By Alex Rabbetts, CEO, MigSolv

Cloud computing, the technology that allows software and data to be shared on the internet has become the top technology investment for businesses. Cloud computing leads to more efficiency, lower costs and greater consumer convenience but is also fraught with challenges and privacy risks.

Many of us are already benefitting from cloud computing but there is a cautionary-tale to tell; particularly when making a change.

Vendor lock-in, an emerging issue with cloud, is a situation where a customer using a product or service cannot easily transfer over to another provider. Vendor 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.

The fear of vendor lock-in is often said to be a major obstacle. Firstly, there is the question of why a company chooses to migrate. Very often it is to reduce your amount of physical computing infrastructure (servers or storage etc.) that has to be kept and maintained. Secondly, there is the question of once you are there then how easy is it to move around if you need to. More often than not, the complexities of moving are so great that many customers choose to stay with a provider that doesn’t meet their needs, just to avoid the cumbersome and risky process involved. As an example, if you wanted move your data from one provider to another, it may be necessary to first transfer that data back to your site and then onto the new provider. The big problem is that you might not have that infrastructure anymore after having moved to the cloud. Another issue may be that your data was altered to make it compatible for use with the first cloud provider and is now returned in that state which makes it impossible to simply pass on to a new provider.

Cloud vendors don’t like you to change and can make it difficult to do so. Lock-in is commonplace and many customers won’t really know how it will impact them until it happens.

Our own recent experience illustrates the problem. We took the decision to put our timesheets system into the Cloud using a well known provider. The service was fine and the solution worked, however, over time it became more and more expensive and the report-building function wasn’t building the kind of reports we needed. Ultimately, the decision was taken to look elsewhere. An alternative was sourced so we began looking at moving our data which was when the true issue of lock-in came to light.

The problem was twofold. Firstly, the existing provider had stored the data in a completely different way to how we now needed the information. The data required a significant amount of manual manipulation before it could be transferred to the new provider. Secondly, the existing provider did not have any data export functionality, which meant 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 could be inspected at any time by HMRC.

Ultimately, after several weeks of data copying and uploading in the correct format the process was completed. It was both painful and time consuming and we learned valuable lessons from it. What might the consequences have been if all of our infrastructure; physical servers, networking equipment, storage devices and applications had been transferred over?

Before you make that jump into the cloud or if you’re already there, ask more questions about the data, how it is stored and used, and how to extract it. And if something did go wrong how would we move our service to another provider and would we get any help.

Realistically, if you are locked-in into a vendor, 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 cloud may be the future and valid in many cases, but a word of caution: be aware of the impact if something goes wrong and make sure that you understand if, and how, the vendor may lock you into the contract.