Cloud lock-in is a problem for everybody, not just businesses

Credit: drewgstephens via Flickr

We like to think of the cloud as freeing users and administrators from the constraints of traditional enterprise IT, adding flexibility and enabling a nifty new breed of application. But in the breathless discussion of how transformative a cloud service like Box or Microsoft Office 365 has been for businesses of all shapes and sizes, it's easy to miss the fact that there's still a specter hovering over the entire market: the dreaded vendor lock-in.

In the enterprise IT sphere, "vendor lock-in" is an innocuous-sounding phrase that can mean years of administrator headaches and pulled hairs. Every vendor has a vested interest in keeping you within their own stack - Microsoft wants every enterprise to run Microsoft Windows machines managed by a Microsoft Windows Server domain, with users checking their Microsoft Exchange mailboxes from Microsoft Outlook.

That one-stack-to-rule-them-all philosophy extends to the cloud infrastructure space. Microsoft and VMware are locked in a battle for dominance in the virtualization and cloud markets. A complete comparison of their cloud strategies is beyond the remit of this article. But each promises that their platform for server virtualization is the most robust, the most cost-effective, and the most-supported on the market. 

Needless to say, getting any data or applications to work on one from the other is a huge pain in the rear end, and both companies offer tools to convert virtual machine images from their counterpart's to their own. And both Microsoft and VMware have built active developer communities around themselves, with many service providers doing brisk business in helping consolidate and manage the hodgepodge of incompatible infrastructure with which enterprises often find themselves. 

So what does this have to do with the consumerization of IT? 

Think back to this week's Instagram kerfuffle. If you were one of the many who decided to try moving over to Flickr in the wake of the controversy over the proposed changes to the popular photo sharing app's TOS, you probably went over to Freethephotos for lack of an officially-supported migration method. 

Freethephotos provided an invaluable escape hatch, to be sure, but it's extremely limited: Due to limits on Flickr's service, it can only import 300MB of photos per month, and places every imported Instagram photo into a single set. Oh, and if you're not a paid Flickr user, you can only see your last 200 photos. 

Now, imagine if you were doing this for every single user in your business. At 30 seats, it's a weekend project. At 100, it's a major undertaking. At 1,000, it would almost impossible. 

This isn't to suggest that either Instagram or Flickr is an enterprise offering. Instead, think of it as a cautionary tale. In a market where Google Apps can simply shut off Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync support, you may or may not find yourself in a position where you want to or simply have to leave a cloud service behind. After all, end-users are far past the point of homogeneity, with so many using a mish-mosh of services for storage, e-mail, and productivity. 

In enterprise IT, the market eventually presented a solution to its lock-in problem with the proliferation of open source cloud platforms, (including Apache CloudStackOpenStack and Eucalyptus) each presenting an open standard, which theoretically greases the wheels when it comes to migration. Any service provider running a cloud with that open source core would theoretically be compatible with any other running the same. 

We simply don't have a comparable solution in the consumer cloud world. It's up to third-party service providers like Zapier to provide an automated method for getting data from, say, Box to Microsoft SkyDrive. There's no unified standard for cloud storage, and there may never be. 

It's not all doom and gloom. There's plenty of pressure on the consumer side for these enterprises to provide export methods for their data, and the Google Takeout initiative at least gives lip service to the idea of user ownership over their own data. 

Just remember to be wary. What goes into the cloud may be more difficult to get out than you at first realize. 

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