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How to detect cloud vendor lock-in before it's too late

Many IT organizations unknowingly go "all in" with a single cloud provider. Here's how to make sure your cloud options stay open.

With cloud computing still in the early stages of development, competition among cloud providers remains fierce. Cloud service costs continue to drop, while features and capabilities improve. As a result, many cloud planners work hard to avoid being locked-in to a single provider and to keep their competitive options open.

Unfortunately, once you've committed to a cloud provider, seemingly unimportant additions to your cloud service can result in lock-in -- unless you take further steps.

Avoiding accidental cloud vendor lock-in

Most cloud users start with a basic machine-image hosting service to gain experience and validate their business case. This form of cloud computing is the most competitive; cloud providers advertise prices for this level of service and vie aggressively for early cloud trials. While many cloud users expand from this base within a couple years, most remain with their first provider. This is when cloud buyers begin closing competitive doors.

While most basic cloud services are technically comparable and even compatible, the introduction of premium configurations, dedicated servers or geographic diversity can limit an organization's choice in provider. To avoid this problem, revisit the initial list of cloud providers your business considered. If you didn't originally list each provider's full range of services, expand the list to include all premium hosting options before you consider any changes.

Next, determine how many cloud vendors offer similar services at comparable prices. If your provider is still competitive in the next service tier, you won't increase your cloud lock-in risk. However, if your provider loses its competitive edge at the next service tier, consider another vendor's premium hosting options.

Another way users inadvertently lock themselves into a cloud provider is through the use of cloud management tools and interfaces. Most large cloud providers offer sophisticated tools for building and loading machine images and managing cloud configurations. In most cases, these tools replicate what's available in the software market, including open source management tools, but work in a proprietary way. When an organization commits to these cloud management tools and interfaces, it has to change its operations processes and, in some cases, retrain support personnel. As a result, that business gets locked in. To keep your options open, use tools that work for all public cloud services.

Some cloud providers try to make their own cloud management APIs and tools compatible with those of market leaders, such as Amazon Web Services. And while these providers help avoid lock-in, many are smaller, have fewer advanced hosting options and offer less geographic diversity. Make sure these "compatible" cloud vendors truly offer comparable services, especially for the services you expect to use over the next two to three years.

The role of web services in cloud lock-in

Most often, cloud provider lock-in occurs when users adopt value-added services beyond basic infrastructure as a service (IaaS). In the cloud, IaaS applications access web services for tasks such as database storage. These services can be extremely useful, as database and relational database services are often critical to cloud application success. However, it is extremely rare for competing cloud providers to support these services in the same way. If you rely on one provider, your applications lose their portability.

Fortunately, there are three ways to reduce this risk.

The first and most obvious way is to avoid web services. In most cases, users can deploy their own version of the web service as a machine image, which bases the service on readily available cloud hosting capabilities. Where open source implementations of the service are available, like they are for database services, this is a viable option.

The second way to avoid web services lock-in is to identify services that have competitive, if not identical, implementations. If you switch cloud providers down the road, you may have to make some changes to the service, but they will be limited and, most likely, won't inhibit your choices.

The third option is to design your application to compartmentalize cloud provider web services so that they can be removed if necessary. To do this, identify an alternative way to provide the web service's features and build your application to allow either the web service or its alternative to be slipped in. This involves creating a module or object that represents the web service feature, as well as providing a generic interface to the rest of your application. Then, implement the module using either the web service or its alternative.

In most cases, you can apply these three practices to reduce cloud lock-in risk. Where possible, deploy your own functionality as machine images and design your applications to minimize the burden of changing services.

Over time, the most useful incremental features and advanced hosting services will become more competitive, reducing the risk of cloud vendor lock-in creep. In the meantime, plan carefully to avoid limiting your own cloud options.

About the author:
Tom Nolle is president of
CIMI Corp., a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982.

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