COTS not always saving money

Companies  use nowadays more and more Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) software products. I have seen many of these projects that launch a big software product within an larger IT organization. My feeling is that it not always helps the organization and that it is usually a very costly endeavour.

I’m looking for explanations, why these projects are causing so much effort. One explanation could be found in the number of dependencies that a software product has to other IT systems. The more interfaces a COTS product has, the more complex is the integration. But why is it more complex than integrating a software written from the scratch? There are two reasons:

  1. We know less about the internals of a COTS product. Since it’s not written by the developers themselves, if a problem during integration occurs, it will be more difficult to find the causes of the problem.
  2. The COTS product implements more than required. A product must be adaptable in many organization. It come with features that one organization finds useful, others don’t. But it contains all the features. It will also have some kind variability build in – to adapt it to all different situations.

Because of these two reasons, the variety of a COTS integration is higher. If a company that integrates a COTS software has to deal with a larger variety, we must have in the organization with a higher variety, to be able to control it. This is due to Ashby’s Law, a very important law in cybernetics. If one system wants to control another system than it must have a higher variety.

So there are two ways of dealing with it:

  1. Decrease the variety of the system that you want to control. We do that for instance in coding software by type checking or information hiding.
  2. Increase the variety of the system that wants to control the other. We do that in software development by self-organized teams. Those teams are able to have a higher variety than a team lead by a command-and-control style manager.

Okay – so what we know is that COTS will have a higher variety – maybe. If a COTS product has less interfaces to other systems/components the integration will not amplify the uncertainty into the project, and thus may still be manageable.