For as long as I have worked in the tech industry, there has always been a certain stigma associated with the phrase “vendor lock.” In fact, I even remember one of my professors in college telling the class that in the real world, vendor lock should be avoided at all costs. He went on to explain that tech vendors were notoriously unscrupulous, and that the moment you become dependent on them, they own you and will do everything that they can to stick it to you.
Even back in the day when I had a real job, I once had a boss who would intentionally purchase servers and networking hardware of widely varying makes and models. When I asked him about it one day, he explained to me that vendor lock gives the vendor license to charge you a grossly inflated price, because your entire operation has become completely dependent upon that vendor.
While I agree that vendor lock has the potential to be really, really bad, there are also some positive aspects that I never hear anyone talk about. As such, I thought that it might be fun to play devil’s advocate and talk about some of the ways in which vendor lock can be beneficial.
It makes your job a lot easier
One positive aspect of vendor lock is that it has the potential to make your job a lot easier. Let me give you an example.
Let’s suppose that I work for a company that has adopted the practice of updating server firmware every six months. If the organization uses a variety of server makes and models, then checking for firmware updates is going to be a royal pain. If on the other hand, all of the servers are of the same make and model, then the process becomes a lot easier. I would only have search for, download, and apply a single update.
Even if the organization uses varying server models, the update process is still probably going to be a lot easier than it might be if the organization had purchased servers from a variety of manufacturers. After all, the manufacturer probably has a centralized portal on their website that can be used to search for updates to any of the hardware that the vendor offers. Using one portal to look for all of the required updates would certainly be easier than going from one vendor’s website to the next, trying to figure out where each vendor posts its available updates.
It’s easier to get support
Another positive aspect of vendor lock is that using a single vendor can make it a lot easier to get support. It’s a little bit off topic, but consider for a moment the trend toward hyperconverged systems that has been going on over the last couple of years. Obviously, hyperconverged systems provide lots of benefits, but one of the benefits that tends to get talked up a lot is ease of support.
The idea is that a hyperconverged system is made available as an integrated device from a single vendor. The vendor usually manufacturers the system’s hardware components, including the compute, networking, and storage hardware. Although the hardware vendor typically integrates a third-party hypervisor and management layer, they optimize and certify the software for use with the hyperconverged system. The end result is reliability, and a single point of contact for technical support.
Using a single vendor’s hardware provides similar benefits, even outside of a hyperconverged platform. If your server and networking hardware was all manufactured by a single vendor, that hardware has presumably been designed to work together. Not only does this greatly reduce the chances that you will run into obscure compatibility problems, it also helps to reduce the chances that you will have to deal with vendor finger pointing. I can tell you from firsthand experience that there are few things as frustrating as trying to fix a problem that has resulted in a major outage, and having vendor tech support departments blaming one another for the problem, while your boss is demanding to know how long it will be before you have the problem fixed.
You learn the vendor’s way of doing things
The idea that servers can act as standardized computing platforms is something of a myth. Sure, every X86 / X64 server should be able to run the same applications so long as the basic hardware requirements are met, but that’s not what I am talking about. Although there are certain things that are standardized across pretty much every server vendor’s products, most server vendors also have their own nuances. A server vendor might, for example, use a proprietary software component, or a proprietary management interface.
The point is that server vendors cannot make hardware that is completely standardized. Otherwise, there would be no difference between one vendor’s product and the next vendor’s product. Vendors would lose their competitive advantage as a result. Hence, there are aspects to each vendor’s product lines that are uniquely theirs.
Because each vendor has its own way of doing things, can have the effect of helping IT pros to work more efficiently because it allows for familiarity. Let me give you an example.
Once upon a time, I was a network administrator for a large insurance company. The guy who handled all of our hardware acquisitions had a particular brand that he was extremely loyal to. When that guy eventually left the company, his successor preferred to use a different brand of hardware.
The day that the first new server made its way into our datacenter, the IT staff lost its collective minds. The new vendor handled its license-activation practice in a completely different way from the other vendor, and that made for a somewhat confusing situation. We also discovered that the new server would not work with the management utility that we were using at the time.
I’m not saying that switching hardware brands was a bad decision, but it definitely proved to be disruptive. Whereas the IT staff had become adept at deploying the old brand of server with military precision, the first two or three deployments of the new brand of server were anything but smooth. Sure, we eventually got to be as good at deploying and managing the new brand of server as we were at working with the old brand of server, but there was a learning curve and that learning curve had a temporary impact on efficiency.
Take the good with the bad
I think that vendor lock is like almost everything else in the world of IT: It has both its good points and its bad points. Although this article has explored some of the more positive aspects of vendor lock, I chose to discuss those particular points only because I’m not sure that I have ever heard anyone say anything positive about vendor lock. In reality, I would be hesitant to actually recommend vendor lock as a best practice. Vendor lock can provide legitimate benefits if you use a reputable and well-intentioned vendor. At the same time however, things can take a terrible turn if your vendor ever gets greedy.
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