3rd Party Plugins, A Cautionary Tale

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One of the many questions you’ll have to answer when developing your website will be whether to use custom built in house solutions or easy to integrate 3rd party systems. It’s certainly easy enough to say that the cost of most 3rd party solutions will be lower than custom built software, but lets explore what you might be risking for that decrease in initial cost. When you entrust certain aspects of functionality in your site to a 3rd party system you are suddenly vulnerable to a number of risks that you should seriously consider before making a decision.

If the solution is built the best way it can be for speed then it’ll be something hosted on your own servers. You’ll install it and configure it and might even have an admin panel to maintain it. What you don’t have though is the ability to easily change it. Any changes you want, either for personal preference or because of errors in the software will need to be made by your own development staff (unless the software offers a support package that you’ll undoubtedly have to pay extra for). Your internal developers may or may not be familiar with the code, or it might not be in a language they are fluent in, or it might have been compressed to the point that it’s either a nightmare to edit, or it can’t be edited at all. This means that if the software you purchased utilizes deprecated html, script, or css that it might not work with newer browsers and updating the software you bought and became accustomed to might be more expensive than it would’ve been to have it built from scratch by your in house team.

What if your 3rd party solution is hosted externally, like many of the available google services. That way the onus is on the 3rd party to maintain their services and ensure they are up to date with current standards. The drawback in this case would be that your site’s functionality is now dependent not only on your hosting servers and their maintenance, but also on that 3rd parties servers and maintenance. One mistake on their end could make it impossible to submit a contact form on your site, or change how taxes are calculated, or even bring your whole checkout process to a halt. Even google who many think might be infallible suffered a 5 minute blackout this past weekend where 50% – 70% of all requests received an error. This might sound like a small window, but it doesn’t take 5 minutes for an error on your ecommerce platform to divert lots of revenue to your competitors.

With larger solutions, like tax providers or shipping providers, those might be the only problems you’ll face, but with smaller plugins you might even have a third potential chink in the armor. What if you’ve downloaded and installed a plugin and the original author decides to stop supporting that plugin? This is becoming more and more of a problem with amateur and hobbyist developers writing quick plugins to solve current problems and releasing them without support on the internet. They’ll probably work at first (after all if they didn’t you wouldn’t have bought it), but as browsers update and standards change and older practices become deprecated, you can bet that your un-managed, unsupported plugin has a shelf life, and the more complex the plugin, the closer the expiration date is.

With all the dangers of relying on 3rd party solutions you might be wondering why anyone would ever choose to put their faith in something written by an outsider. The answer is simple. Start up cost. It’s much cheaper to go with a 3rd party solution that’s being used by other sites on the web, and in most cases, the plugins will be in better shape and have more functionality than something developed in house so long as you do your research and ensure that this solution has worked for others before you. Don’t forget though, that when you decide to rely on an external vendor for your own site’s functionality, that your site is now dependent on more than just your developers and your hosting company. It’s now dependent on a network of vendors that you’d be wise to keep track of.

John Vine
John Vine been developing website and web applications since 2010. He grew up in Greensboro, NC and was very happy to be able to return here after graduating from Full Sail University with a bachelors in game development. John prefers the open feeling of his motorcycle which he rides right up until the cold of winter forces him back into his car. He is a Green Bay Packers fan and hopes to one day have season tickets.
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