CIO upfront: How to avoid vendor lock-in and keep your options open

Organisations looking for a new tool or building a new application should allow the business to drive the decision on which tool to pursue instead of having their vendors dictate what they must pursue, writes Steve Griffin of Epicon.

'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
'I don't much care where -' said Alice.
'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat…..

                                                      Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I am sure that many of you are familiar with the problem faced by Alice in the children’s novel ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.

She comes to a cross in the roads with two paths before her, each stretching onward but in opposite directions; but, which road does she choose?

This is a familiar problem for today’s CIO when faced with the thorny issue of which is better, best of breed or integrated platform.

I believe that, unlike Alice, most CIOs know which road to take; however, it is the perceived difficulty of the journey which often drives the ultimate decision.

If your system design philosophy is based on ‘best of breed’, you should have available the best possible functionality.

However, you may face issues in the areas of integration and data flow. The management of the environment may also cause problems particularly around dealing with numerous vendors, the coordination of upgrades and the potential need for multiple skillsets.

If your systems are fully integrated, you certainly will enjoy integrated and consistent processes throughout all modules in the vendor’s product set.

However, when faced with a generic solution, some of the modules, tend to be sub-optimal and it is usually difficult when integrating with software outside the vendor's core product suite.

Moreover, there rarely exists a ‘greenfield’ site and many organisations already have made significant investments around tooling.

You may also have less flexibility when adding features or functions. However, in our opinion, by far the biggest concern is that of vendor lock-in and the implication that has for your business.

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.

There is nothing new under the sun and vendor lock-in has been with us in the computer age since the early file formats were developed. Every choice of vendor brings with it some form of lock-in and, because of the complexity of the IT function, it will never be absent from the digital environment.

In fact, lock-in is often linked to innovation, with early adopters often being ‘penalised’ as they implement first-to-market solutions in the pursuit of differentiation or cost reduction.

Examples of this include Amazon’s large-scale storage which could only be consumed through a proprietary API and Salesforce’s cloud CRM solution with its proprietary tooling and development language that encourages ‘stickiness’ and limits logic reuse elsewhere.

The costs associated with ‘switching’ can be eye-watering. There is often considerable inconvenience and significant expense associated with data conversion, with the ever present risk of data corruption.

Simply put, a company’s business logic and data is key to daily operations, and switching from one vendor to another is rarely simplistic or cheap. The best way for an organisation to avoid becoming a victim of vendor lock-in is to use products that conform to free, industry-wide standards. Free standards are those that can be used by anyone and are not controlled by a single company. 

Importantly though, lock-in is not just about the technological issues surrounding file formats and incompatible applications – it’s about the business implications of being trapped on a system that no longer meets the organisation’s needs.

This has become even more prevalent with the addition of cloud vendors into the mix and exasperated by the accelerating rate of change.

The recent trend towards software-as-a-service (SaaS) is helping lower upfront costs of purchasing new systems, but the pace of change enabled by digital has accelerated so much that today’s CIOs have to make decisions which will ultimately impact the business’ ability to respond to the market.

Are they building systems that will enable business outcomes or environments that act as an inhibitor to timely change?

Organisations looking for a new tool or building a new application should allow the business to drive the decision on which tool to pursue instead of having their vendors dictate what they must pursue. Striving to remain agnostic will allow better flexibility to choose the right component for the right job.

Is there a way to balance the risk of vendor lock-in and to maintain IT agility, while simultaneously reducing the complexity of IT management?

Choices, choices, choices

Is there a way to balance the risk of vendor lock-in and to maintain IT agility, while simultaneously reducing the complexity of IT management?

Steve Griffin, Epicon

…….'so long as I get SOMEWHERE,' Alice added as an explanation.

'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough.'
                                  Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

The key to avoiding lock-in is down to being aware of the risks and making cognisant choices that provide flexibility in the future.

If organisations can easily select and integrate the best technologies for their needs, this can have a significant impact on innovation, agility, productivity and cost.

However, a different set of lock-in issues can arise when a company decides to integrate services from different cloud providers, but is unable to move data across those cloud services due to incompatibility issues.

An open integration architecture designed for interoperability, collaboration, portability and manageability can mitigate this risk.

However, the costs and complexity of this type of integration were driving CIOs to the integrated platform solution, in many cases they were choosing the easy wrong over the hard right. Until recently that is, now emerging integration technology that enables rapid codeless integration has negated this particular argument.

Data can now be transferred in a common format where the code bases of the two systems remain completely independent. The new breed of digital platform strategies now integrate business and IT needs and establish the CIO as a key player in the collective leadership vision.

As a result, they are adopting new ways of managing IT, and evolving the IT organisation from being a purchasing and governance function to being an engine of continuous development and change.

'I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.'
                                   Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Steve Griffin is GM New Zealand for Epicon. Following a full career in the Royal Air Force leaving as a Wing Commander, he held senior roles at EDS, Hewlett Packard and Unisys in New Zealand.

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