Make it or buy it?

Steve Cassidy ponders whether 'home grown' really is the way to go nowadays.

When is it right to do development work? If you listen to the cloud and services worlds, then the answer would be "never." There are lots of pronouncements out there which make it sound like computing in business has changed, from being about soldering irons right through compilers and server racks, and now it's all contracts. Never mind your technical credentials go and be a lawyer.

If, however, you do as I have been doing for sister title PC Pro, and get out into the wider world of British businesses, then it's remarkable how often people have decided to develop something themselves. This usually happens after they've had a good look around the pre-packaged market for their industry and decided that nothing really does the job for them. Well, at least, that's the way they see it.

I've seen 27-year-old DOS programs still in daily use; barcode based systems whose speed would shame a superstore checkout; relational databases stretched to their limit selling model trains; and enthusiastic, intimidating smart developers behind every one.

The stand-out, knock down all time best effort of the lot so far, though, was in a County Council that I visited this week. I won't directly identify them, so that my criticisms don't get anyone into trouble: In any case, I want to draw people's attention to the job they have done and the way they have mixed development and free tools, to make an arrestingly simple solution for a very widespread problem.

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What I saw was a competitor for the almost-universal systems management suite used by schools to keep their computing classrooms and assets ticking over smoothly. RM (Research Machines, though the name is a misdirection since "Research" doesn't really describe either product or customer base) have owned this marketplace for a considerable number of years. It's a supplier relationship which is to be congratulated for the overall durability of the solution (that is: Classes don't fail to happen) while at the same time, criticised for an insular, competition-free selling, pricing and relationship (that is: nobody seems to feel like going up against RM, given the pace of decision making, the risks, and the likely reward from trying to enter this market).

The council IT support crew have produced their alternative to RM's Control Centre (aka CC) software suite, by first carefully examining their history of support calls and work; then how the normal working day of a schools IT admin is spent; then what the suitability of features in software products are, to improving the lot of both the support team centrally, and the school techies out in the wilds.

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