Best-of-breed approach gains traction in collaboration

It has become an increasingly viable option to single-vendor suites

Nationwide Insurance talked up its enterprise collaboration systems at last week's SharePoint Conference, offering a glimpse into a best-of-breed strategy that is becoming more popular in this space.

Nationwide, which uses IBM's Lotus Notes for email and Microsoft's SharePoint for collaboration, believes in using core tools from different vendors in pursuit of its business and technology needs.

The approach is becoming more common in a market that for many years has been dominated by integrated, single-vendor suites. Web standards, open APIs (application programming interfaces) and cloud-based applications have made it more feasible to cobble together collaboration systems from different vendors, according to analysts.

So what's the right approach? It depends.

"There isn't a right answer, but you should understand the options and have a strategy," said Rob Koplowitz, a Forrester Research analyst.

"The suite brings you a broad array of capabilities that are highly integrated, but it potentially locks you into a single-vendor stack. There might be implications about the quality of the different parts of the solution and, if it's running in the cloud, about the ability to integrate it with other on-premise systems," he added.

With best-of-breed, customers can get specialized components in any given space and react to the market "as it moves," but they might end up with some heavy lifting to integrate the different pieces, Koplowitz said.

At Nationwide, Christopher Plescia, vice president of marketing, collaboration and corporate Internet solutions, preaches simplicity and clarity of purpose.

"I don't want to ignite all the features of the tools I have. If I can participate in enterprise social conversations, find and share my documents, do video conferencing, learn about my company and have my email integrated into all of this, that's a pretty good experience," he said.

"I don't need 55 features in each one of those pipes. Sometimes people are so quick to add features that the corporate world doesn't really need," Plescia said in an interview at the SharePoint conference, in Las Vegas.

He wants the flexibility, at an architectural level, to drop and replace products as Nationwide deems it necessary, without being tied to a single vendor platform and to its ecosystem of third-party add-ons and applications.

"We're trying to remain technology neutral with a best-of-breed approach, instead of a [single vendor] suite approach," he said.

Nationwide relies on standards, like HTML5 and JavaScript, to do integrations and development, "so that we can move between various solutions, because you never know when someone's going to jump over someone else," Plescia said.

"We don't know where things are going to go in the future," he added.

For social capabilities, Nationwide picked Yammer long before Microsoft acquired it in July, and it chose Office for its productivity applications. However, it uses a variety of tools for video conferencing, including capabilities in IBM's Sametime IM and presence application, and is monitoring options in video communications for future technology acquisitions.

About 30,000 Nationwide employees use Yammer, for example, and the company has consolidated several legacy document-management systems into an on-premise implementation of SharePoint 2010, which it launched in July and where it has about 1,500 sites for collaboration.

Alan Lepofsky, a Constellation Research analyst, said the question of best-of-breed versus single-vendor is highly relevant in the collaboration market today, in particular because of the new cloud applications from specialized vendors in areas like enterprise social networking, file sharing, idea generation, network sentiment analysis and gamification.

"I'd recommend as one deciding factor to determine how aggressive they are about implementing and getting new features" from cloud-based application providers, he said. "If that's important, the best-of-breed approach may be best."

If, on the other hand, having a dedicated, secure, on-premise implementation is paramount, the single-vendor approach might be a better option.

With best-of-breed, the user experience can suffer and lead to a lack of engagement among end users, which defeats the purpose of investing in collaboration software.

Collaboration systems need to be intuitive and friendly, because they are meant to be used by many different types of users, including those who aren't particularly tech-savvy.

"Unlike business intelligence or ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems, collaboration tools are used more, and by more people," Lepofsky said.

When dealing with multiple vendors, especially providers of cloud-hosted applications, IT decision makers need to do due diligence on all of them regarding issues like data security, data access and, if they are small startups, the possibility that they might be bought or go out of business, he said.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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