How open source can help businesses reclaim control of IT

In an age where data availability and visibility is crucial, many organisations have found that their existing infrastructure has severely limited their options. Sometimes this is down to poor system design that prevents interoperability, but in others the intention is deliberate – a practice known as ‘vendor lock-in’.

The specific goal of vendor lock-in is to limit a customer’s choices for future IT developments. If the customer wants to extend its system or add new functionality, it will need to ‘choose’ the relevant equivalent from the vendor or one of its ‘certified partners’.

Not only does the business miss out on the flexibility needed to build an agile organisation, but it will also end up paying more than needed for a compromised product.

Today, 45% of organisations cite a lack of supplier dependency as a reason for choosing open-source software (OSS). This is fractionally behind increased ability to innovate (47%), open technology (also 47%) and cost savings (46%), all of which are closely related and essential to building an agile, competitive business infrastructure.

>See also: How open source will power tomorrow’s tech unicorns

Sadly, many organisations find themselves crippled by vendors after buying into proprietary technologies and punitive contracts.

Knowing the value of a customer’s data, some vendors employ proprietary data formats that are specifically designed to make data export difficult. Should an organisation try and move away from the service, it may find that there are significant secondary costs involved, not least the time spent trying to maintain data integrity throughout the process.

Meanwhile, software licensing can be notoriously complex and some vendors exploit this fact with their charging models. Businesses that make their money by selling software often use arcane charging methods to apply additional fees for certain operating models, such as systems containing more than one CPU. The confusion that arises from complex licensing eventually adds to the cost of business as teams try to calculate what is needed to ensure total licensing compliance.

Vendor products also typically employ closed-source licensing, preventing customers from developing or extending the available functions and features. Even if an organisation desperately needs a specific function to support operations, the closed-source vendor is under no obligation to help. Typically only the very largest, cash-rich enterprises have the political and financial clout required to influence a vendor. But smaller businesses will be forced to accept ‘good enough’, immediately preventing them from realising maximum ROI.

When considering potential partnerships, businesses should always keep the following factors in mind to help avoid vendor lock-in.

1. Vendor integration capabilities

Any tool or service that your organisation is considering should at least support standard industry interfaces. If you are offered one that uses a complex “ecosystem” that has been optimised to ensure all products from the vendor work perfectly, chances are that the seller is trying to lock you into their product line.

For maximum flexibility and future-proofing, you are looking for a solution that connects to products from other vendors with minimal hassle. You must ask questions about interoperability early, or risk a costly case of vendor lock-in later.

2. Deploy extensible tools

In order to build the infrastructure your business needs, you will need to deploy extensible hardware and software. When dealing with OSS and Linux systems, there is a healthy community of third-party product and module developers who offer add-on modules and customisations that extend and improve the core product, allowing you to configure the system to your specific business needs. But in order to take advantage of customisations, your core product must be fully extensible first.

3. Obtain the source code

Products that use OSS code are the most likely to offer the extensibility you need for your IT infrastructure and applications. These products allow developers to download and modify the underlying source code in any way you need, without having to pay for additional developer licenses or similar.

Developers can then build the specific modules and features your organisation needs directly into the core product, thereby ensuring seamless operation. You can build the system you need, rather than the one a locked-in vendor decrees you can have.

4. Standardise your data formats

Although common data formats are undeniably useful, many are also the property of private organisations that can (and often do) change the rules regarding their use. Choosing Linux software that supports open-data formats and standards that are covered by an open-source license or subscriptions will ensure that you are not locked into any one organisation’s agenda.

Similarly, several ‘open standards’ offered by hardware for storage and communication are proprietary. Promises of enhanced performance often lead businesses to trade off complete control of their IT infrastructure as they buy-in to closed protocols associated with these products. Performance may indeed be great, but the costs will be huge when your organisation decides to try and develop a solution tailored to your specific IT needs.

5. Structure your contract

Vendor lock-in may be directly tied to hardware and software, but it begins with relationships. To avoid lock-in you must talk through your contract with your account manager to see how equitable they are being, looking for potential restrictions up-front. Check for clauses that have been designed to stop you running software from competitors in your infrastructure for example.

Also, look for any kind of clauses designed to limit the frequency or amount of contract reviews you are allowed to undertake, thereby removing opportunities to renegotiate. Vendors focused on lock-in tactics will do whatever it takes to prevent you from leaving an agreement, no matter how badly you feel the supplier has let you down.

>See also: The real road to democracy: how open source is sparking a revolution in enterprise

OSS is now over 20 years old, but it took many years for the idea to gain acceptance within the business community. Now the picture has changed completely with less than 3% of business not using it at least somewhere in their infrastructure. And 78% of companies are ‘run’ on open source.

If a business’s IT operations are limited by proprietary technology and inflexible licensing agreements, it may find that a move to OSS can help it regain control of its infrastructure.


Sourced from Simon Mitchell, CEO, LinuxIT

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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