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Don't touch that!

Your contractor put down the copper, set up your network devices and got the system running. Want to put in a patch cable? Check your warranty first.

Here's the scenario. You'd just had a data network contractor install a new data network a few months ago. Maybe the contractor provided a warranty, or maybe it's the manufacturer. You or one of your technicians decides to tweak the infrastructure slightly, maybe even just put a patch cord in place. And you may have just invalidated your network's warranty.

I see many instances of unfavorable language suggested in warranties.
Jeff Gordon
contract negotiator

According to Mark Johnston, strategic alliance and planning manager for Everett, Wash.-based Fluke Networks, that type of problem happens all of the time.

In a vendor standard warranty, there are certain clauses that say if you change hardware or software, that action invalidates the warranty. Most vendors realize that customers will need to use patches or reconfigure their systems. But according to Jeff Gordon, a contract negotiator in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina, some vendors prefer that they retain sole control over changes to their recommended configurations.

"I see many instances of unfavorable language suggested in warranties," Gordon said. "If someone signs the contract with those warranties, it usually means that they didn't read it, didn't understand it or didn't feel like they had the ability to change it. If that's the case, find a contract professional to read your contracts. That's the moral of the story."

According to Gordon, a common clause would say in essence that a product couldn't be used in conjunction with any other product. However, data center managers know that all products work together and that almost nothing works in a vacuum.

"A firewall doesn't work unless it's connected to the servers it's protecting, and a router doesn't work unless it's talking with other routers and network devices. Everything plays in a larger environment," Gordon said.

The easiest way to combat these types of clauses is to present the vendor with an exception to the rule. Gordon offers the example of Cisco routers. [Note: While

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Ask negotiation expert Jeff Gordon a question

Cisco's current contracts might not contain restrictive warranties, if they did, here's the argument.]

"Cisco routers [the hardware] have the Cisco IOS [the software] installed on each router. The vendor might say that changing the network configuration invalidates the warranty. Your response could be that the router is, by definition, touching other network components and that change is inevitable," Gordon said.

"They might concede the hardware point and then challenge the software-side and say that nothing really interacts with the IOS," he said. "Your response could be that the IOS is there as a configuration tool -- and that to connect to the IOS, you must use outside hardware [and terminal software, too] to make sufficient use of the IOS and the router as a whole."

Gordon claims that the best option for data center managers dealing with warranty issues is to be proactive. Have a firm grasp of what you're buying, how it interfaces with the rest of the environment and what's actually in the contract.

"If the vendor wants restrictive warranties, ask for the restrictions to be removed. If the vendor stays firm, offer concessions that might allow you to successfully and efficiently do your job but still give the vendor some amount of assurance that you're not going to modify their product in a way that will be detrimental," Gordon said.

There are workarounds and compromises. For example, you can use language in the warranty that says that you'll only make changes to software authorized by the vendor. Or that you'll only use a specific list of brands for certain hardware components. Or you can agree up-front to a specific physical configuration to your hardware/software that gives you flexibility and the vendor some comfort.

"Vendors budge on warranties all day," Gordon said. "You just have to ask for it and the prime time to ask is when you're buying."

But if you've already signed a contract with a restrictive warranty, all is not lost.

"The vendor doesn't have the time or resources to respond each and every time that you want to change your environment," Gordon said. "You can always ask the vendor to change the contract with a contract amendment. Using the examples of the exceptions to the "rule," demonstrate how you think the warranty isn't adequate given the fact that things change all the time. If the vendor doesn't want to budge, just remember to change it the next time you go to make a purchase from that vendor -- when you have more leverage."

The other side

According to Carrie Higbie, global network applications market manager for the Siemon Company, vendors voiding an entire warranty over a faulty patch cord is a rarity, and would be a huge problem.

The Watertown, Conn.-based Siemon warranties parts and labor end-to-end. And if a company is going to carry that kind of warranty it is going to want you to use its connections.

"If you have a Ford with Goodyear tires, is Ford going to warranty your tires?" Higbie asked. "If you have a Porsche that's supposed to drive 200 mph, you're not going to be able to drive that speed on a gravel road."

Vendors are concerned with compatibility and performance, because they are often betting on their products' success.

"Many contracts have specific warranty language which binds the vendor to assuring that the product will work," Gordon said. "The vendor wants to retain control over the operation of the product to make that assurance as cost effective as possible. In other situations, vendors agree to specific performance guarantees -- the product will operate at a certain speed or with a measurable amount of efficiency. The vendor can only make those guarantees if they have tested their product and know the optimal configuration. Changes to that configuration could cost them money -- paid as a result of performance guarantees."

According to experts, unauthorized changes, off-brand products or something as simple as patch cords, affect network functionality. According to Higbie, studies show that 70% of network errors are due to problems with patch cords.

Johnston also warns against buying off-brand or non-tested patch cords. "Alien crosstalk is always worst on patch cords. It's a false economy to try to save money there."

"Considering cabling will be in place 10 years, saving 10 cents on homemade patch cords is like putting in all refurbished hardware in your data center to save a dollar," Higbie said.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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