Best of Breed or Best Fit?

I saw the press release from SoftwareAG that announced their “strategic OEM partnership” with Progress Software for their Actional products.  While I’m not going to comment on that particular arrangement, I did want to comment on the challenge that we industry practitioners face when trying to leverage vendor technologies these days.

There has been a tremendous amount of consolidation in the SOA space.  There’s also been a lot of consolidation in the Systems Management space, another area where I pay a lot of attention. Unfortunately, the challenge still comes down to an integration problem. The smaller companies may be able to be more nimble and add desired capabilities.  This approach is commonly referred to as a “best of breed” approach, where you pick the product that is the best for the immediate needs in a somewhat narrow area.  Eventually, you will need to integrate those systems into something larger.  This is where a “best fit” approach sometimes comes into play.  Here, the desire is to focus more on breadth of capability than on depth of capability.

The definition of what is appropriate breadth is always changing, which is why many of the “best fit” vendors have grown by acquisition rather than continued enhancements and additions to their own solutions.  Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t necessarily make the integration challenges go away.  Sometimes it only means that a vendor is well positioned to offer consulting services as part of their offering, rather than having to go through a third party systems integrator.  It does mean that the customer has a “single throat to choke,” but I don’t know about you, I’d much rather have it all work and not have to choke anyone.

This recent announcement is yet another example of the relationships between vendors that can occur.  OEM relationships, rebranding, partnerships, etc.  Does it mean that we as end users get a more integrated product?  I think the answer is a firm maybe.

The only way that makes sense to me is to always retain control of your architecture.  It doesn’t do any good to ask the questions, “Does your product integrate with foobar?” or “How easy is it to integrate with such-and-such?”  You need to know the specifics of where and how you want these systems to integrate, and then compare that to what the vendors have to say, whether it’s all within their own suite of branded products or involves partners and OEM agreements.  The more specifics you have the better.  You may find that highly integrated suites, perhaps are integrated in name only, or maybe you’ll find that the suite really does operate as a well-oiled machine.  Perhaps you’ll see a small vendor that has worked their tail off to integrate seamlessly into a larger ecosystem, and perhaps you’ll find a small vendor that is best left as an island in the environment.

Then, after getting answers, go through a POC effort to actually prove it out and get your hands dirty (you execute the POC, not the vendor).  There are many choices involved in integrating these systems, such as what the message schemas will be, and the mechanisms of the integration itself- are you integrating “at the glass” via cut and paste between applications?  Are you integrating in the middle via service interactions in the business tier?  Or are you integrating at the data layer, either through direction database access or through some data integration/MDM-like layer?  Just those questions alone can cause significant differences in your architecture.  The only way you’ll see what’s really involved with the integration effort is to sit down and try it out, just do so after first defining how you’d like it to work through a reference architecture, then questioning the vendors on how well they map to your reference architecture, and finally by getting your hands dirty in a POC and actually trying to make it work as advertised in those discussions.

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