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Perils and pluses of a single-vendor shop

Does IBM rule your shop? Some IT pros are standardizing on one vendor for hardware or software across the IT infrastructure. Who's doing it? More importantly, should you be?

The tech industry has reached the point where shops can standardize on a single vendor for hardware or software needs. But, while the getting looks good, there can be drawback to a single-vendor shop.

Experts say opportunities exist, but buyers beware.

There are several benefits to standardizing to a single vendor:

  • It requires fewer skill sets, therefore fewer bodies on your IT staff.
  • The staffers themselves are cheaper, because the standard skills are more abundant.
  • Standardization allows you to work with fewer vendors, leveraging hardware, maintenance and licensing costs.
  • It can significantly reduce the cost of integrating multiple technologies by reducing middleware.
  • It makes it easier to predict hardware refresh cycles.

    "There certainly are some benefits to standardizing. You basically have one set of owner manuals for your IT staff to learn," said Charles King, principal analyst at Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research. "It's like doing business in a small town. You develop a good personal relationship and get premium service. You tend to be at the top of the repair list."

    According to Mark Feverston, director of the ES7000 platform, Unisys' Intel-based box, standardization is the macro-trend of this decade.

    "Everybody tells you that they want to do more with less. Reducing the number of technologies in your infrastructure can do that," Feverston said. "[Standardization] gives clients more agility with equal or greater capability."

    One of the areas that has embraced single-vendor data centers is the airline industry. Many of those in the plane trade are bleeding money, and see uniformity as a way to cut costs.

    Bob Edwards, staff vice president of IT operations at Houston-based Continental Airlines, standardized his operation on HP's Proliant servers to minimize investment in training, tools, parts, maintenance and resources.

    And on the software side, New York-based JetBlue Airways, runs strictly Windows.

    "There continues to be interest in standardization. There is a fascination with consolidating down to smaller numbers of variables, said Tony Iams, vice president and lead analyst, system software and virtualization for Port Chester, N.Y.-based Ideas International.

    Except for JetBlue's customer reservation system, which is outsourced, all other significant programs use solely Microsoft. Iams sees JetBlue's strategy as an indication of the benefits of going single-vendor.

    "They claim standardization on one system has helped them gain on the competition. If the airline industry is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and one of them is thriving, you have to pay attention to that," Iams said.

    But if you decide to move toward a single platform, make sure it's reliable. Extremely reliable.

    Watch for the pitfalls of single-vendor reliance:

  • If you're not a huge customer, you don't have a lot of influence on the company's direction.
  • By limiting your selection, you can miss out on emerging technologies.
  • Vendor lock-in can result in overpricing for custom solutions.

    Dick Hamann, vice president of information technology and resources for Sanford, Fla.-based Seminole Community College, faced the decision to standardize on Unisys hardware and Windows. Hamann has a long rapport with Unisys as a mainframe customer, but when it came time to upgrade, Hamann thought he needed to add Unix to his environment. But that wasn't the case.

    Standardizing Windows on a new Unisys ES7000 prevented him from having to train new staff. He said the system is as good as a mainframe at a fraction of the cost -- around $500,000 for 16 active Intel processors.

    "Unisys demonstrated the reliability of Windows as a more cost-efficient alternative to Unix, and we were sold," Hamann said. "The biggest advantage of running Windows and SQL is that I didn't have to spend $100,000 in salary for an Oracle/Unix DBA."

    Still, despite apparent costs and operational benefits, King warns, if a vendor starts in a direction you don't care for and you're locked in, there's not much you can do, unless you're a very large customer.

    "You're more or less buying wholly into the company line. Most people go into these agreements with their eyes opened. You just pray that you don't get your eyes blackened," King said.

    Ben Weinberger, director of IT, for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based law firm of Ruden McClosky, understands the limitations of single-vendor reliance. He runs a Dell shop, workstations to servers.

    Weinberger said his predecessor as IT director had tried to implement a disaster recovery plan for the firm, and Dell encouraged the organization into going with EMC's Replistor product.

    When Weinberger took over the project, he found EMC's Automated Availability Manager (AAM) feature unmanageable, and went to Dell for a better option.

    "AAM was absolutely impossible. We went to Dell several times and asked them to implement a disaster recovery program exactly the way we wanted it. But the quotes they came back with were way beyond our budget," Weinberger said. "We gave them every chance we could and then decided to go with an outside vendor."

    Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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