Monday, June 16, 2008

Build, Buy or Steal

This post is based on a text I wrote at my day job. It is edited to reflect my personal opinions and does not represent my employer’s view in any way.

The classic 'build vs. buy' dilemma is further complicated by the new wave of quality open source components.

Even if we assume that the open-source alternatives are generally inferior to their closed-source counterparts, their low price makes them an attractive choice for getting started, provided that there is an easy migration path to more powerful solutions. Additionally, many open-source tools are backed by commercial companies which can provide support, consulting and guidance on demand.

Open-source components are often (not always) higher quality than the internally developed libraries. This is because of the usually pretty-good community QA (many users; no time pressures) and the small-vendor mentality of the backing firms (they need to be much better than the industry standard in order to convince a client). Also, a solid OS project provides a decent documentation and community support, often has books written about it and, in general, makes it easier to recruit people already familiar with it.

We do want to build components in-house when we believe that we can provide and need more value than their OS and commercial counterparts can provide. We always need to keep in account that building good library is a continuous investment in new features, bug fixing and documentation. Providing a sub-optimal internal component is the worst of all worlds.

Another big question when to contribute our changes back to an open source project. Conventional wisdom says that you shouldn't give our work for free. Still, given the previous paragraph, I would claim that it's in our best commercial interest to contribute back any changes to the external module's core. In such cases, the initial investment is small, the maintenance is high (as we need to reapply changes with every release) and the business value of the code is low. Alternative is to fork the open-source component, which brings us to the problem in the previous paragraph.

We might also decide to contribute or open source internally developed extensions of Open Source library, gaining free QA and possibly bugfixes. We should not open source code that gives us [our product] significant advantage over alternative solutions on the market. We must not share non-generic code, capturing: business processes, algorithms, site-specific logic, etc.

And now is the time for the mandatory list at the end of the post. I'm going to enumerate a few build vs buy decision anti-patterns:

  • Not Invented Here (NIH) Syndrome - you know, when we write your own thing because we are too lazy to do our research or read the docs.
  • The Wrapping Party - every external library is wrapped in order to integrate into the proprietary architectural framework. Though it might look like a good decision, it often leads to difficulties in the debugging, inability to apply best practices and tools, and generally inefficient use of the library
  • Nobody Got Fired for Buying Expensive Stuff - when technical decisions are taken by managers without enough information (or understanding). Sometimes this is rationalized as that all the products look the same on paper, so at least this one comes from a reputable company we can sue. Problem is that often the very expensive do-it-all products require a staff of rocket scientists (or vendor consultants) in order to deliver anything after that.
  • The First One is Free - some vendors try to promote their products as open source, while capturing your data and interfaces in proprietary formats and protocols and then selling services around them. The SOA RAD tools and BPM tools are particularly bad offenders here. The problem is that this limits the ways for evolving your platform. The way to prevent this is to always be aware what part of the solution is platform specific: configuration (is it documented file format), POJO vs proprietary interface components, can you get the whole solution as a bunch of text files, what protocols are used for communication, what is the data storage, can we plug our custom infrastructure, where?

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