When is a custom web application better than a commercial application?

What distinguishes commercial and custom web applications?

Imagine software to be like a “suit”.  You can select an off-the-rack version (commercial software), which is quick and provides a general fit, or go for a tailor-made one (custom software) designed specifically for your unique circumstances.

Commercial or COTS (Commercial-off-the-shelf) solutions are designed to be general products around a specific industry’s core processes and typical flow.  These solutions focus on a broader audience within that industry and seldom contain unique procedures.  COTS are typically less expensive and faster to implement than custom-built software.

On the other hand, custom web applications are built specifically for you, designed around your business needs and chosen process flow.  Custom web applications are more flexible and adaptable to the business’s current and future needs but can have a higher initial cost.

What should you consider in your choice of software platform?

This set of comparisons, questions, and guidance helps decide between a COTS solution and a custom web application:


Factor to compare Custom Web Application COTS Application
Time to Full Implementation Custom solutions often take a little longer to put into use as they are designed to follow your chosen process flow and incorporate any unique features or flow your organization wants to include.

Drawback: Longer time to completion 

COTS solutions can be implemented relatively quickly as the features and process flows have already been defined and developed.  Implementation tends to be a matter of platform compatibility. 

Drawback: Users may have to adjust their work to conform to the software and its flow. 

Initial/Core Cost Initial development costs are generally higher due to the time to design, code, and test the desired features and specific business process flow.   

However, these costs are often one-time only and can be mitigated with no-code/low-code platforms.

Initial costs are generally lower as the solution is already developed around standard processes and features. 

However, subscription or support costs can add up over time.

Ongoing Cost Hosting costs are dependent on volume and desired capacity.   With ownership held by you, number of users is often unlimited. Generally contracted in a more “rented” fashion with use costs on an ongoing basis (monthly or yearly), and generally focused on a per-user basis.
Feature Set Provides an opportunity to build the precise features and functionality to meet your unique needs and desires.  Provides a predefined set of features and functionality, which may or may not align perfectly with your requirements or needs. 

Limited to what the commercial provider develops and offers. 

Customization Offers full customization to meet specific or unique business needs.  Tailor any aspect of the software. Opportunities are limited mostly to “settings” and add-ons, controlled by existing feature sets.  
Flexibility With appropriate design, the solution is very flexible to change.  With an adequate budget, you can ask the expert to change the software in any manner you choose.  Generally not flexible, as the solution comes from a standard and relatively rigid set of requirements.  Vendors may resist changes you might like to see.
Scalability Can be designed with scalability in mind, allowing easier adaptation to changing business needs. Limited by the software’s design and may require additional licenses.

Scaling in some manner to meet a user’s needs may have negative effects on other users as their business process may not fit within operating parameters.

Maintenance Full control over the level of maintenance based on expected changing needs. Vendor-provided updates and support can streamline, although updates may be more frequent for vulnerabilities and the addition of features.
Integration Integration with other systems and services is built as needed.  Integration may be limited and require additional development for seamless integration with existing systems and services.
Security The solution is designed with detailed security surrounding the specific business and its risk areas and tolerances Vulnerabilities, issues, and events affect a broad user base.  The solution is dependent upon the vendor to supply patches. 
Control Full ownership and control over core software, with the ability to change to suit your needs. Your organization’s operations must conform to the software’s procedures and flow to maximize the use and benefits of the software platform.
Training With users involved throughout the development effort, it increases user buy-in. New, unique features may require additional training efforts and time. Users may be familiar with it, reducing the training effort and time.  If not, users may resist if known/business processes must change to follow software flow.

Questions to consider:

Answering “Yes” to these questions might point you toward one solution. 


  • Is your business within a well-established industry with consistent operational processes?
  • Do you operate very similarly to others in your industry?
  • Do you have an immediate deadline?
  • Does your budget allow for ongoing annual costs based on the number of users of the software? 


  • Is your business unique or distinct within its industry? 
  • Do your operations change based on environmental or industry factors, or do you anticipate substantial growth in upcoming years?
  • Does your budget allow for more up-front costs?

Your organization may not know whether a COTS system will fit its needs.  To answer that, a Requirements Traceability Matrix (RTM) should be developed and provided to the COTS vendors to confirm compliance or gaps on each core requirement.  The RTM could also be supplied to a custom web application vendor to have them provide you with a quote so you can make a fully informed decision.

How do you achieve effective operations at the best cost?

By deciding which software solution best fits your organization’s operational environment, budget, and long-term plans and philosophy, your organization can maximize the value the solution can provide to your organization’s operations.   Those cost savings and benefits should continue in the future.

We understand it may be an intricate decision with an answer not initially apparent.  Take the time or seek help to document your requirements in the RTM.   The RTM will help you and your vendors clarify what each solution supports and at what cost.  Resist dismissing custom web applications too quickly:  While custom solutions have tended to be more expensive up-front, recent low-code/no-code platforms have provided the tools to build custom web applications faster and cheaper.

Selecting a proven software partner  

We thrive in helping you work through a likely challenging decision,  helping you:

  • Identify your requirements and present a picture of the future to help you make the most informed decision in meeting short and long-term needs.
  • Identify COTS contenders.
  • Quote a custom web application.
  • Develop a custom web application or implement a COTS system.

Does Custom look good?

Our Engineers are experts at custom development and will produce a state-of-the-art system to follow your desired business flow, collecting and processing the data you want, using processes currently comfortable to your staff.   We create custom web applications using open standards and third-party tools tailored to your specific needs without unnecessary reinvention.

Is COTS your choice?

If your selection is to go with a COTS solution, AXIOM implements the solution across your organization.  Suppose you have additional automated solutions where data sharing will provide a more effective operation. In that case,  AXIOM builds those connections to ensure the appropriate systems are communicating and sharing data effectively, saving your organization from entering duplicate data.

It all starts with a conversation!  We offer the best possible advice to meet your needs and desires, including additional services AXIOM provides or other paths to success.