16 Oct, 2023 | 3 min read

Why Building a Platform May Not Be Your Best Bet—Exploring Five Critical Reasons

  • Asanka Abeysinghe
  • Chief Technology Officer - WSO2, Inc

First published on VM Blog.

As the technology landscape continues to rapidly evolve, creating a platform that introduces the correct abstractions for software development and delivery has become an increasingly compelling proposition. But the pivotal question remains: is building what’s known as an internal developer platform (IDP) or digital platform in-house the right move for your organization? The choice isn't merely technical; it's strategic. Based on extensive experience with enterprise-level platform development, this article offers five compelling reasons why constructing a platform internally may not be the wisest decision. Evaluating the considerations discussed here will help your organization make an informed decision that accounts for various complexities, financial aspects, and human resources.

Time to market: navigating the focus shift

Time to market is a cornerstone metric for organizations in the tech industry. A platform that promises to accelerate this can be enticing, but the ground reality is often starkly different. The moment organizational focus shifts to building, managing, and troubleshooting an internally developed platform, developers find themselves in a logistical quagmire. This not only derails planned product releases and feature updates; it also diverts intellectual capital towards operational firefighting. These delays manifest as opportunity costs—lost time and resources that could have been invested in market differentiation, enhanced customer engagement, or the creation of new revenue streams. It also becomes a cyclical challenge as issues with the platform can lead to further delays, causing a ripple effect that hampers an organization's agility and its ability to swiftly respond to market dynamics, hindering time to market and create strategic disruption across the board.

Best practices in a box: the illusion of completeness

The allure of having 'best practices in a box' can be a powerful motivator for organizations contemplating an internal platform. These platforms promise to cover everything from domain-driven design (DDD) and microservice architecture (MSA) to API management and continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipelines. However, the reality of achieving such comprehensiveness internally is far more daunting than it appears. Building and sustaining a platform that encapsulates these best practices necessitates ongoing research, constant updates, and a forward-looking perspective on emerging technologies and regulatory frameworks. More so, it requires a committed team with specialized skills focused solely on platform evolution—something most organizations cannot afford to invest in without compromising other strategic initiatives. Commercial platforms often benefit from dedicated teams and considerable resources aimed solely at staying ahead of industry trends, security threats, and compliance changes. Attempting to emulate this level of attention and expertise in-house inevitably diverts valuable resources and focus from your primary business objectives.

Outsourcing complexity: the challenges of building and managing

Building and managing a platform is a multi-faceted challenge that goes beyond initial construction. The task becomes increasingly complex when you factor in the need to integrate a multitude of tools, services, and systems, especially those available in expansive ecosystems such as the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) landscape and Amazon Web Services (AWS) Marketplace. This kind of integration demands specialized expertise to make informed technology choices, an effort often underestimated. Once the platform is up and running, you're committed to an ongoing cycle of updates, troubleshooting, and adaptation to emerging best practices. Such a cycle doesn't just demand specialized skills—it also fosters organizational friction as departments wrestle with the platform’s intricacies. Moreover, the need to stay ahead of technology trends further drains internal resources, detracting focus from primary business objectives. By outsourcing these complex responsibilities, you allow your in-house teams to focus on strategic initiatives, thereby enhancing organizational agility and operational effectiveness.

Streamlined operations: the lean team advantage

Operating an internal platform requires a multi-faceted commitment that goes beyond simple technical requirements. It necessitates a dedicated team for design, development, ongoing maintenance, and user support. Each of these tasks can divert valuable personnel from other mission-critical projects, potentially leading to strategic misalignment. Moreover, the need for specialized expertise in various areas—from security to DevOps—adds another layer of complexity and resource allocation. This raises a pressing question: can your existing team effectively manage the platform without compromising other vital initiatives? Opting for a commercial solution eliminates these dilemmas by allowing you to maintain a lean, agile team that can focus purely on advancing your core business objectives, paving a more efficient and less obstructed path to success.

Avoiding upfront costs: the financial pitfall

Financial considerations carry substantial weight when contemplating building an in-house platform. The initial capital expenditure (CapEx) for the development, hardware, and software can be daunting. But the financial obligations don't stop there. Operational expenditure (OpEx) follows in the form of continuous maintenance, security updates, and platform enhancements. Additionally, the uncertain return on investment (ROI) adds another layer of complexity to the decision-making process. These cumulative financial burdens can divert funds from other strategic initiatives, thereby constraining your ability to invest in market opportunities or innovation. There is also the issue of financial risk: sunk costs in a platform that might become obsolete or fail to deliver on its promise. By choosing a commercial solution, you sidestep these financial pitfalls, freeing your organization to allocate resources more effectively and strategically, so you can focus on avenues with a clearer path to ROI.

Weighing the alternatives

Creating a platform may seem like the solution to many challenges, but it often opens the door to new and unanticipated ones. The appeal of total control and the ability to customize every aspect of your platform can be strong, but this comes at a price. Hidden complexities arise; opportunity costs accumulate, and potential setbacks can disrupt your roadmap. Beyond the tangible costs and resource allocation, there's also a psychological toll; team morale can suffer when members are pulled into tasks that fall outside their core competencies.

Furthermore, the lure of in-house development might give a sense of autonomy and control, but it's worth remembering that autonomy without direction can lead to inefficiency or worse—strategic misalignment. Balancing the customization advantages against the genuine risks and resource requirements often reveals that the scales tip in favor of commercial solutions.

Opting to leverage external expertise can offer a refreshing clarity of focus. Your team, unburdened by the intricacies and ongoing obligations of platform maintenance, can direct their specialized skills toward what truly matters: your core business objectives. This strategic alignment allows your organization to pivot from a state of constant operational concern to one of proactive market engagement transforming strategy into actionable steps without the distractions and detours that an in-house platform could impose.

In the end, as technology continues to evolve, the question isn't just whether your organization can build a platform but whether it should. Consider all angles, from operational to strategic, and you may find that a commercial platform aligns more closely with your overarching goals, letting you execute without getting entangled in operational minutiae.

Building an internal platform comes with numerous challenges and pitfalls that can divert the focus from your core objectives. If you're considering an alternative to constructing and maintaining a platform in-house, we encourage you to take a look at Choreo by WSO2, a commercially available internal developer platform designed to address these issues and streamline your development and delivery operations.