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Blogs > The Norfolk Punt

A better way to build websites?
David Norfolk By: David Norfolk, Practice Leader - Development, Bloor Research
Published: 1st January 2014
Copyright Bloor Research © 2014
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One thing I can't get my head around, is why websites are so expensive and, given that they are, why so many of them aren't finished on time. And, when they are finished, why they don't do what their sponsors wanted.....

Not being finished on time and not meeting requirements are probably bigger issues than the high cost (as President Obama is finding out over Obamacare) - a website is a public face of your organisation and promising and not delivering can be catastrophic to your public reputation.

When I ask people why they spend so much on their websites and why they are so difficult to deliver on time, I'm told its because they are so important to the company [true] and that therefore they have to spend a lot of money on them [this doesn't necessarily follow]; and because they are complicated, and need something called search engine optimisation, which only rare and expensive magicians can do; and because they must be entirely unique and therefore have to be built from scratch.

I don't buy most of that. Most websites in a given space seem to have roughly similar functionality, to me, even if the look-and-feel is different. Why not use a 'template driven' website design process, where standard website and Content Management System (CMS) technology is used (and, possibly, even templated management and maintenance processes) and the different website owners just add a veneer of customisation on top? In other word, many of the requirements must be common to many websites servicing a given need (online catalogue, marketing campaign etc.) and just the presentation layer needs to be different. This sounds a bit like component-based development in the 'real world' of IT - perhaps, since websites are so important to most companies, website development needs to grow up.

This adult approach to website production is entirely possible even today. I didn't build my photographic website from scratch in Wordpress, for example, I used the Zenfolio 'website as a service' and built it by selecting the design templates and capabilities (such as an eCommerce shop) that I wanted. It's not exactly finished yet (because price-lists and the like actually need thought) but it is usable, I think, and is evolving (see here) as I add capabilities in a controlled way (and the Zenfolio service includes help and support, not just templates). If I'd built it from scratch, it might still be offline while I worked out what I'd broken in the last change.

So, could something similar work for larger commercial organisations, businesses and charities? It's all about risk management and there are bigger issues than my little photo website has (although I'm quite pleased that Zenfolio is aware of VAT - those dratted regulators get everywhere). Nevertheless, I've just been talking to Pantheon about its "Website platform for professionals" - which is roughly modelled on the Salesforce.com platform - and it seems to offer what is needed. Basically, it gives you a Drupal CMS to build your website from and everything below the CMS is abstracted away as a service - hidden, so you can get on with building a good user experience rather than wasting time reinventing the underlying technologies and buying servers.

This "Website platform for professionals" apparently sells well to developers, who realise that the IT group simply can't take on managing thousands of different individually-developed websites. It should also appeal to management, if it has noticed the emerging problems with shadow IT - roughly, buying IT off the web with a credit card, without going through 'channels'.

Shadow IT is great for getting something done for the business in the short term; but a potential governance disaster in the long term. Just suppose that one of these shadow IT websites the business finds so useful puts you in breach of the EU Data Protection Directive or installs a major security exposure - and the manager, who will carry the can, knows about it is when the regulator calls or a customer information theft appears appears in the press. Developing on a common PaaS (Platform as a Service), which is really what Pantheon offers, should deliver all the agility and immediacy of shadow IT without the associated risk of building chaos for the future.

Too good to be true? Well, there are issues - even sexy technology services can't address cultural issues; and many organisations are change-averse. The idea that in-house technology is better managed and more secure than anything hosted outside the firewall is probably an illusion that won't stand up to examination, but it is a popular illusion. Adopting the Pantheon solution will often, we expect, involve managing change-related people issues; and it doesn't exempt you from managing the websites on the platform, just makes this easier. And, some potential issues are very real - Pantheon is going to have data centres in the EU soon but it doesn't have them yet; and that may well be an issue for customer-focussed websites. Another possible issue is that there is perhaps just one Pantheon doing precisely what it does, and people feel safer if they have a choice (although you could build websites with the OutSystems Platform PaaS, for instance, using a very similar approach to Pantheon's, it seems to me).

Nevertheless, I know an organisation that already has a website (so it must have some idea of its requirements) and has commissioned a custom replacement at great cost, which was supposed to be available in Dec 2013 and currently doesn't even have a realistic delivery date. There are even plenty of similar organisations with effective websites that could have been used as a template. The main delay-causing problem with the website that is running late, is probably its logic around revenue collection. This seems very silly to me and Pantheon's website platform for professionals (or any other website as a platform service approach, for that matter) sounds like it would free the developers to concentrate on the business requirements and user experience rather than on the technology - which would help delivery that is on time and in budget. As its website is increasingly the main face of almost any organisation, delivery on time and in budget matters.

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