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The Cloud Lock-In (Part 1): Public IaaS is Great !

The Cloud Lock-In (Part 1): Public IaaS is Great !

It always good to start with Wikipedia’s definition as it helps to initiate a structured discussion, here is Wiki’s definition for Lock-In:

“In economics, vendor lock-in, also known as proprietary lock-in or customer lock-in, makes a customer dependent on a vendor for products and services, unable to use another vendor without substantial switching costs. Lock-in costs which create barriers to market entry may result in antitrust action against a monopoly.” Read more on Wikipedia

Does the cloud present a major lock-in ? Does the move create substantial switching costs?

“Yes !” is the common answer I hear for those questions. In this article I will debate it basing my findings on real cloud adoption cases.

Generally in terms of cloud’s lock-in, we face the same issues as in the traditional world where the move includes re-implementation of the IT service. It involves issues such as data portability, users guidance and training, integration, etc.

“I think we’ve officially lost the war on defining the core attributes of cloud computing so that businesses and IT can make proper use of it. It’s now in the hands of marketing organizations and PR firms who, I’m sure, will take the concept on a rather wild ride over the next few years.”

The above statement I bring from David Linthicum’s article “It’s official: ‘Cloud computing’ is now meaningless”. Due to my full consent with Linthicum on that matter, I will be accurate and try to make a clear assessment of the cloud lock-in issue by relating each of the three cloud layers (i.e. IPS aaS) separately.

In this part, I will relate to the most lower layer, the IaaS lock-in.

It is a fact that IT organizations take advantage of the IaaS platforms by moving part or even all of their physical resources to the public clouds. Furthermore, ISVs move at least their test and development environments and making serious plans to move (or already moved) part of their production environment to the public clouds.

Read more about shifting legacy systems to the cloud by Ben Kepes

Discussing with a public IaaS consumers, it always come to the point where I ask “do you feel locked on your cloud vendor ?” most, if not all of the companies’ leaders claim that the public clouds’ values (on-demand, elastic, agility,ect) overcomes the lock-in impact so they are willing to compromise. As a cloud enthusiastic it is great for me to see the industry leaders’ positive approach towards moving their businesses to the cloud (again too general – any of them refer to a different layer). I do not think that the lock-in is so serious.

For sometime this claim sounded pretty reasonable to me though on second thought I find that the discussion should start from a comparison with the traditional data center “locks”. Based on this comparison I can already state that one of the major public cloud advantages is the weak lock-in, simply because you don’t buy hardware. Furthermore, companies that still use the public cloud as an hosting extension to their internal data center, don’t acquire new (long term or temporary) assets that they can’t get rid of without having a major loss. In regards to its lock-in the public cloud is great !

Another important explanation related specifically to Amazon AWS products which support SaaS scalability and operations. Smart SaaS architect will plan the cloud integration layer, so that the application logic and workflow will be strongly tied with the underlying IaaS capabilities such as on-demand resources auto provisioning.

Read more about the relationship between web developers and the cloud

For example, the web can use the cloud integration layer to get on-demand EC2 resources for a specific point when a complex calculation occurs. In a superficial glance, the fact that the cloud API used as a part of the application run-time script holds an enormous lock-in risks. I disagree and let me explain why.

As a market leader, Amazon AWS will be (already is) followed by other IaaS vendors. Those will solve the same scalability and operational issues by the same sense and logic of AWS. Basically this means an evolution of IaaS platform standards. Smart cloud integration layer will enable “plug & play” a different IaaS platform or even orchestrate several in parallel. To strengthen my point I bring as an example several cloud start-ups (solving IaaS issues such as governance, usage and security) that developed their product to solve issues for Amazon AWS consumers and seriously target support of other IaaS vendors’ platforms such as Rackspace cloud and vCloud. In regards to lock-in the public cloud is great !

The IaaS vendors in the market recognize the common lock-in drawback of moving to the cloud. Vendors such as Rackspace brings the OpenStack which is a cloud software platform, so cloud vendors can build IaaS solutions upon it. Rackspace showing off on their blog site –

OpenStack™ is a massively scalable cloud operating system, powering the world’s leading clouds. Backed by more than 50 participating organizations, OpenStack is quickly becoming the industry standard for public and private clouds. Read More

It should be noted that applications and data switching between clouds is still complex and in some cases not feasible though believing in the public cloud’s future comes with understanding of its weak lock-in and will lead to visionary and long term strategic plans.

What about the private IaaS ?

Following my on going research on what is the best cloud option (i.e public, private or hybrid), I found that outsourcing the IT environment to a private or an hybrid includes a major lock-in. Implementation of a private or an hybrid cloud includes lots of customization, hence lack of standards. Private and Hybrid clouds have their benefits though lock-in is not one of them. The contract with the vendor is for 3 to 5 years at least (a data center’s typical depreciation period) on a non standard environment leads to an extreme, long term lock-in in terms of the “on-demand world”.

In order to decrease lock-in the IaaS consumer must prove the organization need for a private cloud by planning strategically for long term. Besides the ordinary due diligence to prove the vendor strength, the contract must include termination points and creative ideas that can weaken the lock-in. For example renewal of initial contract under re-assessing of the service standards, costs and terms in comparison with the cloud market, including the public one. The private cloud vendor must prove on-going efficiency improvements and costs reductions accordingly.

In his article Keep the ‘Cloud’ User in Charge, Mark Bohannon, VP at Red Hat, Warns:

“by vendors to lock in their customers to particular cloud architecture and non-portable solutions, and heavy reliance on proprietary APIs. Lock-in drives costs higher and undermines the savings that can be achieved through technical efficiency. If not carefully managed, we risk taking steps backwards, even going toward replicating the 1980s, where users were heavily tied technologically and financially into one IT framework and were stuck there.”

Some of the private cloud offering today have similar characteristics as the traditional data center, to me it seems that the former comes with a stronger lock-in impacts. In case of an IT transition companies who decide to go that way should expect a considerable switching costs and long term recovery of their IT operations hence of their business.

The second part will discuss the cloud lock-in characteristics in regards to the SaaS and the PaaS layers.

By Ofir Nachmani

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