Cloud supplier lock-in – our experience

Always ask before entering into any agreement, “How do I get my data out in the future if I need or want to?"

Businesses are shying away from putting their data in the Cloud over fears they may become locked into one supplier.

Supplier lock-in is a situation in which a customer using a product or service cannot easily transition to a competitor. Supplier lock-in is usually the result of proprietary technologies that are incompatible with those of competitors. However, it can also be caused by inefficient processes or contract constraints, among other things.  

Fear of supplier lock-in

As reported, the fear of vendor lock-in is often cited as a major obstacle to cloud service adoption. Firstly, there is the question of why a company chooses to migrate to the cloud. Very often it is to reduce the amount of physical infrastructure that they have to keep and maintain.

Secondly, there is the question of how they could migrate within the cloud. The complexities of cloud service migration mean that many customers stay with a provider that doesn’t meet their needs, just to avoid the cumbersome and risky process of moving.

In order to move data from one provider’s cloud environment to another, for example, it may be necessary to first move the data back to the customer’s site and then move it to the new provider’s environment.

The problem with this is that the customer probably doesn’t have the infrastructure anymore because they didn’t need it after migrating to the cloud. Furthermore, the data may have been altered for compatibility with the original cloud provider’s system so what is returned to the customer needs to be returned to its former state before it can be moved again.

Suppliers try to lock customers in

Suppliers are nervous about customers changing providers and are therefore not making the whole task of migration easy. Suppliers will try to lock in customers to avoid them migrating to a new provider. For the customers, they often don't know how the lock-in will impact them and this can be devastating when it happens.

Our own recent experience illustrates the problem. MigSolv took the decision to put its timesheets system into the cloud using a well-known provider.

Our problems trying to change cloud supplier

The service was adequate and the solution worked. However, over time it became more and more expensive and reporting became a problem because the report building function did not allow the creation of the kind of reports we were looking for.

Ultimately, the decision was taken to look for another provider. We identified a leading cloud provider of time and expense recording began looking at the data migration. This is when the true issue of lock-in came to light.

The problem was twofold. First, the way in which the existing provider stored the data was different to the way in which the new provider would do so. The data would need a significant amount of manual manipulation before it could be transferred to the new provider.

The second problem was that the original provider did not have any data export functionality. In other words, there was no clean way to extract the data. This wasn’t so much of a problem with the time recordings, as the historical data wasn’t critical, but it was a major problem with expense records as these are needed and could be inspected at any time by HMRC.

Ultimately, several weeks of data copying had to be undertaken so the historical data could be uploaded to the new provider in the correct format and would be available if needed. The process was painful and time consuming, and we learned a valuable lesson from it. 

What might the consequences have been if all of the infrastructure – physical servers, networking equipment, storage devices and applications – had all been transferred over?

What we learned

The lessons we have learned are to ask more questions about the data, how it is stored and used and how to extract it. What are the consequences of the lock-in arrangement and if something did go wrong how would we move our service to another provider and would we get any help? 

The new provider has both a data extraction utility with various formats available and offers a migration service out of their cloud if clients wish to move. Unsurprisingly, their customer retention rate is exceedingly high.

Even if the relationship with the cloud provider is good, our advice would be to ensure that any data that is with the cloud provider is backed up regularly in an easily usable format, (such that it can be imported to another system), and stored in a physical form.

A word of caution

Realistically, if you are locked into a supplier, getting out is always going to be problematic. Ultimately, it usually comes down to money. If you want to get out then it will cost you to do so.

Unethical providers may make it difficult to get at or recover your data but this is something that should be checked before entering into an agreement.  Always ask before entering into any agreement, “How do I get my data out in the future if I need or want to?”

The message “Go to the Cloud, that’s the future …” is valid in many cases, but a word of caution: be aware of the impact if something goes wrong and find out what are your alternatives.

Alex Rabbetts is md at MigSolv.


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