Best-of-Breed or Integrated Suite? 10 Questions to Consider


Chief Operating Officer,

The best-of-breed vs. integrated suite battle has been ongoing since integrated ERP software first came on the market. In the early days, buyers were forced to choose between standalone systems that performed one function very well (e.g., accounting, production planning) or one integrated system that offered modules for each function, but with varying degrees of functional depth.

Over time, however, the functional gaps between best-of-breed offerings and integrated suites have started to narrow. Software buyers are now faced with making a more difficult and complicated decision, but one that is still just as important.

Each approach presents its own merits and potential drawbacks. Early adopters of best-of-breed systems loved that they could get a robust system to address one specific need. Advocates touted how easy they were to implement and how much more feature-rich they were relative to integrated suite offerings. On the other hand, integrated suite users enjoyed having everything in one system and not having to integrate two separate applications. Given these pros and cons, the decision to implement an integrated suite or best-of-breed system is always tough.

Our goal in this blog post is to provide a framework for making the best-of-breed versus integrated suite decision. A quick breakdown of the respective advantages and disadvantages is presented below.

While these differences are still present, the software industry has evolved to give buyers some of the best of both worlds. Over time, integrated suite ERP vendors such as SAP, Microsoft, Infor, and Epicor have built functionality for just about every industry segment and business need. The ongoing push for true service-oriented architectures (SOAs) is reducing integrated suites' historical rigidity, making modular implementations easier, and reducing the total costs of ownership.

On the best-of-breed side, technology has advanced to make systems open and more easily integrated. Modern technologies such as .Net, J2EE, XML, and SOAP all make it easier for companies to integrate different systems. Our humble, 12-person company recently completed a simple SOAP integration with one part-time developer, for example. The recent trend towards Software as a Service (SaaS) is also helping lower upfront costs of purchasing new systems.

If you finding yourself deciding between implementing a best-of-breed application or an additional module from your existing ERP vendor, consider the following questions:

  1. Are your needs for the new application really that specialized, or can they be met by your ERP vendor's (potentially) broader offering? A surprising number of buyers tend to think that "our business is entirely unique." Software vendors have been addressing those unique needs long enough that many of them have been addressed in the packaged product.
  2. Do you really need the systems integrated, or are you OK with two standalone systems? A lot of buyers start out the research process assuming that integration is essential, when many business functions are more disparate than they think.
  3. Does your ERP vendor offer (or come close enough to offering) what you need? As ERP vendors have built out functionality over time, many can meet more business requirements than their customers realize. If a vendor can't meet 100% of them, it may be worthwhile to sacrifice functionality for a smoother implementation.
  4. Do you have the IT resources necessary to perform a complete integration? While integrations are more easily performed due to the reasons mentioned above, they still require IT expertise and commitment from end users.
  5. Are the near-term hurdles of implementing a suite or best-of-breed system justifiable for long-term business improvements, or are they prohibitive? Just like any investment, IT managers need to consider that the near-term challenges (training new staff, migrating existing data, or modifying business processes) may be worth the long-term benefits gained with the right software system.
  6. How truly integrated is the integrated suite vendor's offering? If the ERP vendor acquired the system, it may not be "truly" integrated. It might just be a best-of-breed system with some basic integration. If they built it themselves, it could use a different code base and therefore not be tightly integrated with the ERP suite's older core.
  7. Is the ERP vendor's solution close to a best-of-breed system? Some ERP vendors have invested so much in specific applications that they achieve functional parity with best-of-breed systems.
  8. What is the long-term viability of the best-of-breed vendor? While some best-of-breed vendors are financially and strategically viable, others may be too young and/or have too narrow of a focus to survive in a competitive industry.
  9. Will the ERP vendor give you such a significant price discount that it offsets the sacrifice in functionality? Buyers who are looking to add a module to an existing ERP system can usually expect to pay much less than implementing a best-of-breed system. However, best-of-breed systems can sometimes cost about the same.
  10. Does the new applications category (i.e. CRM) merit a different deployment model (i.e. SaaS) than your back-office ERP system (i.e. on-premise)? If so, implementing a best-of-breed system might make more sense. This is becoming increasingly popular for SaaS systems that require collaboration and/or remote access.

The software research and selection process is notoriously difficult. Buyers who consider the ten questions above should be well on their way to making the right front-end decision between integrated suites and best-of-breed systems. Sometimes that decision is the hardest one to make.

  • Marty Zigman

    This is a great article. I urge readers to consider an article I wrote:

    “Best-of-Breed Business Systems: Traps & Lies”

    Marty Zigman
    Prolecto Resources, Inc.

  • Stephen Jones

    The debate is rapidly changing due to SOA and Cloud based SAAS models which all major erp vendors are aggressively pursuing.

    The Microsoft Dynamics Ax platform largely delivers both options now and the next release will see significant architecture improvements to further enable the combination of powerful core features, best of breed vertical addons developed on the same platform and layered architecture and managed code for local customisations and interoperability to multiple other systems – for example a hub and spoke tier approach to work with other erp solutions, unified messaging, .net compatibility etc.

    Stephen Jones – Synergy Software

  • Phil Ayres

    I agree that SaaS models are making an impact on how people select and deploy software. SaaS provides a flexible fee structure that traditionally licensed products don’t. But the question remains the same – do you as a company have an appetite for developing software to integrate or build from scratch the functionality you need?

    It can be simple if your requirements are small. That said, I have been dragged in to manage the amicable wind-down of failing software projects run by over ambitious vendors working with buyers with no experience of the complexities that can come with these types of project.

    The most important thing when making the decision of ‘suite or best-of-breed’ is really what you need. Do you need a solution that is integrated with your accounting system? Or are you just talking to your ERP vendor because you don’t really know where else to look?

    One approach, if you are worried about sourcing a solution that seems bigger than your experience or comfort level, is to chat with a consultant who is experienced in the type of solutions you need. Experienced consultants know the players, and their relative strengths and weaknesses. And a little investment up front can help you significantly down the line with less stress and a better implemented solution.

    Personally, I advise people on business process improvement projects, as I’ve worked around the industry for years, and know when a BPM ‘suite’ vendor may be better (or worse) than just using the additional modules in your ERP, or selecting a simple, easy to configure tool that is completely separate. Simplicity is often the key!

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