Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mass Customization

If you find yourself in a project where you need to deliver and maintain a large number of customized versions of an otherwise standard product you may want to consider designing your processes in support of mass customization.
There are a number of prerequisites that you’ll need to have in place. For one you need a base product that you want to customize. That base product needs a mechanism in place that allows customizing it. For example you could design it so it supports plug-ins.
Next you need a fully automated process for building the base product plus all plug-ins. Ideally you have a continuous integration solution and an extensive automated and virtualize test environment. The latter allows automatic instantiation of different target environments and testing of various product configurations in those environments.
One option for mass customization is then to create a custom package for each individual customer, e.g. by creating an installer containing the base product and plug-ins for just that customer. While the installer might be a good option for a shrink-wrapped product, continuous deployment in a hosted environment will typically benefit from a different approach. For example instead of packaging different installers, you might have a different deployment for each customer. Only the plug-ins for that particular customer would be included to be deployed in their environment.
You can drive this one step further, for example by providing a web site where your customers can select the base product and the plug-ins they want. If they are self-hosted they would receive the custom installer. If they are hosted their deployment in the hosting environment would be maintained accordingly. This web site could include integration with payments systems or with your internal accounting system, e.g. to check whether a maintenance payment was received.
Alternatively instead of having custom installers or custom deployments, the availability of plug-ins can also be controlled through the use of licensing in the deployed product. All plug-ins are installed but only the ones that were licensed are loaded and available.
Of course there are number of other factors that must be considered, e.g. how to design the process and the product so it can be upgraded without downtime. Once you have this in place, though, you will enjoy a scalable solution that allows mass customization.

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