Software Maintenance Versus Software Support
Software maintenance and support often get lumped together, and while both are important, the terms are not interchangeable. Maintenance and support function in parallel, keeping the code base up to date, the development team engaged, and preventing large problems.
What is Software Maintenance?
Software maintenance is the proactive work necessary to keep the software running at optimal efficiency. Maintenance keeps the software functioning and up to date with changes in technology. Software, just like any other asset, needs regular maintenance to keep it in working order.
Consider a house. Landscaping, HVAC systems, appliances, and more all need regular attention and care. Without maintenance, small issues snowball into larger ones. Think of an overgrown tree whose roots damage the foundation, or a pest problem that develops into a full-blown infestation. Catching the potential problem early can prevent tens of thousands of dollars in emergency repairs (and days’ worth of headaches). On the flip side, delaying early action can lead to significant costs down the road. A couple of mouse traps are much more affordable than the efforts of an expert.
The same logic applies to software. Without regular maintenance, software ages, and in the long term leads to compounding issues. Unattended updates, bugs, improvements, and “dead” code build up and result in Code Debt. Eventually, code debt can become so big that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to support the code without a major rewrite.
Benefits of Software Maintenance
As software maintenance is a proactive measure to prevent issues, some have trouble justifying the cost. After all, there’s no imminent need to drive the work. Often maintenance gets pushed off in favor of higher priority, immediate needs, or as a strategy to save money in the short term. This is a mistake because the benefits of maintenance are long-term and have larger impacts over time.
The benefits of regular software maintenance include:
- Improved reliability and performance through the identification and fixing of bugs on a regular basis.
- Longer code life span by keeping the codebase up-to-date and functional.
- Long-term cost savings by preventing small issues from ballooning into larger ones.
- Better user experience by limiting the impact of bugs or performance issue.
What is Software Support?
Software support is the reactive response to bugs and issues. Often, this work is ad hoc as issues are not always predictable (if they were, everyone’s lives would be a whole lot easier). Support levels vary mostly based on response times, or service-level agreements. Lower-level support means longer response time, while high-level support includes faster turnaround.
Continuing the home care example from above, support would be an emergency response to an immediate need. Imagine a pipe bursts, causing the plumbing to back up and flood the bathroom. You’d call a plumber and could pay a premium for immediate assistance. Or perhaps the neighborhood kids are playing baseball on your street, and a rogue ball smashes through your window, shattering the glass. Assuming you don’t manage the repairs yourself, you’d need a professional to measure, order, and then replace the window.
These needs are often unpredictable but require quick (if not immediate) responses. Another way to think of support is like emergency responders: when there is a problem, there are knowledgeable resources that can resolve the issue.
Some examples of software support include;
- Resolving functionality that is not performing as expected with a high impact on useability (critical bugs)
- Resolving external factors affecting the software’s performance
- Dealing with security issues
- Answering questions or concerns about the software
Benefits of Software Support
The benefits of software support are more tangible than those of software maintenance. Support comes in the form of access to a team of knowledgeable experts who can jump on tasks.
Some key benefits of software support include:
- Less server/system downtime, preventing a negative user experience or system outage.
- Dedicated point of contact for communication to expedite responses to problems.
- Defined response times for clear expectations between the client and the development team.
What Level of Support & Maintenance Do You Need?
Too often, maintenance is ignored to cut costs while support is retained only for the most critical issues. This is the wrong approach. Software Maintenance and Support, while distinct in purpose, operate in parallel. Both are necessary for the long-term success of any software system.
Regular maintenance reduces the risk of urgent support requests by keeping the code maintained properly.
Going back to our homecare analogy. Perhaps regular pipe maintenance could have prevented your pipes from bursting, saving you thousands of dollars from avoided water damage and repairs. Maintenance can’t prevent every issue though. For example, maintaining the integrity of your windows wouldn’t stop the baseball from shattering them.
Maintaining code keeps resources familiar with the software ready and available for any needed support. Developers familiar with the code are significantly more efficient at investigating and fixing issues than those who aren’t.
The level of maintenance and support required varies based on the complexity of the individual project. If a system relies heavily on several 3rd party integrations and spans multiple platforms (iOS, Android, and web), it’ll require more maintenance and support. Similar to how a 30-story apartment building needs full-time dedicated maintenance staff whereas a single-family home can get away with a handyman on speed dial.
When In Doubt, Defer to Your Developer
If you are unsure what kind of maintenance and support you need, reach out to your development team. The best recommendations come from those who know your system. That’s why having a team you trust is critical to the long-term success of your software.
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