Cloud Lock-in and Open Standards
When moving to the cloud we should be mindful to avoid vendor lock-in by adopting open standards.
Adoption of cloud computing
Cloud computing is taking over both for-profit enterprises and public/scientific institutions. The Cloud is cheap, flexible, requires little up-front investment, and enables greater collaboration. Cloud vendors like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform (GCP), and Microsoft Azure compete to create stable, easy to use platforms to serve the needs of a variety of institutions, both big and small. This presents both a great opportunity for society, but also a risk of future lock-in at a large scale.
Cloud vendors build services to lock in users
Some of the competition between cloud vendors is about providing lower costs, higher availability, improved scaling, and so on, that are strictly a benefit for consumers. This is great.
However some of the competition is in the form of services that are specialized to a particular commercial cloud, like Amazon Lambda, Google Tensor Processing Units (TPUs), or Azure Notebooks. These services are valuable to enterprise and public institutions alike, but they lock users in long-term. If you build your system around one of these systems then moving to a different cloud in the future becomes expensive. This stickiness to your current cloud “locks you in” to using that particular cloud, even if policies change in the future in ways that you dislike.
This is OK, lock-in is a standard business practice. We shouldn’t fault these commercial companies for making good business decisions. However, it’s something that we should keep in mind as we invest public effort in these technologies.
Open standards counter lock-in technologies
One way to counter lock-in is to promote the adoption of open standard technologies that are shared among cloud platforms. If these open standard technologies become popular enough then cloud platforms must offer them alongside their proprietary technologies in order to stay competitive, removing one of their options for lock-in.
Examples with Kubernetes and Parquet
For example, consider Kubernetes, a popular resource manager for clusters. While Kubernetes was originally promoted by Google, it was developed in the open by a broader community, gained global adoption, and is now available across all three major commercial clouds. Today if you write your infrastructure on Kubernetes you can move your distributed services between clouds easily, or can move your system onto an on-premises cluster if that becomes necessary. You retain the freedom to move around in the future with low cost.
Consider also the open Parquet data format. If you store your data in Parquet then you can move that data between any cloud’s storage system easily, or can move that data to your in-house hardware without going through a painful database export process.
Technologies like Kubernetes and Parquet displace proprietary technologies like Amazon’s Elastic Container Service (ECS), which locks users into AWS, or Google’s BigQuery which keeps users on GCP with data gravity. This is fine, Amazon and Google can still compete for users with any of their other excellent services, but they’ve been pushed up the stack a bit, away from technologies that are infrastructural and towards technologies that are more about convenience and high-level usability.
What we can do
Wide adoption of open standard infrastructure protects us from the control of cloud vendors.
If you are a public institution considering the cloud then please consider the services that you plan to adopt, and their potential to lock your institutions in the long run. These services may still make sense, but you should probably have a conversation with your team and do it mindfully. You might consider developing a plan to extract yourself from that cloud in the future and see how your decisions affect the cost of that plan.
If you are an open source developer then please consider investing your effort around open standards instead of around proprietary tooling. By focusing our effort on open standards we provide public institutions with viable options for a safe cloud.
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