Why does vendor lock-in get such a bad rap?

Most companies avoid purchasing components from a single vendor -- otherwise known as 'vendor lock-in.' But a single-vendor approach has its advantages.

In the context of virtualization, vendor lock-in often has negative connotations. But if a company provides solid products and support, this practice of purchasing the bulk of your data center components from a single vendor can be beneficial.

Few vendors have the product lineup to supply every facet of a data center infrastructure, with the exception of Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., and IBM. But many vendors can fill most IT needs and then bridge the gaps through strategic partnerships. VMware Inc., for example, has teamed up with EMC Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. to form the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) coalition. Together, these providers have bundled servers, storage and virtualization capabilities into a single product, which essentially locks customers into their vertical stack.

This tip offers a new way of thinking about vendor lock-in. It covers the pros and cons of this approach to building your virtual infrastructure and provides advice for those who choose a single-vendor approach in a virtual environment.

The advantages of vendor lock-in
The greatest advantage of a single-vendor strategy is support. When problems arise in data centers with heterogeneous providers, support technicians tend to blame the other vendors in the mix. Conversely, when a single company provides virtually every product in your environment, troubleshooting is much simpler. With a single-vendor approach, there is less finger pointing. While you may get transferred between support departments, there is accountability -- no matter what.

Another advantage is integration. A vendor's products are typically designed to work well together. As a result, management is much simpler because management applications are often integrated.

Additionally, component installation and configuration is generally easier. Strong interoperability among every component ensures that these pieces run like a well-oiled machine.

A third advantage of vendor lock-in is compatibility. How many times have you upgraded a component, only to find it's not supported by another product in your environment? With so many new product versions, playing the compatibility game is a headache. And there is an unknown factor with upgrades: another vendor's product may no longer work.

In one-vendor configurations, products are tested together, so there's less risk of upgrade problems. You also get a roadmap that covers every product, which makes future upgrade decisions easier.

Disadvantages for single-vendor strategies
But vendor lock-in does pose tradeoffs, particularly pricing. If you are tied to a single vendor, you can't get competitive bids from other vendors. Frequently, this process provides the best value for your money and forces other vendors to reduce their prices.

You have little leverage with a single vendor, and you're pretty much stuck with its prices. Your period of greatest advantage comes during the negotiation of your initial purchase of a vendor's products. To win your business, a vendor may offer significant discounts on a package deal. But after you have solidified the deal and purchased products, the single-vendor approach can become a disadvantage. It can be difficult to renegotiate your deal.

Leverage is also handy when a vendor is slow to resolve problems. In vendor lock-in situations, you can threaten to choose another company, but that's generally an empty threat. Most companies can't afford to replace everything in a data center. Smaller companies with little budget and visibility may find it especially difficult to put pressure on a large, bureaucratic vendor. If you have multiple vendors supplying data center components, replacing one part is a more credible threat.

A final disadvantage to the single-vendor approach is that one company can't provide best-of-breed products for every aspect of your environment. So some products may be only good or fair. This scenario is acceptable for some businesses, but many companies want best of breed in every case, which often compels them to purchase from multiple vendors.

Tips for using a single vendor
If you choose a single-vendor approach, there are methods to limit the disadvantages:

  • Check with other customers. Gather information from users on their experience, and pay particular attention to support experience and how customers were treated after a purchase. Many vendors will do anything to gain your business, but they may lose interest after the sale. Also, question longtime users, who have long-standing relationships and information to share.
  • Be wary of vendor promises. Similar to politicians making promises to secure votes, vendors make guarantees to facilitate sales. So just in case something doesn't work out as planned, get promises in writing.
  • If necessary, ask for a supervisor. If a problem doesn't receive the attention it deserves, don't hesitate to escalate it up a vendor's corporate ladder. Generally, departments are compartmentalized, and if you don't make progress within a department, move to the next level to get resolution.
  • Start small. You might want to limit your initial investment until you are comfortable with a vendor. Once you are satisfied with your experience, you can go all in.

About the expert Eric Siebert is a 25-year IT veteran with experience in programming, networking, telecom and systems administration. He is a guru-status moderator on the VMware community VMTN forums and maintains vSphere-land.com, a VMware information site.


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