that you can reverse the cycle. Gartner says that optimizing your application development and maintenance can cut costs by more than 50 percent. The custom application development process simply isn't structured for supporting quick change. It's expensive, it's slow moving, and it's not designed for the incremental updates and improvements that businesses today demand.

There are still a few examples in which traditional, custom application development makes sense. There are some unique security needs in the military sector, for example, and industries where tight regulations dictate special considerations. Still, most projects can be handled far more effectively and affordably other ways.

BPM application platforms beef up

If you need customization but don't want to go to the custom development route, then what's the alternative? There are other application development platforms out there that can be used to turn out applications quickly, but their customization capability is generally limited.

In the bpm.com forum that debated the question of custom applications as the future of enterprise software, consultant Michal Rykiert suggested sticking with business process management (BPM). He noted that applications developed within a BPM suite (BPMS) framework can provide the required level of customization more efficiently. "Currently BPM systems are flexible enough to be able to deliver business applications adjusted to customers' specific needs," he said.

He's right. BPM systems have evolved in recent years. The field is no longer dominated by large, inflexible behemoths that could take a year to install and months to make changes in simple processes. Today, BPM-based application platforms are exploring new ways of creating solutions inside BPM constructs, allowing companies to integrate a new application quickly with existing technologies and processes.

Another facet of custom applications—beyond cost—is how the hard-coded nature of the applications makes them resistant to change. Say you custom-develop an application for HR or for your production line. What happens when the HR department needs to add a whole different mix of employees and gather vastly different information during the onboarding process? What happens when you need to change the flow of approvals for a product inspection process? There's usually a long wait associated with changes to custom applications. BPM-based applications built on an extensible platform are easy to change with your business, even in production.

And how well does the custom application integrate with the rest of the company's technologies? A good BPM-based application platform should have a vast array of connectors that plug in to existing processes—everything from CRM to data stores to time sheet programs. Providing tools to create applications in this environment, within the company's flow of operations, is both empowering for developers and efficient for the company itself.

Custom applications have a time and a place—as evidenced by the $542 billion market figure that's growing every day. But there are alternatives that make sense. Applications built with a BPM-based application platform are the future.

Image source: Flickr

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