How to Swap Out Vendors

Users share their experiences for when it's time to give a vendor the old heave-ho

May 24, 2007

5 Min Read
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An old song said it well: It's tough to belong to someone else when the right one comes along. But plenty of IT pros who "married" one key supplier early on have made the transition to another, often with a minimum of pain and disruption.

"It all depends on the kind of relationship you have," says the director of IT operations at a large San Francisco entertainment production company. When his team decided to swap server suppliers awhile back, they approached the situation head on. "It's best to be honest. The vendor was aware they could no longer do what we needed them to." With openness on both sides, the transition was made in an agreeable fashion.

In contrast, Steven Olson, infrastructure manager at Las Vegas Review-Journal kept his plans to switch his team's main tier 1 supplier of storage arrays a secret until the decision was made. As a result, the local sales team for the vendor that was replaced took the situation personally. That wasn't good, because Olson's team had other products from the same vendor they had no intention of ditching.

It worked out, but Olson learned a few lessons. "In hindsight, I may have been a little more forthcoming with all the vendors about which way we were leaning. Maybe then, the selection would not have come as that big of a shock," he maintains.

One expert suggests that any plan to switch vendors may best be undertaken with help, either from the new vendor or an IT consultant. "Make sure you have a well-developed plan of transition," says George Crump, founder of George Crump Consulting. In his view, it's important to set a cutover time and plan ahead on how best to move data from one system to another.Procedures for making changes depend on whether there's software or hardware involved, Crump says. "It's easier to do a straight hardware or off-the-shelf software swap," he says. But complicated software programs can be a Pandora's box. "You'll clearly want to check out licensing and maintenance contracts... and especially in software, you can expect to run old and new products in parallel for some time."

For Steven Olson, complicated software transitions can also challenge personnel. "When migrating data from one system to another, an organization really needs to be sure that they have folks on staff who truly understand the data," he says. "Otherwise, you're left to rely upon the vendor to make decisions for you, and they may not have any understanding on how you use your data."

The difficulty of making a transition discourages some folk from relying on outside help at all. When Alan J. Hunt, manager of operations at law firm Dickinson-Wright PLLC went from DAS to an iSCSI system, he made the changeover himself. "I do everything myself, from storage and servers to desktops/notebooks and switching," he asserts. Waiting a few hours for outside help is "an eternity here," he says. He saves costs all around by doing his own implementations.

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Some general themes emerge when users describe their experiences with making a vendor transition. Here's a list of recurring "helpful hints":

  • Keep your plans as open as possible. It's usually best to come out and tell your vendor what it is you're after. It may be possible for the vendor to deliver what you need within the same amount of time it would take to get it somewhere else. Nonetheless, set a limit on how long you're willing to wait for roadmap items, and formalize it if possible. If the vendor exceeds that timeframe, it won't be a surprise if you shop elsewhere.

  • Know your contract terms. It may not be practical to make a vendor transition unless your maintenance contract can expire without costing too much. Often, suppliers won't give good terms unless maintenance agreements exceed eighteen months or so. On the other hand, a commitment of more than two years is uncomfortable for many shops. Do your due diligence and don't get locked in either way.

  • Assess your staff's capabilities to handle the changeover. Hardware experts may not be willing to go with the flow. "In some cases, I had folks who were specialists in one particular hardware environment," says Steven Olson. "They have at times been a little reluctant to cross-train. When we retire one platform in favor of another, I have a resource which is not optimal." Likewise, changing software can prove problematic if you have an application star. If that person decides to quit, will it leave you stranded?

  • Get help if you need it. Your IT staff may be stretched to the limit, and a major shift could push things over the top. "IT may have the skill set but not the time," says George Crump. Ideally, he suggests getting the incoming vendor to help out, perhaps at a discount as compensation for the disruption. If that's not an option, paying an IT consultant may be more practical than losing or compromising in-house staffers.

  • Plan for downtime. Any change in hardware or software entails downtime and transfer of data. Create an action plan to ensure the smoothest possible transition with tools you know how to use.

  • Keep the goodwill flowing. Chances are that any vendor changeover will require you to maintain two products simultaneously for awhile. Also, just because you're replacing a vendor in one part of the shop doesn't mean you won't keep that same vendor's products elsewhere. It's always best to work toward a balanced, honest relationship.

By the way, Byte and Switch has a poll going on the topic of changing vendors. Let us know what you think.

Mary Jander, Site Editor, Byte and Switch

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