After outdated technology caused a week of mass flight cancellations, it’s no surprise that Southwest Airlines made a big move to partner with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to rework its technology infrastructure and application delivery. In the digital era, AWS is the equivalent of going with IBM. AWS is the biggest cloud and has the largest number and type of services. It has a track record of reliability. But there are also risks of putting so many chips in with AWS — specifically, vendor lock-in. AWS has designed its business to make it expensive or painful for customers to leave.
The costs of storing data in AWS’ S3 storage system are low but moving that data to another place outside of AWS (or even between AWS regions) is painfully expensive. AWS is hardly the only cloud provider or big technology company to pursue a lock-in strategy. For Southwest and their technology advisors, it is critical that they identify where lock-in is a risk wherever they are moving to new vendors, new application architectures, and new networking systems. That seems like obvious advice but, in principle, it’s a challenging exercise made more so by cloud computing and the rise of Software-as-a-Service. Some basic steps that Southwest’s technology management team should take include:
- Identifying areas where lock-in or switching costs are most likely to be highest and pricing out potential implications
- Identifying and exploring technologies that can mitigate lock-in risk, such as using Kubernetes and container orchestration systems
- Aggressively mirroring data and using newer distributed storage systems that reside across multiple clouds
- Avoiding key services (like network proxies and firewalls) run by cloud providers and instead using those run across multiple clouds
At scale, negotiating with a big cloud provider is actually much easier than negotiating with a big server-based software company. And Amazon is likely to be a vast improvement on the existing technology approaches that caused challenges for Southwest. Even so, a vendor lock-in mitigation strategy is today table stakes for any company that wants to ensure it controls its own technology destiny.