Custom development vs. off-the-shelf software – what solution to choose?

Reading time: 5 min

Each time we approach a new software project, we often start with a question if our client has already considered an off-the-shelf solution.

Sometimes a thorough market research of the products and small customisations give you exactly what you need with a fair price tag compared to the usually more demanding and costly process of writing software from scratch.

There are several reasons for which bespoke software is often more suitable though, including:

  • the software needs to give your company an edge,
  • your processes are too unique or complex for a market-wide solution,
  • or simply the overall cost of your solution will be lower this way.

We are also often asked ‘What would you recommend?’ Our answer is: ‘It really depends.’

Look at the table below which briefly explains key differences.


What is the difference between off-the-shelf and bespoke software?


Custom software

Off-the-shelf software

Intellectual property

Bespoke software solutions are your assets and you can modify, share, sell, commercialise them and much more. An off-the-shelf product is the asset of the provider, which you ‘rent’.

What will be your user base?

There are no fees per user because it’s your software.

It’s vital to consider the user base scaling in the architecture design phase to accommodate for a growing user base.

In the cost per user model you might want to calculate cost-effectiveness of such solution if your user base is large or is likely to grow in the future.

Will you make changes and extensions?

You can freely modify custom software at your own pace. You are dependent on the external timescales in terms of new features. Some features you require as your business evolves may not be consistent with your provider’s product development roadmap.

How long will you be using the software?

Remember your software will need to be updated with time. If you are planning to use the software permanently, it might turn out it is more effective to create your own software, rather than use a generic solution.

How soon will you need the software?

Building bespoke software usually takes much more time to implement, although working iteratively you can get the MVP faster. In general, it’s quicker to start using the COTS products, although any modifications you may require from the provider may take some time.

User experience

It’s your call what the solution looks like. It’s completely adapted to your organisation in terms of business logic, naming and branding. The product is usually less adjusted to your business and you also might get excessive functionality which can be problematic in terms of user experience.


You have more control over security but are also responsible for it.

Custom software is usually less frequently targeted by hackers.

Security is on your provider so make sure they hold required certifications. Ask what kind of security measures are taken.

Data protection and data storage

You are solely responsible for data protection and your solution’s compliance with GDPR and other relevant standards.

You control where the solution is hosted.

It’s the provider’s responsibility to ensure data protection and product compliance with standards such as GDPR.

Also, the provider often determines the data storage location which sometimes might be an issue.

Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)

An initial cost is usually much higher.

You must also consider the software maintenance costs.

Entry cost is lower, but you should calculate what exactly will be your monthly cost considering predicted user base.

Note that if you are planning to use the software for a long time and your user base is large, the total cost might be higher than going bespoke.

The pros are that you can always withdraw from your subscription and try something else.

Support & maintenance

You are in control of support and maintenance so you can adjust the service to your needs, but this also means you are responsible for keeping the software technology and documentation up-to-date to avoid legacy and technical debt. The provider is responsible for support & maintenance, and hence you must rely on the bug fixing timescales of the provider which might cause some frustrations. Be sure to review the technical service desk’s SLAs.

If possible, choose a stable business to avoid the risk of provider stopping to update the software or even closing the product.

Business continuity

You are in control of your business continuity. Your business’ continuity is reliant upon your provider.


As each project is unique, these are just some of the aspects to consider when making the decision of ‘custom development vs. off the shelf software’.

What you may find interesting is the following episode of IT Leadership Insights where Steve Baker, the Owner and Principal Consultant of IT consultancy Vermillion IT, discusses some of the practical considerations of custom versus COTS software based on his case studies.

If you decide bespoke software is for you, get in touch with us to see how we can build your perfect solution together. And, if you’re still unsure which one to go for, contact us and we’ll look into what’s better in your case.

Get in touch to discuss the needs of your business and see how we can help.

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