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Commercial off the Shelf (COTS) Software: the Basics

Artur Olechowski d08c1359d2

11/01/2022 |

6 min read

Artur Olechowski

If you’re looking to accelerate your digital transformation, buying a commercial off-the-shelf software could be a smart move. Many organizations invest in this type of software to fill specific gaps without waiting for custom-made solutions. 

What are the features of COTS that make it so attractive for companies? What kind of companies choose COTS and for which use cases? 

Keep on reading this article to learn everything you need to know about commercial off-the-shelf software – its pros and cons, and how to implement it successfully and maximize your ROI.


Table of contents: 

  1. What is COTS software?
  2. Pros of COTS software
  3. Cons of COTS software
  4. How to choose a COTS application?
  5. COTS software – wrap up

What is COTS software? 

Commercial off-the-shelf software is a product intended to be used “as is.” The key benefit driving the popularity of commercial off-the-shelf solutions is the easy installation and integration with existing system components. 

Almost every piece of software used by average computer users fits into the COTS category – from word processors and operating systems to Microsoft office suites and email programs. 

Commercial off-the-shelf software is mass-produced. That’s why it comes at a significantly lower cost than tailor-made solutions made from scratch for individual businesses. 

COTS software is typically accessible to everyone, sold online, and ready to use without any kind of modification required from users. 

Pros of COTS solutions

Here are the key advantages of COTS solutions.

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1. Accessibility

Commercial off-the-shelf solutions are usually easy to find because they’re mass-produced for the more or less specialized public – for example, financial services companies. 

2. Versatility

Most off-the-shelf software offers a wide range of features addressing practically every need a company or consumer might have – from anti-virus programs to database development applications.

3. Easy installation

This type of software is not custom-made for any organization in particular. That’s why it’s easy to install and requires no customization at all. Usually, a COTS product comes with step-by-step instructions to make installation as smooth as possible for users. 

4. Support

Unlike free software, COTS offers support to customers. As a user, you can reach out to the support team with any questions or issues. If any errors happen in such software, the team responsible for building it can quickly deliver a patch to correct them. 

5. Lower cost

The relative cost of a COTS product is much lower when you compare it to tailor-made software. Vendors can easily achieve lower price points when producing for the general consumer. 

6. Reliability

Moreover, COTS products are usually put through many different testing scenarios, so you can be sure about their reliability. Vendors are also busy improving their solutions with new updates, security patches, and features. 

7. Trial options

Another benefit is that you don’t have to immediately purchase the solution, and you can first see how that software works within a limited or trial version. This offers teams an easy way to test-drive the software before investing in it. 

Cons of COTS solutions

Naturally, off-the-shelf software comes with some disadvantages that you should be aware of before making a decision. 

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First of all, a vendor might cease to support the solution you bought. Or they might go out of business. This would force you to look for another software vendor that could support you while you’re using the solution. 

Moreover, off-the-shelf software doesn’t guarantee perfect alignment with your business needs. In fact, it might require customization as your business grows and changes. 

Getting something ready-made can be tricky. While the software is a good match for you right now, it doesn’t leave the door open for improvement and change like custom software does. You can’t update it or add new features as you start attracting new customers or need to change your security practices because of new regulations.

How to choose a COTS product?

Below, you'll find a couple of tips on how to select the right COTS product for your business needs.

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1. Gather your requirements and anticipate the future

Before investing in this type of software, ensure that your team analyzes the potential growth they anticipate and manages their future expectations. If you commit an error in this part of your gap analysis, your future implementation will be at risk. 

You need to carry out the full cost analysis that includes costs over at least five years. This is especially important if your software requires ongoing licensing and maintenance. 

2. Pay attention to integrations

Make sure that the commercial solution you pick integrates well with your current existing systems. 

Note that if the COTS package is a few years old, you’re running the risk that it’s written in a legacy language. Modifying or improving it over time will be challenging to the vendor. That’s why it might be more practical for you to invest in enhancing your existing systems.

3. Pick the right license

When investing in COTS, you can usually choose between a single-user license and general license options. If the department which will be using the software is large, pick the latter. 

4. Consider updating and maintenance

Every software will need to be updated and maintained. Ideally, your COTS products will require less maintenance and costs and cost less to upgrade. 

5. Pay attention to your contract

You don’t want to end up trapped in an arrangement where the vendor will charge fees for reinstalling the COTS software on a different machine. Make sure that your contract has provisions indicating support where you need it. For example, the contract should clearly say what you can expect during emergency maintenance or in the case of operational vulnerabilities.

COTS software – wrap up

Commercial off-the-shelf software can be an affordable solution for companies looking to implement digital functionalities instantly, easily installing and rolling the new software throughout the organization. 

However, with time COTS software might become more of a burden than a bargain – depending on what you consider when choosing it. Make sure to follow the points mentioned above, and you’ll be on your way to making the right decision for your business. 

And if you discover that this type of solution might be a risky investment, choose custom development instead. Sometimes what you need is software that is perfectly aligned with your processes and is made to match your business goals. 

If you’re looking for IT consulting experts able to advise you about this choice – at the same time keeping the door open to custom development, get in touch with us. 

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Artur Olechowski d08c1359d2

Artur Olechowski

Managing Director at Codete. Master of Law, a graduate of postgraduate studies at the University of Economics in Krakow. In his daily work, he masters the combination of business strategy and technology.

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