Locked Up By Lock-In

When you start evaluating a solution, you are going to get a laundry list of features and functionality that you are supposed to use as criteria for selection. Some are important, like the ones that give you the feature set you need to get your job done. Others are less important for the majority of use cases. One thing tends to stand out for me though.

Since the dawn of platforms, I believe the first piece of comparison marketing has been “avoids lock-in”. You know you’ve seen it too. For those that may not be completely familiar with the term, “lock-in” describes a platform where all the components need to come from the same manufacturer or group of manufacturers in order to work properly. An example would be if a networking solution required you to purchase routers, switches, access points, and firewalls from a single vendor in order to work properly.

Chain of Fools

Lock in is the greatest asset a platform company has. The more devices they can sell you the more money they can get from you at every turn. That’s what they want. So they’re going to do everything they can to keep you in their ecosystem. That includes things like file formats and architectures that require the use of their technology or of partner technologies to operate correctly.

So, the biggest question here is “What’s wrong with that?” Note that I’m not a proponent of lock-in. Rather, I’m against the false appearance of choices. Sure, offering a platform with the promise of “no lock-in” is a great marketing tool. But how likely are you to actually follow through on that promise?

I touched on this a little bit earlier this year at Aruba Atmosphere 2019 when I talked about the promise of OpenConfig allowing hardware from different vendors to all be programmed in a similar way. The promise is grand that you’ll be able to buy an access point from Extreme and run it on an Aruba Controller while the access layer polices are programmed into Cisco switches. It’s the dream of interoperability!

More realistically, though, you’ll find that most people aren’t that concerned about lock-in. The false choice of being open to new systems generally comes down to one single thing: price. The people that I know that complain the most about vendor lock-in almost always follow it up with a complaint about pricing or licensing costs. For example:

The list could go on for three or four more pages. And the odds are good you’ve looked at one of those solutions already or you’re currently dealing with something along those lines. So, ask yourself how much pain vendor lock-in brings you aside from your checkbook?

The most common complaint, aside from price, is that the vendor solution isn’t “best of breed”. Which has always been code for “this particular piece sucks and I really wish I could use something else”. But there’s every possibility that the solution sucks because it has to integrate tightly with the rest of the platform. It’s easy to innovate when you’re the only game in town and trying to get people to buy things from you. But if you’re a piece of a larger puzzle and you’re trying to have eight other teams tell you what your software needs to do in order to work well with the platform, I think you can see where this is going.

How many times have you actually wished you could pull out a piece and sub in another one? Again, aside from just buying the cheapest thing off the shelf? Have you ever really hoped that you could sub in an Aerohive AP630 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) AP into your Cisco wireless network because they were first to market? Have you ever really wanted to rip out Cisco ISE from your integrated platform and try to put Aruba ClearPass in its place? Early adopters and frustrated users are some of the biggest opponents of vendor lock-in.

Those Three Words

I’m about to tell you why lock-in isn’t the demon you think it is. And I can do it in three words:

It. Just. Works.

Granted, that’s a huge stretch and we all know it. It really should be “well built software that meets all my functionality goals should just work”. But in reality, the reason why we all like to scream at lock-in when we’re writing checks for it is because the alternative to paying big bucks for making it “all just work” is for us to invest our time and effort into integrating two solutions together. And ask your nearest VAR or vendor partner how much fun that can be?

I used to spend a LOT of my time trying to get pieces and parts to integrate because schools don’t like to spend a lot of money on platforms. In Oklahoma they’re even allowed to get out of license agreements every year. Know what that means? A ton of legacy software that’s already paid for sitting around waiting to run on brand new hardware they just bought. And oh, by the way, can you make all that work together in this new solution we were sold by the Vendor of the Month Club?

And because they got the best deal or the best package, I had to spend my time and effort putting things together. So, in a way, the customer was trading money from the hardware and software to me for my wetware — the brain power needed to make it all work together. So, in a way, I was doing something even worse. I was creating my own lock-in. Not because I was building an integrated solution with one vendor’s pieces. But because I was building a solution that was custom and difficult to troubleshoot, even with proper documentation.


Tom’s Take

Lock-in isn’t the devil. You’re essentially trading flexibility for ease-of-use. You’re trading the ability to switch out pieces of a solution for the ability to integrate the pieces together without expending much effort. And yes, I realize that some lock-in solutions are harder to integrate than others. I’m looking at you, Cisco ISE. But, that just speaks to how hard it is to create the kind of environment that you get when you are trying to create all kinds of integrations. You’ll find that the idea of freedom of choice is much more appealing than actually having the ability to swap things out at will.