How to avoid vendor lock-in in a web project

Many of our customers have had bad experience with one or more vendors in their web projects. What they’ve learned the hard way is that a vendor may provide substandard service resulting in the customer wanting to change vendors to get better service. But changing partner is not always easy as many website owners find themselves locked into their current vendor.

In this situation the customer is completely dependent on one vendor for their service and unable to easily transition to a competitor’s service. Vendor lock-in is usually the result of proprietary technologies that are incompatible with those of competitors, or contracts that limit the customer’s rights to use services provided by a third party. This situation does not have to be an intentional attempt by the vendor to restrain their client’s choices, but lack of long term planning can lock a customer into a vendor without intent on either side.

Vendor lock-in and dissatisfaction with the vendor is one of the main reasons for many expensive website renewal projects and CMS platform changes: To be able to get rid of your vendor you may have to build a new website from scratch.

Here are our tips for avoiding vendor lock-in in your next web project.

Choose your CMS wisely

Many people seem to think that choosing an open source CMS is the answer for all vendor lock-in problems. Having an open source platform may indeed be part of the solution, but they are not without issues.

First, whether you use open source or commercial product, the most important thing is to choose a CMS product that has more than one active vendor in your country or region. Also make sure that the product is actively supported by a separate software company or an open source community. It’s also smart to choose widely used platform technologies to be sure there is enough knowledgeable workforce available.

Second, to avoid unnecessary tailoring, analyze your requirements and choose a product that best serves your needs out of the box (and is easy to integrate to your other systems). The less tailored functionality you require, the less dependent you are on the company that did the tailoring.

Note. Especially in the Finnish market there are a lot of one vendor CMS products. By choosing one of these products you basically choose to be dependent on that vendor. These vendors can actually be reasonable for small sites like throwaway campaign sites, but are not advisable for bigger projects.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

When planning website procurement, it is easy to be tempted to buy the whole web solution from a single vendor. Especially the smaller players can offer very cost effective packages that include their own CMS product, planning, implementation and hosting.

But if you want make sure that the lifecycle of your website is not dependent on a single vendor, it is better to split the procurement between several parties:

  • Recruit enough of your own resources to manage the website and co-ordinate the partners.
  • Use a digital agency or consulting office to plan your website’s concept.
  • Select a CMS product that is supported by a separate company or active open source community and that has a many implementation partners to choose from.
  • Choose a good implementation partner that has a lot of experience on your selected platform. Make sure that they are also able to support you after the first project.
  • Do not have your website hosted by the implementation partner. It is much easier to change the implementation partner if the solution is hosted elsewhere (e.g. separate hosting service or cloud service).

If you are not happy with one of your partners, it is much easier to make changes if you can continue working with the others.

Protect your rights with a contract

If the business relationship with your vendor goes sour, it is important that you have a contract that allows you to move on with another vendor. To avoid vendor lock-in there are few issues that are important to consider when negotiating a contract:

  • Require comprehensive technical and process documentation for your solution.
  • Require intellectual property rights for the all the material made for you, including documentation, visual identity, source code, etc.
  • Retain ownership for all your own data and make sure the data is available to you in a usable format.
  • Require frequent delivery of all updated material (even if you feel you don’t need it).
  • Require rights to further develop the solution by yourself or a third party.
  • Describe clear rules of termination.

It is always difficult to change the partners in the middle of the website’s lifecycle but it will be much easier if you have followed the advice in this article. Avoiding vendor lock-in is mostly a case of being aware of the risks and making choices that let you keep your options open.

This entry was posted in CMS selection, Partner selection, Procurement and tagged , , by Sami Kalanen. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sami Kalanen

Sami Kalanen works as Managing Partner at North Patrol Oy. Sami consults with customers on project preparation and definition of requirements, and supports customers in competitive bidding and oversight of vendors’ implementation work. His areas of specialisation include broad, technically challenging web projects and competitive bidding in the public sector. Sami has been working with web projects since the mid-1990s. Earlier in his career Sami worked in IT procurement at a large industrial company, in management roles at software vendor companies, as Managing Director and a partner at an independent consulting firm and as product manager for a telecommunications operator.

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