INTERNAUT

Using best-of-breed, components can limit your app integration

Shawn P. McCarthy

Is your information technology staff caught up in the best-of-breed systems frenzy? Be skeptical. Mixing, say, the best coffee with the best tea does not produce the best beverage.

Systems integrators toss around best-of-breed as a panacea for everything from updating legacy systems to posting agency data on the Internet.

If you choose the best available component for every part of a system, the argument goes, you'll end up with the best possible system. Select the best database, the best hardware, routers and so on to get all the functionality and good performance you ever dreamed of.

Yeah, right. Truth is, application integration is still the most important part of moving data around in an organization. Especially with legacy systems, you'll wind up in better shape if you make some concessions on functionality to get better application integration.

That fact can be a hard pill for innovative systems folks to swallow. Talented engineers know when they run into trouble that their piece of the puzzle might fit better if they could pop in a Java app or a piece of specialized hardware.

Incompatible apps

An audience survey last year at an information security conference sponsored by GartnerGroup Inc. of Stamford, Conn., showed that 21 percent of the respondents preferred to buy a product suite from a single vendor, whereas 79 percent would opt to make their own mix from best-of-breed products.

The problem, for a security system or any system, is that best-of-breed quickly becomes do-it-yourself. You face big configuration issues and data translation concerns in tying together pieces that are not necessarily meant to go together. Yes, part of the reason some components are rated best-of-breed is that they support multiple operating systems. But the configuration issues can have domino effects throughout a network.

System administrators and users seek different goals. Administrators want to keep their networks easy to manage'otherwise, they face custom development chores with no end in sight.

It's no surprise that companies such as Oracle Corp. push for integrated solutions from a single vendor. Oracle chairman Larry Ellison has pointed out that people don't buy the best engine and best tires and then try to build their own cars. Of course, that viewpoint fails to take into account the importance of legacy systems. Sometimes you have to customize.

My rule of thumb is to go after integrated, single-vendor options. When that's impossible, I look for a best-of-breed customized system and resist the idea of implementing best-of-breed across the board.

If you are thinking about trying a best-of-breed approach, consider a few caveats:

''Apply the approach to a single problem first.

''Because single-vendor systems and apps are nearly impossible to deploy across large organizations with divisions that have their own information shops, seek vendors that stress compatibility.

''Focus on intranet technologies when trying to connect dissimilar legacy systems. Nearly anything can be plugged into an intranet. The choice of browser doesn't matter unless you plan apps that use specific functions within a particular browser's application programming interfaces.

''For large best-of-breed implementations, choose an integrator that has expertise in component engineering'tweaking components to fit well into larger systems. The integrator must be able to train others to maintain what will surely be a custom system.

''Keep design responsibility under the aegis of one person, but divide content management. Although separate departments should manage their own content, the infrastructure needs management by a single source to avoid security conflicts.

In the best of worlds, there would be a standards-based environment everywhere, and all components would work together seamlessly. In the real world, I tend to trust more in single-vendor options while recognizing that multivendor, best-of-breed implementations will foster long-term innovation and improvement.

Best-of-breed is good when you need to branch out from a proprietary environment. But don't let the systems integrators pitch a total best-of-breed approach for your network. You could end up with something that's not the best of anything.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos.com.

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