Point versus Integrated Solutions–Understanding the Cost

A couple of weeks ago, someone posted a question on the Cisco Learning Network. This question was, “What is the opposite of a ‘point’ solution”. I answered that “integrated solution” would probably be the most likely choice of words as an antonym of “point solution”. That question got me thinking about the pros and cons of each approach.

To me, a point solution is a product that solves a single problem or a small set of very closely related problems. An integrated solution, on the other hand, is more like an ecosystem that is far reaching. An enterprise may actually build their own integrated solution by tightly integrating many point solutions. Another example might be when a manufacturing organization uses a highly customizable ERP or MRP solution that tracks all operational aspects of their deliverables. It may integrate with everything from PLC’s to their Email and CRM application. Those are examples of what I consider an integrated solution.

Many people think the a highly integrated solution is always better than a point solution. There are many cases that integrated solutions are the best fit and should be used. However, it is important to evaluate different approaches and how each affect the holistic environment in which we are introducing the solution. The integrated approach gets the organization much closer to a “one stop shop” or “single pane of glass approach”. This has the obvious benefit of easy access and flow of vital information that may be necessary for employee productivity.

So why should we not always pursue an integrated solution? I think it is important to ask ourselves if there is real benefit to the organization. An integrated solution just for the sake of an integrated solution is often a liability. An integrated solution that provides an organization a strong competitive edge is an asset.

What are some of the drawbacks of an integrated solution? I wanted to touch specifically on this question because many think an integrated solution is always better. Integrated solutions will almost certainly have greater costs. I’m not talking about TCO here, just the initial purchase cost of the solution. Since the capabilities are superior, the effort producing this type of solution is greater. That, along with the added features, will certainly drive the cost up.

Beyond the initial cost, careful consideration to ongoing costs should be considered. The cost of maintenance contracts and administration are obvious. However, what does this solution do to the rest of the organizations ecosystem? What else does it touch or integrate with? These are so important because everything requires periodic upgrades. Will there be compatibility issues that create upgrade gridlock or challenges? Upgrades are becoming more and more complex due to increased levels of integration.

One other question that should be asked is how well a solution does each task. An integrated solution may be great at some primary functions, while falling short on ancillary tasks. If the organization has to augment this with another point solution, that starts to devalue the benefit that the integrated solution should be providing.

From a business perspective, this all comes down to total cost of ownership (TCO). The typical challenge is that business leaders can easily see the organizational benefit of integrated solutions. However, these same leaders cannot easily ascertain the challenges related to the deployment and effect on the technical side of the ecosystem. The technical staff can see the challenges but struggle to quantify and communicate this cost. At the end of the day, the TCO of a system is often more than expected.

I’m not advocating that we always dismiss the use of more complex integrated solutions. My position is that we should always attempt to understand the real cost alongside the benefit to the organization. The challenge is determining the true cost and communicating it to the decision makers. At the end of the day, I think we should find that integrated solutions have their place and we should take full advantage of them.

I think that if we fully assess the costs, we will find that integrated solutions are best suited around solutions to problems that are core to our businesses. Additionally, integrated solutions should be implemented when information sharing is a key element. On the other hand, we should make an attempt to understand the total cost of the products being considered prior to choosing a solution or settling on an approach to a problem

About Paul Stewart, CCIE 26009 (Security)

Paul is a Network and Security Engineer, Trainer and Blogger who enjoys understanding how things really work. With over 15 years of experience in the technology industry, Paul has helped many organizations build, maintain and secure their networks and systems.
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