The Cloud vendor lock-in debate between Tim Bray and DeWitt Clinton picked up
considerable steam few days after I posted it here at Cloud Avenue. Dare Obasanjo takes on the issue of vendor lock-in head on and
nails the most important issue facing the cloud vendors.
He asks a very pertinent question about the portability of data from one
provider to another
So let’s say your organization wants to move from a cloud based office suite
Apps for Business to Zoho. The first
question you have to ask yourself is whether it is possible to extract all of
your organization’s data from one service and import it without data loss
into another. For business documents this should be straightforward thanks to
standards like ODF and
OOXML. However there
are points to consider such as whether there is an automated way to perform such
bulk imports and exports or whether individuals have to manually export and/or
import their online documents to these standard formats. Thus the second
question is how expensive it is for your organization to move the data. The cost
includes everything from the potential organizational downtime to account for
switching services to the actual IT department cost of moving all the data. At
this point, you then have to weigh the impact of all the links and references to
your organization’s data that will be broken by your switch. I don’t just mean
links to documents returning 404 because you have switched from being hosted at
google.com to zoho.com but more insidious problems like the broken experience of
anyone who is using the calendar or document sharing feature of the service to
give specific people access to their data. Also you have to ensure that email
that is sent to your organization after the switch goes to the right place.
Making this aspect of the transition smooth will likely be the most difficult
part of the migration since it requires more control over application resources
than application service providers typically give their customers. Finally, you
will have to evaluate which features you will lose by switching applications and
ensure that none of them is mission critical to your business.
He then nails the issue by pointing out exactly what the vendors have to
The key wrinkle with cloud computing platforms is that there is no
standardization of the APIs and platform technologies that underlie these
services. The APIs provided by Amazon’s cloud computing platform (EC2/S3/EBS/etc) are
radically different from those provided by Google App Engine (Datastore API/Python runtime/Images API/etc). For
zero lock-in to occur in this space, there need to be multiple providers of the
same underlying APIs.
This is exactly what I pointed out in my post on the topic. There is absolutely no two opinions on
this topic. We need standardized open API and open standards for data
portability between cloud vendors. Also, as I pointed out in my post, with SaaS
applications, there should be one click option to export (read: an easy and
seamless way to migrate) data out of an application. I am totally with Dare on
this and he has highlighted this point succinctly in his post.
What troubled me was his conclusion. I get a feeling that he is trying to pin the lock-in issue with cloud computing.
the fact is that today if a customer has heavily invested in either platform
then there isn’t a straightforward way for customers to extricate themselves
from the platform and switch to another vendor. In addition there is not
a competitive marketplace of vendors providing standard/interoperable platforms
as there are with email hosting or Web hosting providers.
As long as these conditions remain the same, it may be that lock-in is too
strong a word describe the situation but it is clear that the options facing
adopters of cloud computing platforms aren’t great when it comes to vendor
I don’t think I agree with his conclusion because the situation is no
different in the traditional desktop world. If a business invests in Microsoft
Office for their productivity needs and, let us say, Peachtree Accounting for
their accounting needs. Let us consider a situation where the business doesn’t
want to upgrade the MS Office Suite and the accounting software in a bad economy
and want to move to either Open Office or a SaaS productivity suite and an open
source accounting software or freshbooks. Is it going to be an easy migration?
No way. There are time consuming tasks like maintaining the formatting intact in
documents, converting the documents to openoffice document format, issues like
fixing the compatibility between wordart and fontwork, problems associated with
importing data from one accounting software to another, etc.. These tasks make
the migration expensive (but still cheaper than going through the process of
upgrading the software with every release or every other release) and
complicated. Plus, the options facing the customers are very limited due to the
monopoly kind of marketshare held by Microsoft in the productivity app markets.
In short, life is not better in the traditional desktop world either. I
wouldn’t place the blame on cloud vendors alone for this but on all vendors who
don’t offer the necessary freedom to their customers in dealing with their own
data. I would rather conclude the debate by only arguing that cloud vendors
should adapt to standardized open APIs and open formats. Any attempt to portray
this issue as a cloud computing issue is not correct.