The pros and cons of multi-vendor technology environments

 Gavin Payne is a principal architect for Coeo, a SQL Server and Azure professional services company, and a Microsoft Certified Architect and Microsoft Certified Master. His role is to guide and lead organisations through data platform transformation and cloud adoption programmes.

The era when organisations had a single strategic vendor provide all of its technology needs is over. Today, IT teams use a portfolio of technology standards or software products from a range of vendors or open source groups. Managed properly, these multi-vendor environments work hard and well. However, when staff buy niche products on company credit cards or allow skills silos to form, chaos arrives.

Why multi-vendor environments were needed

When IT organisations first started forming, a few IT vendors offered a very small range of functionality. It took them several more years to create something that made mainframes appeal to people outside of finance teams. Roll forwards to the 1990s and the super-vendors appeared: Oracle, SAP, Siebel, Microsoft and IBM. Their goal was to have a product to meet an organisation’s every IT and business need. If smaller competitors were offering functionality they didn’t have, they bought them.

The modular approach of ERP suites, operating systems, development tools and management platforms was meant to make adding newly acquired products easy. In reality, few vendors could ever provide something for every requirement or seamlessly integrate their latest purchase.

Today, we’ve settled on using a service oriented approach to do the integration ourselves. Organisations buy the marketplace’s “best” product for them and then use a toolbox of web services, messaging hubs and workflow to manage the data flows between them. Every organisation has its own definition of best. For some, best can still mean making sure everything comes from a single vendor.

Benefits of a single vendor environment

Choosing to use as many of a single vendor’s products as needed can be a good decision for some organisations. Software vendors often use multi-product licensing programmes and heavy discounting to encourage single vendor environments. Their customers benefit from a single technical and commercial account team who know all about the environment’s strengths and pain points. 

A single approach to software upgrade rights and hybrid cloud integration across several products also helps organisations keep up with ever decreasing software release cycles and ever increasing levels of cloud adoption.

The technical benefits of a single vendor IT environment can also help new projects and existing operations. When a new project has a requirement but no solution, using the preferred vendor’s product can often save months of trials, reviews and comparisons - assuming it’s up to the job. Even when it’s not as good as the competition, making do or adding custom code could still be a better choice than adopting a whole new way of working. 

Maintaining existing environments can also be more straight forward. A crisis can often mean teams need to use their existing knowledge to solve new problems. Having a common set of management APIs or debugging tools between products can help when no one’s a specialist but someone quickly needs to be.

Limitations of a single vendor environment

If not managed well, single vendor IT environments can bring just as many challenges as benefits. 

The biggest reason organisations bring a new vendor into their IT environment is to fill a functionality gap. This can be as much about providing essential business processes as it is about access to new technical capabilities. Some industries need applications specifically created to help them operate: financial services, health care etc. The answer to the buy vs. build question can be a foregone conclusion for smaller organisations where creating their own primary business applications would be near impossible. Instead, their attention needs to focus on the often bespoke areas of integration and reporting. 

The availability of skills within an existing team can also be a key driver for IT leaders to introduce a new vendor’s software.  When everyone being recruited has experience in the market leading product, albeit from a non-strategic supplier, a tough call between cross training staff or re-using their skills has to be made. Cross training can be the cheaper option, especially if the market trend is for the market leader to get even more popular in the future – few promote their experience of less popular technologies on their CV making niche specialists harder to find.

Managing a single solution architecture

Whether there’s one or several big vendors involved in an organisation’s IT platform, someone needs to manage the big picture. Organisations need to have a consistent approach for product selection to stop those desperate to stay with a single vendor from picking an industry laggard. At the same time, the decision between deploying the industry’s newest leader, and staying with one vendor to phone whatever the problem also needs to be considered.

The best option

Java vs. .net; Windows vs. Linux; Oracle vs. MySQL vs. SQL Server; Azure vs. AWS. Choosing between similar options should be about which is the best option for the organisation, rather than which will get the job done, as typically they all will.


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