The new reasons you need to buy software products and platforms and not build them

February 5, 2024
4 mins

Let's embark on an extended exploration into the world of software maintenance, where the initial choice between custom-built and off-the-shelf software is merely the beginning of a much longer journey. This journey is fraught with updates, patches, and the need for continuous vigilance, especially when navigating the waters of open-source software.

The Harsh Reality of Software Projects

Diving into the heart of the matter, a significant number of software projects find themselves in troubled waters. The Standish Group's Chaos Report provides some startling figures: only about 29% of IT project implementations are successful, 52% are challenged (over budget, late, or lacking essential features), and a staggering 19% are outright failures (either abandoned or never used). These numbers underline the critical importance of not just the development phase but the ongoing maintenance that follows. So, remember that even though this article is about maintenance, the odds are you won’t get far enough to worry about that.

The Ongoing Maintenance Odyssey

The maintenance phase of software is where the real test begins. Particularly in the realm of open-source software, the allure of 'free' access is often tempered by the hidden costs of keeping the software up-to-date and secure. This involves regular updates, patches, and ensuring compatibility with existing systems - tasks that require dedicated resources and expertise.

Open Source: A Blessing and a Challenge

Open-source software, while offering unparalleled flexibility and community support, also demands a proactive approach to maintenance. A typical Node.js application, for example, might depend on hundreds of npm packages. Each package, in turn, may have its dependencies, creating a complex web that needs constant monitoring. The 2020 Open Source Security and Risk Analysis (OSSRA) report by Synopsys found that 75% of the codebases examined contained open-source components with known security vulnerabilities.

©️ xkcd Randall Munroe

Crunching the Numbers

When it comes to the financial aspects of software maintenance, the figures can be eye-opening. According to the industry benchmark, the total cost of ownership (TCO) for software, which includes maintenance, can be 2 to 3 times the initial development costs. For instance, Capers Jones, a well-known figure in software engineering research, suggests that maintenance can account for 60% to 80% of the total cost of software over its lifetime.

A Closer Look at Maintenance Costs with Open Source

To put this into perspective, let's consider the maintenance of the Qt Framework Essentials, which includes approximately 3 million lines of code. Drawing from industry averages, if we assume that commercial software has 15 to 50 bugs per 1000 lines of code, and fixing each bug takes between 0.5 to 2 days, the cumulative cost over a decade can be substantial. Even if an organization fixes only 10% of these bugs in-house, the costs can quickly escalate into hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

The Impact of Mobile OS Updates

In addition to the challenges already discussed, there's another significant factor that impacts the maintenance of software, especially in the mobile domain: the frequent updates and patches of mobile operating systems. This additional layer of complexity can significantly extend the maintenance efforts and costs for both custom-built and off-the-shelf software solutions.

Mobile operating systems like iOS and Android are continually evolving, with major updates released annually and minor updates occurring even more frequently. Each update can introduce new features, deprecate old ones, and change the underlying system behaviours that can affect how mobile applications function. For developers, this means a constant cycle of adapting and testing their software to ensure compatibility and performance across all supported OS versions.

The Challenge of Keeping Pace

The pace at which mobile operating systems evolve poses a unique challenge for maintaining software. Developers must not only fix bugs and implement new features but also anticipate and react to changes introduced by OS updates. This often requires extensive testing across multiple devices and OS versions to identify any issues that could impact the software's functionality or user experience.

Financial Implications

The financial implications of mobile OS updates on software maintenance can be substantial. According to a report by Forrester Research, more than 70% of the total cost of ownership (TCO) for mobile apps is attributed to ongoing maintenance and updates, far surpassing the initial development costs. This includes the need to adapt to new OS versions, which can necessitate significant redevelopment efforts to ensure compatibility and take advantage of new platform capabilities.

The Bigger Picture

Beyond bug fixes and OS updates, maintaining open-source software involves ensuring compliance with licenses, managing security vulnerabilities, and keeping up with community developments. These tasks can significantly add to the workload of IT teams, diverting resources from innovation to upkeep.

In Conclusion

The journey through software maintenance is a complex and often underappreciated aspect of technology management. While the initial development of software, whether custom-built or off-the-shelf, presents its own set of challenges, the real work often begins post-deployment. Understanding the potential costs, risks, and required resources for ongoing maintenance is crucial for businesses to ensure the longevity and effectiveness of their software investments.

For those looking to delve deeper into this topic, examining detailed reports from The Standish Group, Synopsys, and insights from software engineering experts like Capers Jones can offer valuable additional perspectives. These resources can provide a more nuanced understanding of the maintenance landscape and help inform strategic decisions in software development and management.

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