Difference between Brownfield and Greenfield Software Development

by Anna Khrupa on Aug 30, 2022

Greenfield and brownfield development are two types of software development work. Both terms come from farming. A greenfield is a field that has not been used before, whereas a brownfield is a field that has already been plowed. What do these terms have to do with software development? What are their meaning and potential impact?

Let’s dig in deeply and answer what is greenfield software development first.

Greenfield Development Definition

Greenfield software development is when a new product is created from scratch. Typically, it is seen in startups or businesses that are replacing what they currently have or companies that are changing their direction to a new one.

A greenfield project lacks constraints from a previously developed project and has no code written for it yet. It is a whole new beginning. Development work does not follow prior work. There are no existing ideas to modify or upgrade. Everything is developed in a completely new environment. A greenfield project is implemented by a team that is inexperienced in this specific area. Considering all of these, what are the advantages and disadvantages of greenfield software development and what are the cases it may be applied in?

Advantages of Greenfield Projects

The greenfield model is a challenging one. It does, however, have a few appealing aspects:

  • Greenfield development is easier as a starting point for a project. There are no comparison views of the already existing code. A developer starts fresh without the need to get deep into the previously created code. No earlier developed restrictions have to be considered in a new project.
  • A blank space allows a team to implement anything they want without linking to the already existing background.
  • The model has no dependencies on previously done work. Thus, the work process is not tied to the already existing business processes.

Disadvantages of Greenfield Projects

Though starting a project from scratch provides a wide variety of opportunities, it has a couple of downsides:

  • The risk of something going wrong is higher in a brand new project than in a project that is built on the basis of the existing system.
  • It takes longer to complete a greenfield project as every aspect of the system has to be defined.
  • When there is no clear direction and nothing is in place, the initial costs can be high.

New software always seems to be difficult to deal with. That is why understanding the goals and the direction in which your business is going to move is very important when adopting a greenfield software model. On the other hand, it offers flexibility in work without the need to adapt to the earlier developed system with older features or out-of-date files.

Examples of Greenfield Software Development

It is quite difficult to find real examples of greenfield software development nowadays. They are quite rare. But there are a few cases in which the approach may suit well. For example, if you have an offline business with zero web presence yet. In these circumstances, you build an e-commerce website from scratch, with the possibility to introduce updates later.

The second question is what is brownfield software development and what does it refer to?

Brownfield Development Definition

Brownfield software development is a development work characterized by software extension, new capabilities, and a system that is replaced piece by piece on an already existing product. It refers to any software that is not created from scratch but is built on top of a legacy system. In brownfield projects, new transformations are based on the existing solution. In other words, these are the applications that have already written code for them.

Most of the time, companies work with the brownfield model, and there are a couple of reasons why. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of brownfield software development, which impact the flow of the projects for which it is used.

Advantages of Brownfield Projects

Brownfield development has a positive effect on a project in many regards.

  • It involves less work as the environment is already pre-structured and there is a baggage of existing code bases available. The team just has to put in some enhancements.
  • If it is a long-term project, the existing team has to repeat the process, utilizing previous experience. The basis of a project is well understood, so those who have worked on it from the very beginning can easily work on incremental changes and improvements continuously.
  • Existing code can be reused with a set of new features on top, saving much time and effort. There is no need to develop new code again and again. Less coding means a product can be launched faster.

Disadvantages of Brownfield Projects

There are some drawbacks as well which are given below.

  • The ability to work on something new, to develop a new code, is limited. The chances of innovating are low.
  • The approach cannot be implemented without a good understanding and thorough knowledge of the existing system and data on which a new one is.
  • The presence of legacy code in a project can slow down the overall development process or even increase costs.
  • New business requirements and outdated environments cannot coexist without considerable re-engineering.

Let’s have a look at some examples of brownfield software development in real life.

Examples of Brownfield Software Development

Brownfield projects are not rare. Every time a company updates a program upon an existing one while using already developed code, there is a brownfield development. For example, you have an enterprise system. A new module is going to be built on it. New features are going to be integrated into the existing application. The code is going to be upgraded to introduce new functionality. 

Which of the approaches should your business opt for?

Brownfield vs Greenfield Software Development: Which Is Better?

Risk tolerance and the needs of a particular project have to be taken into account when making the decision on which model to follow. A brownfield project is less risky but more expensive (sometimes dealing with legacy code is required). Evaluate the investments, costs, and the team that you are planning on working with. How much risk is your project ready to carry? How fast should it be delivered?

The main differences are how well the development team is familiar with the product and how many capabilities the product can obtain due to continuous development and improvement with every iteration. Brownfield development involves an inherent understanding of a product’s behavior. Greenfield development is the opposite. Typically, everyone in a greenfield development environment is a newbie. Thus, training and learning the product are obligatory for everyone in a team. In brownfield development, a team has a huge reliance on previous knowledge and experience with the product. The new software relies on and coexists with the software that is already in production. It reminds of a redevelopment or a major upgrade of prior work.

None of the approaches is better than the other. There is no right answer to the question like which is better to apply – brownfield or greenfield development. Everything depends on the needs your business has. Both development models can produce excellent software.

Greenfield development modelBrownfield development model
All-new implementation
New code
New technology
An upgrade of the already existing system
Build on existing code
Already chosen technology
The process is executed for the first timeThe process has been executed before
The development is executed by a new team (training is obligatory for everyone in a team)The development is executed by an experienced team (training is only for new people in a team)
A team introduces new ideas and techniques to a projectA team focuses on previous approaches and techniques
There is no dependency on a previous projectThere is a significant dependency on a previous project
A team takes extra time on upfront planningA team starts the project fast
Projects have a higher degree of riskProjects have a lower degree of risk
Startup projects are more expensive, especially when there are no clear directionsProjects with a legacy code may incur additional costs, but this is not always the case



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