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Beware software-defined lock-in

“Avoid vendor lock-in” has been a mantra for a long time by other vendors and marketing promotions. Vendor lock-in is equated to a lack of choices or an impediment to making a change in the future. The lack of choices results in:

• Paying more for the next product or solution
• Failure to keep up with and benefit from new technology
• Reduced support or concern from the vendor in solving a problem.

These may be more fear-mongering from competitive vendors than reality, although there are companies that have demonstrated reprehensible behavior that is generally assigned to have a customer “locked-in.”

Recent marketing hype in the information systems and management industry has been focused on using “software-defined something” as a means to avoid vendor lock-in. In this case, they mean lock-in with hardware. Other valuable attributes for the software-defined message are added to the discussion but the most basic argument is the flexibility of using software on generic (general purpose) hardware.

In the case of software-defined storage (which has a wide range of meanings depending on which vendor is talking), the software seeks to take the value out of storage systems. The message is that removing the value of the storage system and using generic hardware and devices will remove vendor lock-in to a particular storage system from a vendor. With the messaging that vendor lock-in is bad and costs more, the software-defined argument builds an affinity value message.

But the real question is: did the lock-in just get moved to somewhere else? Rather than a storage system that is replaceable, albeit with effort to migrate data and change of operational procedures, the lock-in may move to software. In this case, the software determines where to place data. The software has control of all the fragments that are distributed across physical devices. The software in the storage system (embedded software or firmware in an earlier generation lexicon) and software-defined storage are doing relatively the same thing at one level.

If lock-in (as defined earlier) is being moved from a vendor storage system to software, the impacts of lock-in need to be evaluated. One consideration is the long-term financial impact. Software has a support cost – either from a vendor or from the IT staff in the case of open source. Additionally, some software is licensed based on capacity. These changes continue for as long as the software is in use. Storage systems are typically purchased and have a warranty that is often negotiated as part of the sale. It is common to get a four-year or five-year warrant. After that time, there is a maintenance charge. Some of the value-added features of the storage system are separately licensed which may be annualized or capacity-based. This is a competitive area, however, and some vendors include the value-add software for their systems in the base price.

Storage systems have had a consistent price decline over the years, transferring the economics of improving technology and the effect of competition to the customers. Software typically does not have commensurate price reductions. It is seen as an annuity for the vendor for maintaining and updating.

The vendor lock-in message triggers emotion and rapid conclusions that may not represent reality. Deeper analysis is required on specific situations. The value of “compartmentalizing” information handling to allow technology transitions or transformations rather than massive infrastructure change that become inhibitors cannot be discarded in considerations. The vendor lock-in message is not really that simple, and attributing the next new thing as being the answer is not well thought out.

(Randy Kerns is Senior Strategist at Evaluator Group, an IT analyst firm).

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