Enterprise Software

Appliances: The black boxes raising the spectre of vendor lock-in

Beware of sacrificing interoperability for convenience...

While it's hard to deny the appeal of appliances - essentially single-function black boxes - stitching these devices together in integrated stacks can leave you running the risk of vendor lock-in, says Dale Vile.

For as long as I have been in IT, the right way to drive things has always been towards openness and interoperability.

Indeed, over the past couple of decades we have seen some great leaps forward in vendor cooperation and industry standards: all the great work in web services, for example, has done much to ease the burden of systems integration. And when some vendors have gone against the flow, they have been chastised by customers and sometimes penalised by regulators.

But recently I have been growing concerned about a reverse in this trend towards openness. We have seen this possibility in the mobile arena, for example, with end-to-end closed systems that lock together devices, operating systems, software provision and even content delivery under the tight and uncompromising control of one vendor.

The argument is that such behaviour is in the interests of stability, security, performance and an overall optimised user experience. There can be no doubt that market control by the vendor is also a major factor behind such systems, and that users and developers end up getting locked in along the way.

Meanwhile, over in the core enterprise IT domain, we have seen the emergence of appliances - essentially black boxes usually designed to perform a single function such as content filtering or network load balancing. The idea here is to assemble a set of components that may be proprietary or heavily modified, then hard-wire them together so they work optimally as a highly-tuned and robust single unit.

appliances can mean vendor lock in

Appliances can leave users at the mercy of vendor lock-in
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Such products are sold on the premise that the user never wants or needs to know what's going on inside the box and the system is thus delivered and supported as a single entity.

This approach is great when dealing with highly-specialised appliances and can yield benefits in the form of performance and simplicity - but there are dangers when the idea is taken too far in some other contexts, such as the delivery of integrated stacks.

The practice we are talking about here is based on stitching together hitherto discretely delivered components to form a platform or system in which everything is pre-integrated and pre-optimised, sometimes generically, sometimes finely-tuned to deal with a particular type of workload.

Typical components include things such as server, storage and networking hardware, operating systems, database management systems, middleware and management tools, and even applications in some instances, such as comms and collaboration or business intelligence software.

The upside of this practice is that components are delivered as a coherent solution that is fit for purpose out of the box. This practice can potentially save customers a lot of time and expense as, even with open interfaces, effort is usually still required to assemble and test the system, and this spirit of rapid availability is clearly behind some integrated stacks.

Nevertheless, it is important to be wary of vendors stepping over the line. If the message coming across is that the only way of getting the most out of the individual components included in the package is to use them together, then this proposition should set off alarms about interoperability.

For example, there is a big difference between saying a particular RDBMS (relational database management system) comes pre-optimised to run on a specific type of hardware when delivered as an integrated system, and saying the RDBMS will never run as well on alternative hardware, regardless of the effort you put in.

Integrated stacks offered by the likes of Oracle, Cisco, HP and IBM, enabled through various acquisitions and partnerships, are as yet largely unproven from a demand perspective, but the customer appetite for bundled and pre-integrated offerings is significant in other areas, such as application platforms.

It is also the case that some of the workload-specific offerings optimised to deal with analytics, web applications, and so on, are quite compelling when you consider the expertise and effort necessary to achieve the same level of tuning through manual configuration.

Bearing these factors in mind, it would therefore be reasonable to assume that this latest clutch of developments in integrated stacks will tempt a significant number of organisations over time.

Yet given the dangers when evaluating options and looking for shortcuts to value, it is worth assessing whether the vendor is coupling components so tightly that you would sacrifice significant functionality or performance, or incur significant overhead, if you ever tried to deviate from the formula in the future. Compared to an ideal solution which lightens the integration and optimisation load without constraining your freedom, that situation bears an uncanny resemblance to lock-in.

But there is no right or wrong here. You may be legitimately willing to compromise on openness and live with longer-term risks and constraints to meet short-term needs or objectives.

The only real requirement is to think through what's on offer and consider the implications of the decisions you are making: that approach is the way to avoid unpleasant surprises down the line.

Dale Vile is research director at analyst house Freeform Dynamics.

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