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Best of Breed vs Optimal Integration

| James Riley |

One of the many areas where IT concepts dovetail well with the rest of the world is a conversation about whether you should use Best-of-Breed products or use a suite of products that optimally integrate with each other. This is similar to decisions we make in the rest of our life where we decide if we want the best possible individual product or if we want to pick the best collection of products that will work together optimally.

In personal relationships, whether friendships or romantic, this might look like deciding if you want to stay with the person you are with or move on to someone else. Often, you can judge that the person you are with is good in certain ways and has deficiencies in others. The other person also has this balance of benefits and deficiencies. At the end of the day, you can make the judgement call either based on one or two criteria or you can look at the people, as a whole, and decide if the whole package is better or worse.

When looking at a new car, let’s say you love Fords and need a sedan. Maybe the Ford sedan is nice but doesn’t quite check every box you want. You could opt for, say, a Honda sedan, which checks more boxes but, then, you’d have to switch to another brand that you aren’t as familiar with, you don’t know the service department at the dealership, etc. There are a number of ways to evaluate and make this decision but, at the end of the day, you are finding this same balance.

In consumer IT, let’s say you are looking at a your mobile platform. If you are looking for a laptop, tablet AND phone, it can be lucrative to get the Apple suite of products as they integrate with each other quite nicely‚Ķmuch better than if you went with a Windows laptop, Android tablet and Apple iPhone. But what happens when the business applications you need to run on your laptop will only run on Windows? Or the application you need to run on your tablet only runs on Android? Where do you compromise? Where do you trade off one kind of functionality for another?

In IT security, there is a similar concept. One might choose to go with the best Anti-Virus vendor out there, the best Firewall vendor out there, the best Wireless vendor and so on. This would be the best-of-breed approach where you bring together the best individual product. The integrated approach would look more towards finding the best single vendor that makes Anti-Virus, Firewall and Wireless products. In the integrated approach, the theory is that, what you give up by not going with individually optimal products, you gain from the integration of the products.

So, how do you decide, whether it is a friendship, car, mobile platform, IT security or anything else? Is it always one thing or the other?

I have found that the answer is that it depends. Usually, I bias towards the optimal integration approach, believing that having a collection of attributes working together tends to trump individual attributes that are the best of the best. That approach works great, until it doesn’t. Often, in IT, we find that promised integration just doesn’t work as well as it should or that the integration works but is weak. I find that the answer is usually rather involved as I need to weigh the value of the integration against the value of the best-of-breed solutions. When I weigh those against each other, I start to get a better perspective of what each approach brings the other.

So, in general, I lean towards believing that integrated solutions tend to work better because individual components can rely on other components to do the heavy lifting in one area and each component gets to focus on what it is good at. When integration is built well, works as advertised and doesn’t break constantly, this makes a lot of sense. However, when the integration isn’t built well or when the integration is lacking certain, critical features, the best-of-breed approach tends to win out. In the end, as is true in much of life, the final answer looks more like a hybrid of both approaches.