Vendor lock-in occurs when it’s difficult, expensive or impossible to switch from one service provider to another. This problem remains common in cloud computing systems, including email and database hosting. A recent survey found that 35 percent of businesses hesitate to use the cloud because of vendor lock-in. However, companies and consumers struggled with this issue long before the Internet came to be.
History of Vendor Lock-In
In the 1970s and early ’80s, it was often difficult to transfer data from one brand of computer to another. Most software would only run on a handful of models. This discouraged users from switching brands if they wanted to replace or upgrade a machine. More recently, some notebook computers have required their owners to buy costly proprietary batteries. Other companies frequently defeat this type of vendor lock-in by creating adapters or generic clones.
At least the old forms of lock-in were easy to recognize. Internet companies often hide these restrictions in the fine print, and it isn’t always possible to find a work-around. The simplest example is the email account that many Internet service providers include with Web access. An ISP may expect you to abandon this address if you want to switch providers. There are also domain name registration services that charge hefty fees to transfer domains to other registrars.
A more sophisticated form of vendor lock-in traps your information in a specific service. Some website add-ons won’t export the data they store, such as forums, blogs, mailing lists and photo galleries. Other online services permit you to download files that aren’t compatible with any other software. This is a problem because the provider may raise its rates, make undesirable changes or fail to keep up with your company’s needs. Bundled services can make matters worse.
Avoiding Vendor Lock-In
Fortunately, there are various techniques you can employ to forestall vendor lock-in. Use services that allow you to export data in a standard format. For example, an online word processor should offer RTF and plain text downloads. Choose email services that allow you to forward messages to a new address. When you shop for cloud services, make sure they comply with a cloud standard, like OpenStack. By storing data on an OpenStack-powered cloud database, you make it easy to pick up your data and go to any other OpenStack host.
Vendor lock-in often occurs when companies purchase multiple services from the same firm. For instance, a Web designer might offer design, hosting, maintenance and registration for a single fee. This can lead to problems if any of these services prove unsatisfactory. The designer could raise prices by charging three separate rates if you cancel one service. This type of lock-in may also happen if you use a cloud provider that bundles platform, infrastructure and software hosting.
It isn’t always feasible to avoid vendor lock-in. Standard formats don’t exist for everything, and some bundles of services are too expensive when purchased from separate vendors. In this situation, look for a well-established provider that guarantees a specific price for at least one year. Always ask about the separate costs of services in a bundle. Finally, don’t let discounts lure you into prepaying the fees for an entire year.
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