Why COTS is preferred
One question that seems to be resolved relates to the battle between a pure in-house custom development project and a commercially available software product. The conflict has largely been won, in terms of volume at least—in the favor of commercial solutions. That is to say, more labs buy commercial systems than develop their own. As laboratory information management systems (LIMS) have matured, functionality, reliability and flexibility have grown to the point where labs can focus on their core competencies—analytical testing—and let software companies leverage their large customer base and code writing skills. There are certainly still laboratories pursuing custom developed solutions but as with other products—ERP systems, CRM systems, sales force automation—a majority of labs have made the transition to commercial solutions. This outcome is based on four primary principles:
Software Development: Commercial solutions in general benefit from a dedicated software development focus and a formal institutionalized process. End products are vetted by multiple customers and if the solution is not robust enough, market pressures will force the company out of business. The internal laboratory IT staff, however well intentioned, does not typically have the same level of development skills. Acquiring and retaining those skills—hiring or contracting—is cost prohibitive for the lab and takes away resources that may be better utilized for increasing testing activity, capability, and quality.
Configurability: A COTS that is “configurable” essentially offers the best of both worlds. The system can be modified to fit the unique needs of a lab but still take advantage of automated and streamlined procedures that fit a more standardized model. The key is that configurability does not require the traditional hard coding that custom systems typically require. COTS systems instead rely on “switches” in the system that can be turned on and off, and on a pliable user interface (i.e. fields that can be easily modified).
Spreading Costs: COTS solutions have a lower total cost of ownership because development and support costs are spread out across a large customer base. This is true for core functionality as well as integration with third party software and hardware. Custom products are inherently one-of-a-kind works of art and all costs of development, upgrade and support are shouldered by one laboratory. Further, with a custom solution, there is no vendor to hold accountable or call center to contact for support.
Technology Advancement: COTS solutions are more likely to incorporate new and improving functionality because software companies are driven by competitive pressure to evolve. A custom solution is by definition created to a very narrow set of requirements and there are rarely funds for investment in developing significant new versions.