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Off-the-shelf or custom?

An important decision for today's website owner is whether to use off-the-shelf software to run a web-based application, or to have a programmer design a custom solution.  But which one should you choose?  The answer depends on your particular situation.

Off-the-shelf software is a complete application that you can purchase (or sometimes even download for free) that can usually be customized to fit your site's look and feel.  Oscommerce, Zen Cart, and Magneto are standard e-commerce applications that have many of the features you would expect from a shopping cart system.  Blog site owners often turn to Wordpress.  And for those who run internet discussion forums, phpBB is a popular choice, as well as vBulletin.

Custom solutions can be designed and programmed to fit your exact needs and specifications.  This site is actually powered by a custom CMS system, which was created specifically to manage our content.

It may seem as though an off-the-shelf solution would naturally be cheaper than a custom-made system, especially if it can be downloaded for free.  However, ultimately your specific costs will depend on whether the program's features meet your needs.  If you don't want to add a lot of functionality, and if you aren't too picky about the way your site looks, then an off-the-shelf solution can be an inexpensive way to get your site up and running quickly.  But if you desire many additional features, or if you prefer a design that differs drastically from the supplied layout, then you may end up hiring a programmer for as many hours as it would have taken to design the software to your specifications from the start.

In terms of adding new features, off-the-shelf software can sometimes be very easy to extend.  Some utilize their user base to create "add-on modules" that are relatively easy to install, and others rely on their own development teams to supply updates.  However, if the particular feature you desire isn't readily available from the original programmers, then you'll need some expertise to make the changes.  With custom software, on the other hand, it is generally just a question of going back to the original programmer and asking them to add the feature that you require.

As far as security is concerned, both options have their advantages and disadvantages.  Many off-the-shelf software solutions are open source, meaning their source code is available to the public.  This makes it very easy for a would-be-hacker to scan the code for vulnerabilities.  However, open-source solutions also have the benefit of a large programming community, which often releases regular security updates.  Custom software benefits from the privacy of its source code, but you need to make sure that your programmer is making security a primary concern through every step of the development process.

If you're flexible with your feature set and design, cost-conscious, and willing to spend a little extra time (and money) applying regular security patches to your web-based application, then an off-the-shelf solution might be the right choice for you.  But if your application is going to do something new and unique, or if you have specific design or functionality requirements, then you may want to consider having a programmer create a custom application for you.

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