Freedom from vendor dependence

Freedom is taken, not given. In the wake of the settlement between Microsoft and the Department of Justice, understanding this simple statement is more important than ever for IT organisations concerned about being too dependent on any one vendor.

In today's world, IT managers keep hardware costs down by playing the field across a few vendors. In contrast, most IT organisations make expensive long-term commitments to their software vendors, usually under onerous licensing terms that tend to keep costs artificially high.

Given recent events, it is clear that the only help IT organisations can expect to get when dealing with this situation is their own ingenuity.

This situation exists because companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, and Siebel have been very adept at intricately linking data to their software architectures. Although the data in these applications actually belongs to the IT organisation, once it is stored it might as well belong to those companies. As a result, we become overly dependent on these software applications, creating the opportunity for vendors to command a premium price because we're locked in to their software architectures.

The most adroit IT organisations have separated their data models and business logic from the underlying software, but most have not had the skill or resources needed to enforce that delicate balance.

Fortunately a number of trends are coming together that should help make it easier for IT organisations to protect their freedom, and with any luck have more room to negotiate with software vendors.

The first ray of hope comes from the storage world, where virtualisation of data is all the rage. The second development has been the emergence of companies such as Evoke Software, Noetix, and myBubble, which have all created an abstraction layer allowing IT organisations to more easily share data across multiple application architectures. With this kind of technology in place, an IT organisation is less dependent on any specific application provider. Of course, the biggest boon for data freedom has been the emergence of XML.

But most IT organisations are still wrestling with the schemata and syntax needed to create a real XML infrastructure. When they master that, all kinds of data-sharing possibilities will open up, which in turn helps make customers less dependent on any given application. And finally, we have the much talked about - but little understood - Web services phenomenon. The key thing to know about Web services in this context is that they help separate data and applications from the network delivery vehicle. In the long term, this means monolithic apps can be more easily broken into core components that remain interoperable.

We're still a fair way from realising our dreams of freedom, but progress is being made. Nevertheless, protecting one's freedom does require constant vigilance, and although the initial costs associated with mastering an array of technologies may seem steep, it is nothing compared to the price of tyranny.

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