Manufacturing Execution System • July 28, 2020

Best-of-Breed vs. Best-of-Suite Solutions – Making an Important OT Architectural Decision

Making the Most Important OT Architectural Decision

After 25 years as an analyst, the number one architectural discussion I most often get involved with is the topic of best-of-breed vs. single suite when it comes to software. 

In some cases, it has been the IT function wanting to drive a single vendor ERP-based suite across the entire enterprise both horizontally and vertically as far as they can. Often the operational side of the business resists based on usability and fit-for-purpose arguments and pushes for a targeted application such as an MES/MOM package, an EH&S package, or a CMMS/EAM solution instead of using the ERP vendors offerings for those functions. 

Although rarely, sometimes the positions are reversed with operational management pushing to do more with what is already in place to minimize further investments while IT pushes back knowing that the suite vendor’s capabilities in those areas are falling behind the market and not up to the demands of digital transformation today.

The Evolution of Suite Solutions

At the dawn of the digital age, every software application was a point solution.  Accounting software was the first area that digital computers really made an impact.  Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable software could even be different packages while General Ledger and Payroll were usually always separate applications. The topic of best-of-breed vs. single suite was never even considered.

Manufacturing planning, maintenance operations, and compliance reporting packages then started hitting the marketplace in the late 1980s to early 1990s.  In the Mid ’90s, ERP burst upon the scene with the integration of manufacturing planning and all accounting functions in a single solution.  Early ERP vendors kept expanding functionality adding customer relationship management, human resources, supply chain, and product planning and execution capabilities. This trend continued when they began incorporating the capabilities of MES/MOM and CMMS/EAM solutions going at the turn of the millennia.  

There are distinct advantages to having a highly integrated data set and solution:

  • The integration provides a systemic view of operations and reduces latency 
  • A single suite is easier to maintain since package/functional integration is supposedly inherent
  • A common user interface (UI) can reduce training costs for staff that use multiple functions
  • Outsourced implementation and support services are readily available, at least for major packages
  • A single source of the “truth” for reporting provides greater accuracy

However, many times these advantages are more myth than fact.  

Read more about the convergence of IT and OT architectures as another factor that can influence this decision.

It is hard to argue with the fact that true integration is desirable. The challenge is that in many cases the ERP suites are typically the result of acquisitions. A common company name or logo doesn’t guarantee seamless, inherent integration. The pursuit of a common user interface often continues to evolve.  

Even if there is a common UI, it has often evolved from the core functional positioning of the original ERP product or user.  For a long time, ERP packages had a UI that only an accountant would find user friendly.  While third-party support may be available, it is often expensive and without the necessary internal skills on a 24×7 basis.  Also, third parties may not have the industry domain expertise necessary to fully optimize the solution.

Innovation at the Edge

It is generally recognized in the software industry that innovation often comes from smaller firms.  It is a reason why many larger firms continue to grow by acquisition versus organic evolution.  A domain expert or practitioner gets an idea on how to automate a task or function and then develops new software to drive the innovation to market.  

These fit-for-purpose solutions generally have highly intuitive UIs and functional capabilities that truly are best-of-breed (BOB).  Whether it is MES/MOM, MRO, or supply chain capabilities, specialized solutions often provide greater functionality and flexibility since they are designed for specific tasks as opposed to a “one size fits most” approach of single-vendor solutions.  

Where the larger vendors challenge BOB solutions it is usually on:

  • Cost of supporting multiple interfaces
  • Lack of a single data model, leading to data integration challenges
  • Security issues due to multiple sign-ons 
  • Training costs for multiple UIs
  • Internal support costs to maintain multiple systems

These are all valid criticisms but are not insurmountable challenges.  As interfaces have become more standardized and use common APIs, this challenge is rapidly becoming a minor issue.  Likewise, data integration standards and industry-standard data models have also mitigated this challenge in the evaluation of a best-of-breed vs. single suite solution.  

Security issues are manageable, and many organizations are opting for Cloud-based solutions that facilitate a single sign-on approach.  Finally, there are multiple ways of dealing with UI issues.  One approach is to front-end all applications with a common UI.  Another approach is to move to simplified UIs that are role dependent that also work with mobile devices and AI to facilitate voice and other enhanced interaction modes.

Deciding on the Right Approach

While the argument frequently pushed is one is better than many, in data processing research dating back to the 1970s at the Lund Institute in Sweden it was proven that a better expression is “fewer is better than many, but one might be too few.”  Just as standards such as Bluetooth (another Lund invention) have made it possible for me to use third party Bluetooth devices like a keyboard, mouse and headset with my multiple Apple devices, they are facilitating simplifying integration at the industrial level.  Still, I have opted to have my phone and laptop both be Apple for a reason, the tighter integration of those solutions is critical.  Other devices less so and the occasional hiccup during upgrades are minor.  

This analogy also applies in the industrial world. Opting for a common OT platform that is BOB for your needs that also ties to a common enterprise business platform and a common automation platform makes sense. 

Read more about this topic in my next post, Best-of-Breed vs. Single Suite – Picking an MES.

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