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Web Site Technology: To Build or To Buy?

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  1. Choosing the Right Technology
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At some point, almost every commercial web site will need more advanced technology, like shopping-cart software or a content-management system. The site then faces the essential question: Build or buy? In this article, June Cohen walks non-technical managers through their choices.
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To build or to buy? This is the question many web sites face, as their technological needs grow. It's a tough question, and a relatively new one. But the answer is usually "buy." In the early days, site developers had no choice but to build everything--from the features on their site to the software behind it--themselves. But the most common needs are now addressed through commercial products. If at all possible, you should use them. Nine times out of ten, it's more sensible for companies to buy a technology than to develop it themselves.

Using third-party products saves you time, money, and frustration, and lets you focus your efforts on those aspects of your site that matter most. That said, you shouldn't expect to find a turn-key solution to every problem.

"I came to the web thinking you have to build everything yourself, because when I started, you did," says Dave Thau, an industry veteran who wrote The Book of JavaScript. "Now I'm kind of amazed by what you can buy... and also how hard it is to get things you buy to work together."

Whether you're buying a commercial application or building your own, there are always trade-offs. And it's smart to consider them before choosing a direction.

3 ways to add a new technology:

  1. Build your own application from scratch.

  2. The advantage of designing and developing your own product is obvious: You get something custom-made for you and your needs. But there are serious drawbacks: It takes time and money to develop software. And it doesn't end when the program's up and running. You still have to document and maintain what you've built.

  3. Buy a flexible application that can (and must) be customized.

  4. Many third-party technologies can be customized to suit your particular needs and can evolve as your organization grows. These applications are more like a toolkit than a finished product: They let your engineers build a product that meets your specific needs. The flip-side to this flexibility is the work it takes to customize. You'll need to devote staff--or hire consultants--to adapt the software to your needs. This can be expensive and time-consuming.

  5. Buy a ready-to-use technology that can be used straight out of the box.

  6. Some off-the-shelf products can be installed and used immediately after they're purchased, with only minimal configuration. They're fast and fuss-free, but you may outgrow them. A few months or a few years down the road, you may find that your site has grown or your needs have changed.

Choosing the Right Technology

To make a good decision on technology, you have to know what you want. If you know what you need from a product and how much time, money, and effort you're willing to invest in it, you're more than halfway there.

Before you choose a new technology:

  1. Know what you need.

  2. This may sound simple, but it's the most common mistake people make when choosing technologies. Your first step shouldn't be assembling a line-up of products, but figuring out what you would need from one.

  3. Know what you can live without.

  4. You probably won't find a product that precisely matches all your needs. So it's a good idea to know beforehand what might be negotiable. Which features are pertinent, and which are preferred?

  5. Think about how you'll grow.

  6. Although it's essential to remain focused on your key needs (and not get carried away), you should also keep an eye on the future. Your site will grow and evolve, and you may need the product to grow with it. Will your audience grow? Will you expand the scope of your site? Will you partner with other sites? All these changes could alter what you need from the technology and how well it can serve you.

  7. Get technical advice!

  8. "Make sure you get technical advice on technical products," advises Lance McDaniel, VP of Creative at SBI and Company. It's a simple suggestion, sure. But "it's a good one, and it seems not to be followed much."

Avoiding Potential Pitfalls

What kind of problems might you have with the technologies you buy? Well, to quote the wise witch in the musical Into the Woods: "They disappoint, they disappear, they die... but they don't."

The Witch was talking about parents, actually. But web sites have the same problems with their chosen technology partners.

Potential problems in buying technology:

  1. The technology doesn't live up to your expectations.

  2. The vendor doesn't provide adequate support.

  3. The vendor goes out of business.

You can't always predict or prevent these problems, but you can do your best to avoid them by asking the right questions before you buy.

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