Lack of standards stifles agility

The company we love to hate remains one of the top offenders

If you aren't happy with the performance of your software, the solution should be simple: Switch to different software. In practice, however, jumping ship is seldom that easy, and vendor lock-in is a reality with which most IT departments are far too familiar.

The company we love to hate remains one of the top offenders. "Microsoft talks a lot about listening to its customers," explains Andrew Updegrove, principal at technology law firm Gesmer Updegrove and author of The Standards Blog. "But the fact is that without competition it can pick and choose from what the customer says."

Microsoft Office is the most obvious example of how proprietary document formats end up limiting customer choices. Once a company has committed a large amount of data to an application suite and its accompanying file types, migrating to a different platform can be too costly to contemplate.

Lack of interoperability can be a problem for enterprise apps, too, -- particularly in loosely coupled SOA (service-oriented architecture) environments. When disparate legacy applications are linked haphazardly together in an SOA, data might need to be translated back and forth between incompatible XML formats or databases multiple times for each transaction.

The best solution to the IT interoperability blues is to standardize, preferably using industry-supported open standards. Unfortunately, this isn't always an option. Because standardization requires consensus -- often between competitors -- developing and ratifying workable standards can be a tedious process. Even when a standard is finalized, early revisions may not cover all the conditions and features that individual customers may require. Often, businesses can't afford to wait for a robust standard to emerge before deploying technology.

To achieve the best results, Updegrove recommends developing a master plan that outlines how standards fit into your organization's computing needs. "Take a systemic approach, apply that approach to the enterprise, be realistic and flexible," he says, "and then go to it."

By deploying open standards early and often, IT departments stand the best chance of forestalling vendor lock-in before it happens. In the long run, the only alternative is an IT organization left with no alternatives.

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