Avoiding vendor lock-in and the data gravity trap

In order to remain competitive, today’s businesses need to always be innovating. However, innovating remains a challenge for many organizations as they struggle to adopt the technologies they need to enable it. One of the primary reasons for this struggle is that these organizations are locked into a specific vendor’s technology. 

Customer lock-in happens when a customer is unable to migrate to another vendor’s services. This could be due to proprietary technology that is not compatible with other vendors’ technology, or to contractual terms that bind customers to only one solution. Some vendors may prohibit customers from moving to another vendor to ensure they keep the customer, or they at least make it extremely expensive to migrate, thereby deterring customers from using a competitor’s service. 

Combating the lock-in

There are several things to consider to avoid vendor lock-in. Let us look at some of the major ones. Consumers should consider leveraging a modular software approach—this allows users to swap out various parts of a system without replacing the whole. Consumers should ensure the software adheres to established and open standards. And finally, customers should read the fine print of the contracts they sign with the vendors.

The biggest vendor lock-in trap is creating a dependency with a vendor’s ecosystem. A customer can easily succumb to the adjacent services and tools that a vendor offers, and that dependency can become a huge hurdle to overcome when a consumer chooses to change vendors. 

When reading the fine print, consumers should look for whether the service they plan to use allows for easy migration, whether there are enough tools that allow them to easily integrate and migrate their application and data, and how cost effective the service is.

Safeguarding freedom of movement

Furthermore, many vendors make it difficult to move data between vendors—this is often referred to as “data gravity.” By making data movement difficult and expensive, vendors create lock-in even though they can claim that their service is based on open standards.

Cloud providers are a classic example of this. Many businesses begin using cloud providers for one service and soon realize that the application now uses tens of other services offered by this cloud service provider. Avoiding these dependencies and having clear abstractions enable a business to switch vendors, if and when needed.

Today, enterprises are adopting hybrid cloud and multicloud strategies to avoid vendor lock-in and the data gravity trap. In fact, many enterprises are choosing vendors who provide cloud-agnostic services that are also open source to benefit from the most freedom and to avoid vendor lock-in. In addition, working with vendors with large partner ecosystems can help reduce the risks of lock-in.

What makes open standards so effective?

Open standards are the antidote to proprietary technology. Open standards allow users to move freely between vendors—to mix and match or integrate—with competing vendors to create their own solution. They allow you to compose your service or system freely and liberate you from the proprietary interfaces of a vendor. 

Open standards came about from our prior experiences of vendor lock-in. If we forget that history, we are condemned to repeat it. Open standards have evolved over the years to solve the very problem of vendor lock-in. 

When being locked-in makes sense

While the general movement is toward the concept of “composable IT,” where software-defined infrastructure and application components interoperate seamlessly to make businesses nimble, there are times when vendor lock-in makes sense.

IT environments are complex enough as it is, so simplifying some assumptions is always good. Standardizing on hardware vendors, software infrastructure, or even cloud providers in early stages of a product or company, when both capital and skilled resources are limited, is a good idea. These decisions can speed up the development process and help bring the product to market faster. But the decisions made in a company’s early stages might come back to bite later, so they should be made with the principle of modularity deeply ingrained in the architecture. This will allow you to more easily swap out a vendor or provide support for multiple vendors.

Remaining flexible to encourage innovation

As technologies progress over the years, companies locked into a specific technology ecosystem will miss out on vital innovations happening in the industry around them. This will lead to competitive disadvantages quickly as their systems may lag in functional richness, user experience, performance gains, and operational agility. Ultimately this will cost their business revenue and growth. Implementing strategies to prevent lock-in will help businesses respond to a fast-moving and increasingly competitive market. 

Ravi Mayuram is CTO of Couchbase, provider of a leading cloud database platform for enterprise applications that 30% of the Fortune 100 depend on. He is an accomplished engineering executive with a passion for creating and delivering game-changing products for industry-leading companies from startups to Fortune 500s.

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