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Vendor lock-in, part 2Combating lock-in with open source

Is vendor lock-in always a curse? After all, the backing of a vendor can be helpful and reassuring -- if you can trust the vendor not to stab you in the back, that is. In part two of our three-part series on vendor lock-in,'s Ask the Expert advisors Sam Greenblatt, Ken Milberg, Matt O'Keefe and John Terpstra explain the effects of vendor restrictions in today's market -- and how open source combats proprietary lock-in. In part one, they defined lock-in, and in part three, they will provide advice for establishing a relationship that will benefit both your enterprise and your vendor.

Is it ever good to be locked in to a vendor?
I would say there are situations in which it does not necessarily hurt to be locked in. A company can have more leverage with its support vendor by largely using its products. For example, big IBM shops will have the resources of a billion-dollar company at [their] disposal. A company that is strictly open source will have to rely strictly on its own and on open source developers who really don't care about the customer's service-level agreements (SLAs).
Is it ever good to be locked in to a vendor?
Yes. If a vendor has offered to customize the application to your business, is dependable, reliable, cost effective, and both you and the vendor are very happy, then why fear being locked in? At the end of the day, the issues center around good relationships, trust, and a sound measure of business exposure.
How can lock-in be helpful or harmful to technology development?
Over the short term, proprietary standards enforced by a particular vendor can make markets more efficient and less chaotic. However, they also can reduce customer choice and create a lock-in situation where the alternative products are either too weak to compete or are marginalized because few ISVs consider these alternative products really viable.

If a technology is evolving and needs more innovation to really meet users needs, then vendor lock-in to proprietary standards can be negative; if the technology is mature and the markets are chaotic due to lack of a dominant player, that can be a downfall for users as well.

Perhaps the best situation is to have a dominant product with a credible alternative to keep the dominant company honest. For example, in the Linux operating system market, Red Hat is currently the leader in terms of market share, but SuSE is a credible enterprise-ready alternative. This is good for both companies -- precisely because users are less likely to use Linux if they feel they will get locked in to using one company's products. It also bodes well for Linux users and Linux ISVs. Is it ever good to be locked in to a vendor?
The concept of lock-in is not valid in today's marketplace. A vendor who does not provide freedom of choice to his customers will end up finding that customers will select other products. It is important not to confuse financial terms that enable a customer to use a product that has a very attractive rate [with] that of functionality. When I use Linux from a Linux distributor, don't I get locked into that product and that distributor's services?
Linux is Linux; so long as it is Linux Standards Base compliant and certified, the application can be ported from one vendor's Linux to any other's on the same CPU platform. Make sure, however, [that] both platforms have the same base kernel version and the same glibc version and that there are no application dependencies that cannot be met.
When I use Linux from a Linux distributor, don't I get locked into that product and that distributor's services?
This is a misconception. In using a Linux distribution, a binary source compatible module should be compatible with the level of kernel that the customer has implemented on. It is easy to implement and port an application from one distribution to another.
When I use Linux from a Linux distributor, don't I get locked into that product and that distributor's services?
Most Linux applications can run on a variety of distributions, and many are open source. The latter can run on any version of Linux.
Is hardware lock-in ever a problem with Linux?

Sam Greenblatt is senior vice president and chief architect for Computer Associates' Linux Technology Group. Currently, he is involved with creating management solutions focusing on the next generation of servers and providers (Web services) and server consolidation.

Kenneth Milberg, president and Unix systems consultant at Unix Solutions, is an independent contractor who has been working with Unix systems for over 12 years.

Matt O'Keefe is chief technology officer and founder of Sistina Software, in Minneapolis, and an expert and educator in the fields of clustering technologies and storage infrastructures.

John H. Terpstra is co-founder of the Samba Team and a member of the Open Source Software Institute Advisory Board. He is also CEO and president of PrimaStasys Inc., a company that mentors information technology companies and facilitates profitable change in practices.

Is hardware lock-in ever a problem with Linux?
One of the reasons Linux is different from Unix is that buying Linux does not lock you in to their hardware. Linux runs on open PC platforms. When using Unix systems, you lock yourself in to the vendor's hardware, whether it's IBM AIX, HP-UX or Solaris. Only Solaris really offers flavors on the PC platform, and the product itself is widely recognized as not being a great one. With Linux, you also don't need to have support contracts with the vendor. With Unix and its hardware dependencies, it's usually foolish not to have a contract.

Is hardware lock-in ever a problem with Linux?

Read part one of this series: " Vendor lock-in, part 1: Proprietary and lock-in not necessarily synonymous"

Read part three of this series: "Vendor lock-in, part 3: Solid contract negotiation key to avoiding lock-in" Ask the Experts

Best Web Links on decision criteria news exclusive: "Red Hat's Tiemann: Architectural vision must be 20/20"

FEEDBACK: Have you ever experienced vendor lock-in? How did you break the chains?
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