If we take our cues from article headlines, vendor lock-in apparently is very bad and should definitely be avoided, especially when moving to the cloud. A simple Google search will return many articles with this message. After all, everyone knows vendor lock-in is bad, right?
Let’s begin by making sure we are all using the same definition. Wikipedia describes vendor lock-in as:
“In economics, vendor lock-in, also known as proprietary lock-in or customer lock-in, makes a customer dependent on a vendor for products and services, unable to use another vendor without substantial switching costs.”
The term brings to mind manipulative tactics by vendors to extract punitive sums from customers. Is this warranted? History tells us there is some basis for concern. In the world of technology, vendor lock-in has indeed happened repeatedly, reaching all the way back to IBM mainframe customers more than 50 years ago. Typically providing a complete single-source package of hardware, operating system, software and services, those relationships represented the ultimate in vendor lock-in. To get the benefit of the complete package, an enterprise had to go all-in with the vendor, making it extremely expensive and difficult to migrate away.
Over the years, this pattern has been repeated in various contexts, as we have been locked into operating systems such as Windows or Mac, or database technologies such as Oracle. These experiences have given vendor lock-in an understandably negative connotation.
But is that perception still warranted? Are the principles still the same? The simple answer is: times have changed, and vendor lock-in is no longer an unqualified really bad thing. In fact, there are often many benefits to getting over the fear of vendor lock-in.
Here’s a look at some leftover vendor lock-in myths.
Myth #1: Avoiding vendor lock-in is more important than native features and services
It is understandable that no company wants their choice of vendors restricted unnecessarily. Because vendor lock-in makes changing vendors more difficult, this is indeed a restriction, but importantly, only in one area. The choice of vendor for technology solutions is a multifaceted decision. Features, cost, stability, product roadmap, level of service — all these come into play. If one vendor offers superior value in features, pricing or other areas, but locks-in the customer (i.e., makes moving to another vendor more difficult), while the inferior offering is less difficult to escape, should the customer settle for the inferior option? The truth is, ease of switching vendors in the future is just one of many factors to consider when selecting technology solutions.
Myth #2: Vendor lock-in is a big reason to avoid moving to public cloud
We often see companies bring up vendor lock-in concerns in discussions about an upcoming move to cloud. After security issues, this is perhaps the most common issue raised. Let’s address some typical concerns.
What if the cloud vendor goes out of (or gets out of) the cloud business?
At one point in time, this was a reasonable concern. In the early stages of the cloud wars, many companies (ex. HPE, Cisco, Verizon, Rackspace and others) thought they could get in on the public cloud gold rush. The reality is, very few companies possessed the combination of scale, expertise and capital necessary to go up against AWS, who created the industry. As a result, most players were washed out quickly, leaving three viable, general purpose public cloud vendors: AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform. IBM remains a distant fourth with an unlikely prospect of improving that position, and despite Larry Ellison’s contentions, Oracle is too late, too desperate and pitching an incomplete platform.
At this point, the three public cloud leaders are run by huge, profitable companies, with growth curves over the last few years that are the envy of any corporation, in a market that is not even close to approaching saturation. The weaker players have already gone by the wayside. While of course there are no guarantees about what will happen over the long term, it would be difficult to identify market segment leaders in any other industry with better prospects for the future.
What if the cloud vendor raises prices?
Although we hear this often, it’s usually more of a red herring than a real concern. First, the overarching strategic direction of an enterprise is not typically based on the risk of a couple of percentage points of vendor cost. Second, the possibility of cloud vendors raising prices is so unlikely in the foreseeable future that it represents an exceedingly small risk. While there is some discussion about which of the three primary cloud vendors is dropping prices the most, in which categories, by what amounts and over what periods of time, the reality is: the cost of cloud computing resources has never risen, and the trend has always been and continues to be downward. The fact that there are three solid providers, with no one in a monopoly position, ensures that all will continue to minimize prices for competitive reasons for a long time to come.
What if they fail to provide services that meet my needs?
Here again, competitive pressures help minimize the risk. Innovation has always been a cornerstone of AWS, which continues to add new features and services at a breathtaking rate. Google and Azure are well aware of AWS’s market leading position, and are thus constantly developing their offerings to better compete. It is fair to say the public cloud is one of most innovative segments of the entire tech industry.
A summary point about vendor lock-in concerns: in most respects, moving to public cloud does not represent significantly more risk of vendor lock-in than most enterprises already experience in their current on-premises or colo environments. It is typical for a large enterprise to minimize the number of vendors in order to simplify their management. With the vendors they already rely on, the need to move away from any of them represents significant friction. This again reinforces the earlier point that ease of switching vendors is just one of multiple, already baked-in factors that influence any enterprise’s current and future technology choices.
There is, however, one aspect of cloud vendor lock-in that should be acknowledged: your data’s “center of gravity.” Moving data into the major public clouds is well-supported via multiple means. Moving it out is not tremendously difficult, unless data volumes are very high. But it can get expensive. It is not an accident that inbound data transfers are free, while outbound transfers are metered. While the number of cases where enterprises are choosing to take out all their data from public clouds is small, it is important that this risk is understood in the context of other decision criteria.
However, even this data gravity question further points out the futility of over-emphasizing the idea that public cloud is the harbinger of vendor lock-in doom. Look at it this way:
- It’s challenging to move data because of its gravity
- Applications depend on close proximity to data (for minimizing latency)
- Therefore, application themselves already enforce a form of location lock-in that has nothing to do with public cloud per se.
Is it really sensible to ascribe to public cloud a huge assumed portability penalty, when application proximity to data already creates such significant friction?
Myth #3: Choose open-source technologies to avoid vendor lock-in
This one usually comes up when proprietary software is compared to open-source software. The issue is that a proprietary commercial software vendor can enforce predatory licensing models, whereas this risk is much smaller with open-source solutions. Again, there is some validity to this concern based on certain past experiences, especially when the solution combines hardware and software (ahem, Oracle). Using free OS and application middleware helps minimize the threat of those predatory tactics. However, it is important to remember that changing application architectures represents significant friction regardless of which licensing model is used. In other words, while open-source software potentially lessens the size of the club you can get hit with while your feet are locked-in the mud, you are stuck in the mud either way!
Myth #4: Portability and abstraction technologies solve vendor lock-in
This idea is a continuation of the trend toward abstraction that began with virtualization nearly two decades ago. Virtualization does bring some portability, allowing machine images to run wherever the respective technologies, such as VMware, Hyper-V or Xen, are supported. The next level of abstraction, containers, continues this trend. Containerizing applications does offer some freedom in terms of where applications run (on-premises, private clouds, public clouds), and in that sense, it helps lessen vendor lock-in. But it is necessary to point out that containerization is not always an optimal solution for application workloads.
Perhaps more importantly, even when containers are used, there are many other layers to consider in an application infrastructure environment, such as database technologies, security and identity management. Other abstraction layer technologies, such as Pivotal Cloud Foundry, are a slightly different take on portability, enabling cross-cloud capabilities. However, relying on a company such as Pivotal to minimize cloud vendor lock-in creates lock-in with Pivotal. The takeaway is that abstraction technologies can indeed play a role in minimizing dependence on a particular vendor in some contexts, but cannot fully remove vendor lock-in, and may in fact contribute to it. Like every technology or solution, the ability to change vendors with little friction is only one of many concerns
Myth #5: Multi-cloud architectures are a great way to avoid vendor lock-in
The rationale here is this: “I will avoid cloud vendor lock-in by using multiple public clouds.” There are ample reasons why this is a less than optimal philosophy.
- Every public cloud vendor is different. While there are many broad similarities between the leading public cloud vendors (e.g., they all offer VMs, block storage, Hadoop services, etc.), they are in no way identical. This means that the theoretical ability to easily shift workloads from one vendor to another is largely a fantasy. While it is certainly possible to migrate many workloads, there is a huge number of feature and implementation differences between the primary clouds.
- Each cloud vendor has unique, powerful features. Public cloud offers some attractive features that are often specific to a single vendor. Echoing thoughts from the section on Myth #1, sometimes the only way to escape vendor lock-in is to avoid using some of the amazing capabilities that drew you to the public cloud in the first place. Is the risk of friction in moving from one cloud to another higher than the risk of letting your competitors take advantage of capabilities and efficiencies you have left on the table?
- Multi-cloud adds complexity. Managing multiple cloud operating environments increases the challenge of organizational change, staffing and management and dramatically increases the risk of human error. It is already difficult enough to train or hire cloud expertise, and managing more than one cloud multiplies that challenge. This does not mean that using multiple clouds is necessarily a bad idea, but pursuing a multi-cloud philosophy for the sole or even primary purpose of escaping cloud vendor lock-in is almost never a wise idea.
A smarter view of vendor lock-in
Although the perception around vendor lock-in assumes it is a bad thing that must always be avoided, the reality is much more nuanced. Vendor lock-in is definitely real, but the antiquated view about how important it is to avoid is based, as we have seen, on a number of myths and misunderstandings.
Vendor lock-in is only one factor to consider when making choices about technology strategy and architecture. For the reasons described above, emphasizing the vendor lock-in risk beyond its rightful place will warp the decision-making process, leading to the loss of agility, operational efficiency and competitive advantage. Remember the following:
- Migrating workloads and data from one public cloud to another will take effort, depending on which and how many native services the workload leverages, but it is generally far easier to move the workload from one public cloud to another public cloud than the modernization you went through when you migrated it from your own data center.
- Betting big on a single platform enables you to negotiate the best deal. Since platform discounts (not to mention incentives to help pay for your migration) depends on how much funding you are willing to commit to the cloud platform vendor. Going big with one vendor can help you maximize your leverage in the negotiation.
- Cloud transformation is not for the faint of heart. It represents a dramatic change to the way you do things. A better way, for sure, but very different. This means people need to change and that can already represent a massive challenge to large, complex IT organizations. Please do not underestimate the added complexity of managing different public cloud operating environments within an organizational change context.
- Unique and differentiating capabilities and features are among the primary reasons to choose a vendor. Ignoring those features simply to avoid vendor lock-in reduces the compelling value of moving to the public cloud in the first place.
Bottom line: don’t be paralyzed by fear of vendor lock-in. Armed with a clear-eyed view of the actual risks– and even benefits — of vendor lock-in, enterprises can make better choices. After all, that is why you are reading this, right?