Defining Vendor Lock In

At Tech Summit last week, someone brought up a blog article which was discussing Virtual SAN vs VSA. One of the cons listed for Virtual SAN was “vendor lock in” (henceforth referred to as VLI – because we need more acronyms starting with V).

There was some debate around the table as to what VLI actually meant, and the conversation has been stewing away in my brain ever since. I’ve had a few stabs at coming up with a decent definition, I think I’ve settled on three definitions that I am happy with.

VLI occurs when the cost of changing your IT strategy outweighs the value gained from a previously made strategic decision.

VLI occurs when your data is an intrinsic part of an application or platform and the cost of decoupling it outweighs the value of changing to another application or platform.

VLI occurs when the risk of change outweighs the value to be gained from changing. This idea is inherent within the previous two definitions, but it’s useful to state it outright.

Two things to note about my definitions:

  1. I explicitly used the word strategy. This is because I don’t believe point solutions don’t have the breadth of impact to lock you in.

  2. I explicitly used the word value. My definitions imply that change is always possible, although it could be costly – meaning that lock in is not a concrete concept.

Why is strategy more relevant to lock in than point solutions? Because it requires retooling at a large scale. Of your processes, people skills and systems. The largest cost by far is in changing your business processes. Think of the adoption of a “cloud first” strategy. Who approves additional charges for performance or capacity? Previously a CAPEX request would run through approvals and get sign off. A shift to OPEX with cloud means that charges will creep up over time, incrementally. How do your financial processes cope with that? A simple example, but you can see that large strategic shifts require large changes.

A new point solution, be it server platform, storage array or other will require far less investment in those three areas. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it only requires changes to people skills, and systems. The costs of which are comparatively small.

For me, the greater risk lies in making decisions that don’t align with your IT strategy (which itself falls under your business strategy). This is the point at which money has to be respent, and businesses question why they are throwing good money after bad.

Now, a question. If taking a vendor’s strategy to heart is going to deliver outcomes and value that outweigh the cost, what do we call that?  Vendors want their customers to achieve their goals – because then customers will come back and spend more money.

While I wear some very rose coloured glasses in my cosy vendor job, I honestly believe that the relationship between customer and vendor needs to be a lot less about fear of lock in, and much about trying to understand how joint success can occur.