Dealing with Lock-In

A post on Martin Fowler’s blog this week started me thinking about lock-in—building a system that only allows you to purchase components from a single vendor so long as the system is running. The point of Martin’s piece is that lock-in exists in all systems, even open source, and hence you need to look at lock-in as a set of tradeoffs, rather than always being a negative outcome. Given that lock-in is a tradeoff, and that lock-in can happen regardless of the systems you decide to deploy, I want to go back to one of the foundational points Martin makes in his post and think about avoiding lock-in a little differently than just choosing between open source and vendor-based solutions.

If cannot avoid lock-in either by choosing a vendor-based solution or by choosing open source, then you have two choices. The first is to just give up and live with the results of lock-in. In fact, I have worked with a lot of companies who have done just this—they have accepted that lock-in is just a part of building networks, that lock-in results in a good transfer of risk to the vendor from the operator, or that lock-in results in a system that is easier to deploy and manage.

Giving in to lock-in, though, does not seem like a good idea on the surface, because architecture is about creating opportunity. If you cannot avoid lock-in and yet lock-in is antithetical to good architecture, what are your other options?

First, you can deepen your understanding of where and how lock-in matters, and when it doesn’t. Architecture often fails in one of three ways. The first way is designing something that is so closely fit-to-purpose today that is inflexible against future requirements. Think of a pair of pants that fit perfectly today; if you gain a few pounds, you might have to start over with your body-covering pant solution after that upcoming holiday. The second way is designing something that is so flexible it is wasteful. Think of a pair of pants that are sized to fit you no matter what your body size might be. Perhaps you might try to create a pair of pants you can wear when you are two, but also when you are seventy-two? You could design such a thing, I’m certain, but the amount of material you’d need to use in creating it would probably involve enough waste that you might as well just go ahead and sew multiple sets of pants across your lifetime. The third way is in building something that is flexible, but only through ossification. Something which can only be changed by adding or multiplying, and never through subtraction or division. Think of a pair of pants that can be changed to any color by adding a thin layer of new material each time.

All three of these are overengineered in one sense or another. They are trying to solve problems that probably don’t exist, that may never exist, or that can only be solved by adding another layer on top. All three of these are also forms of lock-in which should be avoided.

In order to buy the right kind of pants, you have to know how long you expect the pants to fit, and you have to know how your body is going to change over that time period. This is where the architect needs to connect with the business and try to understand what kinds of changes are likely, and what those changes might mean for the network. This is also the place where the architect needs to feed some technical reality back into the business; most of the time business leaders don’t think about technology challenges because no-one has ever explained to them that networks and information technology systems are not infinitely pliable balls of wax.

Second, you can try to contain lock-in, and intentionally refuse to be locked-in above a modular level. For instance, say you build a data center fabric using a marketecture sold by a vendor. If that marketecture can be contained within a single data center fabric, and you have more than one fabric, then you can avoid some degree of lock-in by building your other fabrics with different solutions. If the marketecture doesn’t allow for this, then maybe you should just say “no.” Modular design is not just good for controlling the leakage of state between modules, it can also be good for controlling the leakage of lock-in.

Finally, you can consider proper modularization vertically in your network, from layer to layer in your network stack. Enforce IPv4 or IPv6 as a single “wasp waist,” in the network transport; don’t allow Ethernet to wander all over the place, across modules and layers, as if it were the universal transport. Enforce separate and underlay and overlay control planes. Enforce a single form of storing information (such as all YANG formatted data, or all JSON formatted data, etc.) in your network management systems.

This is what open standards are good for. It will be painful to build to these standards, but these standards represent a point of abstraction where you can split lock-in systems apart, preventing them from entangling with one another in a way that prevents ever replacing one component with another.

Lock-in is not something you can avoid. On the other hand, you can learn to accept it when you know it will not impact your future options, and contain it when you know it will.