Across industries, innovation plays a key role in future-proofing an organization. Often, that means adopting emerging technologies that can leverage growing amounts and types of data to deliver premium experiences to customers.
However, one of the major hurdles preventing businesses from quickly augmenting technology stacks to improve the customer experience is vendor lock-in. This occurs when a customer can’t migrate from one service to another, which can be attributed to proprietary technology that isn’t compatible with outside software or to contractual agreements that prevent users from adopting competing solutions.
This is exacerbated when vendors make it difficult, costly or nearly impossible to move data to another solution provider’s service. The larger the dataset and the more services that are used, the harder and more expensive it is to move. This phenomenon is referred to as “data gravity.”
The lack of flexibility and agility hinders some organizations from adopting technologies that help them match competitive offerings, innovate and differentiate themselves from their competitors in the market.
For organizations to succeed, business leaders need to understand vendor lock-in and data gravity challenges and implement strategies to avoid them. Here are six tips for business leaders to consider.
1. Build applications with portability in mind
The key tenet to building any application, which is independent of vendor-specific concepts, architectures and capabilities, is portability. This means that at the design phase of an application, the right architectural decisions need to be made that abstract away any vendor dependencies and add a layer of portability. Portability makes it simple to install and support applications on various host environments without having developers change code.
This is not a new concept. It has been successfully used in the past to make apps agnostic with respect to database, middleware and security vendor. Where many of us seem to have forgotten this is in this urgency to move to the cloud. Mature enterprises, however, do have this discipline, not frivolously using all services/lambdas and functions that a cloud service provider (CSP) releases, thereby maintaining control over their application architecture.
This gives them both flexibility (they can choose any CSP when their services expand to geographies where their current CSP’s offering might be less mature) and greater negotiating power as they are not subject to data gravity rules.
2. Retain control over the application stack
Any cloud-based application typically has four basic components to its stack: a security layer, an application logic layer, a data tier and finally, an infrastructure (hardware) tier. Having clear abstractions and adhering to standards rather than (cloud) vendor-specific implementations is the utopia.
The primary reason to go to the cloud is the computing infrastructure, but without realizing it, organizations often fall into the trap of consuming the services above and find themselves locked in. This is a tough journey, but if there is one area where they need to pay especially close attention upfront is the data tier.
Choosing this tier independent of the cloud vendor is what will finally allow organizations to retain ownership of their data. This will give them control over data portability and data migration. Without this, they will fall into the vendor’s “data gravity” and see the CSPs as villains, while it is their own lack of understanding and due diligence upfront that got them sucked into the vortex.
3. Adhere to an open standards approach
Proprietary technology often begets vendor lock-in. Here, adopting an open standards approach is the solution. Open standards emerged as a way to combat the lock-in trap. With open standards, customers have the flexibility to go from one vendor to another, enabling them to create bespoke solutions, even with competitive technologies.
Some popular vendor-neutral open standards are JSON, REST, HTTP, LDAP, OAuth, gRPC and SQL.
4. Avoid skill lock-in with a single vendor
Many organizations, over time, have come to be identified as single-vendor shops. Over the last 30 years, these companies have become identified as Microsoft, IBM or Oracle shops. The entire open-source movement was a response to breaking away from being locked into these single vendor stacks.
The same movie is being played out again in the context of the cloud. This is a knowledge worker issue that companies need to be acutely aware of. They need to invest in both acquiring and training their existing workforce to understand the whole cloud vendor landscape so they can make informed decisions in a vendor-neutral way. Having resources that know only one stack is like wielding a hammer — everything will look like a nail.
5. Adopt hybrid and multicloud strategies
According to Gartner, “most organizations adopt a multi-cloud strategy out of a desire to avoid vendor lock-in or to take advantage of best-of-breed solutions.” Forrester also found that more than half of business decision-makers perceive avoiding vendor lock-in as the top organizational goal for deploying an as-a-service data management strategy.
With more than three-fourths (76%) of organizations using two or more public clouds and nearly two-thirds of organizations’ spending on application software going towards cloud technologies by 2025, it’s clear that avoiding lock-in when moving to the cloud is a priority for many businesses.
By adopting hybrid and multicloud architectures, organizations can choose vendors that provide cloud-agnostic services, which allow them to freely mix and match tools and services from different providers based on business needs.
It’s important to understand that this can lead to increased costs upfront. But it’s a cheap price to pay in the grand scheme of things, as vendor lock-in will cost dearly over the lifetime of the application.
6. Review the contractual fine print and be prepared to negotiate
This step may seem obvious, but when they’re in a rush, many organizations skim through a contract’s fine print. Organizations should make sure their legal teams go through contracts with a fine-toothed comb to make sure vendor lock-in isn’t baked in.
In reviewing a contract, it’s important to gain an understanding of whether the service allows for easy migration and whether there are tools or resources available to support the integration and migration of applications, as well as whether the service is within budget. Keep an eye out for contractual agreements, such as auto-renewals, that can trap organizations into a service long-term. When possible, negotiating the ownership of data can help alleviate data gravity challenges.
Don’t let vendor lock-in stifle innovation
Indeed, there are times when vendor lock-in makes sense. When an organization is new, with limited resources and skills, it might help to standardize on hardware/software vendors or cloud providers. That said, decisions made early on can have a negative impact on long-term strategy, especially when vendor lock-in occurs as an organization evolves or strategies change.
To future-proof and vendor-proof applications, understand and implement these tips when possible. This will liberate your organization from lock-in and allow you to innovate using the best-of-breed and most cost-effective technologies, helping your business stay ahead of the competition.
Ravi Mayuram is CTO of Couchbase.
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