Buy vs. Build

We’ve all been there.  It’s a hot, humid afternoon in August.  There’s a line of grumpy students snaking out the door, one of your student workers didn’t show up, and your camera just stopped working.  Where’s that IT guy?

The tidal wave of students every summer brings with it long lines, staffing nightmares, bad photos, and unsatisfied customers.  What makes it worse is that the first impression most freshmen have of your office is on your hardest day of the year.  How can we make this better?   

In addition, you now have online students asking for ID cards.  How in the world can you print a card for a student that may never set foot on campus? 

Online photo submission has been available for years, but now it has become mainstream. Students are now learning, shopping, and even dating online; so the last thing they want to do is stand in line.  Many schools are eliminating the lines and freeing up their staff members by providing online photo submission.  Is it time for your institution to move in that direction; and if so, what’s the best way to get started?

Two Options: Build vs Buy

You can always ask your IT department or a local software contractor to build a solution.  It is expensive, but a custom solution would give you full control over what features the application has.  However, you may have also read that 68% of software projects fail; and no one wants to become a statistic.

There are several commercially available solutions that many other schools are already using.  Off-the-shelf software significantly decreases the risk by freeing you from reinventing the wheel, but you lose some control over the end product.  Also, you have to decide between products that are on-premise or cloud-based.  What’s the difference, and what’s better for you?

Building a Custom Solution

Building a custom solution gives you a blank canvas and complete control of how your application will turn out.  However, building software is expensive, slow, and many projects are never completed.  The choice to build is definitely right for some institutions; so who should consider building?

Institutions with large, experienced, software development teams will have much more success building.  Check with your IT department to see if they can support a project of this size.  Also, talk with other departments to see what IT’s track record is for project completion.

Card offices with an existing, great relationship with IT are also in a good position. Communication is the most common failure point in software projects, so having this worked out in advance is a big step forward.

Card offices with plenty of time can consider building. Custom development takes time - lots of time.  Most projects last six months to a year but can easily take longer if the project gets put on the back burner because of staffing constraints or shifting priorities.  In addition, you will need to allocate a significant portion of your own time for meetings, defining feature requests, reviewing screens, testing, following up, etc.

Card offices with large budgets are better equipped to build. It’s cliche’, but time is money, so you’ll want to make sure that there is plenty of buffer in the budget.  Software projects almost always go over budget, which is the primary reason many projects get canceled.

Card offices with very unique circumstances may be forced to build.  Most of the commercially available online photo submission systems are very configurable; but if your requirements and/or other software systems are very unique, you may have no choice but to build.

Buying Off-the-Shelf

You get fewer choices when you use commercial online photo submission software, but you also greatly decrease the cost and risk of the project.  For the vast majority of institutions, this is going to be the way to go.

Who should probably buy?

Institutions with small or overworked IT departments should definitely be focusing on purchasing a readily available solution.

Card offices with limited time and/or budgets or directors who just don’t want to deal with a year-long headache should really plan to buy a system off the shelf.

Card offices that are already using other commercial systems should consider a commercial online photo submission system since your existing systems are likely to be compatible.

On-Premise or Cloud-Based

Most institutions are going to chose to purchase an off-the-shelf solution, but there is still one more choice to make: on-premise or in the cloud?

On-premise solutions cost about 30% more than cloud-based solutions and take months to deploy.  They also use older technology patterns and require significant engagement and coordination with your IT department.  However, if your institution has highly restrictive IT policies, such as not allowing cloud-based software, on-premise might be your only option.  If you already have a great relationship with your IT department, that will be a huge asset because on-premise software installations are generally large IT projects.

Cloud-based software uses cloud technology to drive down the cost and risk of software.  These services are generally offered as a subscription with little or no commitment.  When you use Pandora or Netflix, you’re using cloud-based technology.  The leading cloud-based online photo submission software can be setup in minutes without any support from IT and costs significantly less than comparable on-premise solutions.  Cloud-based online photo submission software is currently available from ColorID, Blackboard, and others.

How to Decide: Try the easiest first

So, how do you decide between subscribing to a cloud provider, buying an on-premise system, or building custom software?  Our recommendation is to keep your options open.  Investigate cloud providers and try the one that seems best.  Sign up for a free trial; and if that goes well, sign up for a year; and use that time to get your business processes working with online photo submission.  At the end of a year, you’ll be much better informed; and you will know what to build or what to look for in an on-premise solution if you do decide to go that route.

Do you already use online photo submission software?  

If so, tell us about it in the comments below.  


If you have any questions or comments that I didn’t address leave a comment and I’ll answer them in a reply or a follow-up article.