Is vendor lock-in really a big deal?

I’ve recently come across a Datanauts podcast regarding ““Choosing Your Next Infrastructure” ( if you like podcasts, I HIGHLY recommend Packet Pushers, I’m a fan because of their diverse and unbiased content). In this episode, various great considerations on choosing new infrastructure are made and they perform an excellent job at describing pros and cons of different strategies, but a few points regarding vendor lock-in got me scratching my head. The article “Vendor lock-in the good, the bad and the ugly” does a great job at explaining the overall concept of vendor lock-in.

Additionally, I see it in the following way: Some vendors provide hardware and software as integrated solutions, potentially including storage, networking, or computing. Traditional vendors have been doing this for decades and that’s one part of vendor lock-in, because you rely on your vendor to deliver new features, if they do not deliver it, the migration costs, most of the time, would be prohibitive, and a good enough reason to just pay the same vendor a premium.

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During the podcast, the following question was asked: “If you commit to a hyper-converged platform, you are committing to a vendor and thus, in fact, locked-in, is that a big deal?”.

Where the response was “What’s important is understanding that lock-in is going to happen… and it’s important to choose a vendor that is going to be a good partner for your business… So if you have a very good relationship with a vendor who provides an all-at-once solution, that may be strategic for you, and if you would rather keep the hardware open and have a vendor you trust to give a good software solution, that’s your best path”.

Learning curves, and migration costs will always exist. Successful organizations, managers, and architects will minimize those costs while meeting critical requirements. That answer caught my attention because this is not the first time I’ve heard comparisons between hardware lock-in and software lock-in minimizing the cost of hardware lock-in. I’ve heard stronger opinions from hardware vendors before (of course): “hardware locks you in, software locks you in, therefore you might as well lock yourself to the hardware”; that statement is easy to be made when you are selling hardware, it’s much harder to justify when you are buying hardware.

I’m not completely opposed to lock-in in order to meet critical requirements, but that decision must be taken very carefully, and rationally, more often than not, the future cost of the decision is much higher than the initial cost of the whole project. Requirements are uncertain, and they become more dynamic every day.

For example, say at the time of design you thought your critical requirement was performance and acquired the best in the industry, a year from now, your solution becomes popular in your organization (because it is so good!), now multi-tenancy is much more important, and you are locked in, your manager now demands multi-tenancy and your sales engineer gladly offers you an add-on contract for whatever price (s)he wishes. The requirement is fulfilled, all parties involved go to dinner at a fancy steakhouse, everybody is happy!

If your organization is mature enough to have a project starting and ending with the exact same requirements, then you definitely should pick vendor-lock in. But, if your organization stands in a dynamic environment, external or internal, then you should always maximize choice and minimize barriers to change in order to meet ever-changing requirements.

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I’m a firm believer that competition and choice ultimately drive innovation, thus in order to consistently deliver innovative solutions one must be open to competition. I’d argue that computers only are what they are now because of choice. And personal computers can be a nice example. One can choose between AMD or Intel processors, OSX, Windows or Linux. At the end of the day, lots of people will buy a solid computer integrated by Microsoft or Apple, but in the long run, the most innovative solutions and sometimes cost-effective solutions are the build-your-own type.

More than that, at the end of the day, a well put gaming setup is much more exciting than a boring Macbook, as Facebooks’ or Google’s chassis switches are more exciting than an expensive Juniper router.

 

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I'm a Network Engineer with software development experiences. MSCS from Georgia Tech. CCNA certified. ONF-SDN certified.

Posted in Thoughts & theories

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