An organization’s IT capabilities can be enhanced by judicious use of commercial off the shelf software. COTS is referred to in the U.S Government’s Federal Acquisition Regulations as a non-developmental item (NDI) distributed in the market or applied under contract to the government. COTS software is an alternative to government-funded projects or in-house projects. Before turning to COTS, it is important to understand to what extent the COTS package needs to be revised to provide the functionality that is actually needed. Government agencies and many businesses dictate the use of COTS because it may cost less in the short term with respect to maintenance, development, and purchase.

Considerations in Buying Commercial Off The Shelf Software (COTS)

There are several reasons companies and agencies consider using off the shelf or packaged software. Mostly, companies and other organizations acquire COTS to meet IT requirements while avoiding costs. Through COTS, maintenance expenses may be reduced without cutting back on necessary features. Investing in a COTS solution may include such benefits as lower initial cost and cost-effective new upgrades with new features. Nonetheless, you need to do a gap analysis to see what features you need that are not provided by the COTS package. There are other elements you need to investigate before purchasing a COTSsolution. These considerations are discussed below:

*Prior to investing in a COTS solution, project teams must analyze anticipated growth and manage expectations to prevent disappointment. Errors in the original gap analysis which may become evident as time goes on may result in implementation setbacks. But, it’s very hard to do a gap analysis from vendor literature or RFP responses. A full cost analysis is also needed – if the software package requires ongoing license fees and maintenance, those costs should be factored in over at least a 5-year span, or longer.

*Business targets are challenging, and subject to change. How old is that COTS package, anyway? If it’s more than 5 years old, it may be written in a legacy language itself, making it difficult for the vendor to modify or enhance the COTS software, just as it may be to modify or enhance your own existing system.

*Review the contract carefully for “gotchas”. We know one vendor who charges a huge fee if you just want to change the machine its COTS software is running on. Also, what happens if the libraries the software package uses become obsolete or unsupported? Your COTS software may require emergency maintenance to plug security or operational vulnerabilities – and who is watching out for you if that happens?

Sometimes, COTS is not the bargain it is cracked up to be. A rewritten, modern application might be your best bet; at least, the software is yours.