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Choosing the Right Enterprise Apps for your Business

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Posted December 18, 2012 By Paul Mah     Feedback

Paul Mah highlights a number of less obvious criteria for choosing the right enterprise software applications for your business.

Enterprise Apps Today focuses on the software applications that undergird enterprise organizations. It covers developments relating to topics such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), business intelligence (BI) and others, as well as conducting regular product reviews of them.

Factors such as usability and whether an application works as advertised are clearly crucial. Aside from those though, I want to highlight some of the less obvious, but equally important considerations.

The Cloud Question

One of the first questions that comes to my mind when reviewing a new application has to do with the deployment options that are available. In the past, software was almost always deployed using on-premise hardware, though the situation has reversed in the last few years. Today, a hefty proportion of cutting-edge applications can be found on cloud platforms in the form of SaaS (software-as-a-service).

For all the cost advantages and rapidly deployment models offered by SaaS, businesses must remember that they do face a risk – however slight – of being cut off from a cloud-based business application due to factors outside their control. This factors could include legal disputes with third parties, extended outages, or even an acquisition in which the new owner has a different set of priorities.

Fortunately, some cloud software comes with additional deployment models that allow organizations constrained by compliance regulations to roll out their own installation on private networks. To assuage the concerns of customers, some may even offer the server-side software properly packaged for popular cloud platforms such as Amazon Web Services (AWS). 

Of course, it is arguably foolish to continue using software that is no longer supported. Having a safety net in the event of a cloud vendor ceasing operations though, will at least offer an opportunity for critical data to be extricated, and if necessary, a brief respite to put together an orderly transition to a new platform.

Data Portability

The data portability of an enterprise-centric application is closely related to the above point. Though it pertains more to SaaS offerings, it is not unheard of for organizations to encounter difficulties in exporting their data into a new system. In the case of complex ERP or CRM implementations where database dumps are available, the availability of proper documentation and database schemas are of paramount importance.

It should also be remembered that data portability works both ways: Software developers that place a premium on data portability often develop the best tools for migrating data from competing systems.

Support Ecosystem

While a quick glance at the website of an enterprise software offering will tell a great deal about the maturity of a project, it is hardly the entire story. For the huge investment of time and money that a business expects to make in an enterprise software deployment, it's important to first ensure that a supporting ecosystem is in place.

The most promising signs of a solid ecosystem is the presence of a vibrant community of users. WordPress is a stellar example here, with a large number of users, administrators and developers involved in just about every aspect of the blogging platform. Ultimately, a healthy community is a pretty reliable indicator on the active use of a software product – and another reason why a particular development isn’t likely to be abandoned any time soon.

Another positive indicator of a healthy ecosystem is the presence of high quality third-party tools and plug-ins. Of course, third-party tools necessitate the availability of good, open APIs or Application Programming Interfaces. For example, the TeamLab project management, CRM and collaboration suite that I reviewed in August can be accessed via the published TeamLab API. Initiated as REST over HTTP using standard GET and POST methods, the TeamLab APIs – among others – allow resources such as posts or comments to be manipulated in isolation using their own URLs.

Mobile support

Like it or not, employees are buying into tablets and smartphones and hooking them en masse onto the corporate network as part of the Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) phenomenon. As such, support for tablets and smartphones is an increasingly important factor to consider when choosing the right enterprise software app. Even without BYOD, tablets offer a unique flexibility and portability that can be leveraged as a means to empower employees who need to travel.

It is important not to assume that Web-based software will automatically work on all tablets. For example, the OneDesk project management tool that I reviewed last month works entirely from a Flash applet and will not work on devices that do not support it. Even on non-Flash platforms, the use of advanced JavaScript functions, user interface (UI) elements or even embedded Java applets may prevent them from functioning correctly outside of a desktop environment.

Free Software Trials

Businesses should take advantage of any free software trial that might be available to ensure that a software product really does address their needs. While this is generally not an issue with cloud-based solutions, do not fall into the trap of testing a multi-user service using a single-user-only account. The former generally doesn’t cut it, since they don’t allow you to adequately simulate the business environment of an actual deployment.

In fact, I would encourage businesses to evaluate a software application under the most realistic environment possible, such as in a limited pilot deployment. This will allow businesses to uncover issues and problems in business processes that may not be otherwise evident.

Conclusion

Obviously, there are other factors that I did not have the opportunity to dwell on, such as the cost of a solution, track record of the team developing it, bug resolution process and the project roadmap, among others. Assuming that a software product does meet your needs however, the above pointers should go a long way toward helping you arrive at a final decision.

Paul Mah covers technology for Enterprise Apps Today, Small Business Computing and IT Business Edge. He also shares his passion for and knowledge of everything from networking to operating systems as an instructor at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore, and is a contributor to a number of technology sites including Ars Technica and TechRepublic.

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