What reduces risk … a great engineering and support team, or a brand name ?

I’ve written about approved vendors and “one throat to choke” concept in the past. The short take from my vantage point as a small, not well known, but highly differentiated builder of high performance storage and computing systems … was that this brand specific focus was going to remove real differentiated solutions from market, while simultaneously lowering the quality and support of products in market. The concept of brand and marketing of a brand is about erecting barriers to market entry against the smaller folk whom might have something of interest, and the larger folk who might come in with a different ecosystem.

Remember “no one gets fired for buying IBM” ? Yeah, this is that.

The implication is that this might not be true for other vendors than IBM.

This post is not about IBM BTW. Not even remotely.

It’s about the concept of risk reduction in vendor selection.

And what real risk reduction means.

Lets look at this in terms of say … RAID units. RAID, as a concept, is about distributing risk failure across N units, with a scheme in such a manner as to be able to survive and operate (albeit at a reduced capability) in the event of a failure of a single unit. In some cases, in the case of a failure of two units. RAID is not a backup (yeah, it is likely time I repost this warning). RAID is about giving time to operators to replace a system component so that operations can continue.

Erasure coding is a somewhat more intensive version of this, but basically the same thing.

You make the (reasonable) assumption, that you will have a failure. You have an architecture in place, resilient to that failure. When a failure comes, within the design spec of that resiliency, you mitigate the impact of the failure if you follow protocol. Of course, if you have a failure outside of this spec, yes, you can lose data. Which is why we have layered protocols and systems for disaster recovery (replication, on and off-site).

All of this matters. Whether you are building storage systems, large computing systems, clouds, etc.

The attention to detail, the base engineering, the ability to support … find problem root causes, and meaningful remediations/work arounds … all of this matters. And from my own experience, running a company that did these things, it matters far more than brands do.

A brand is meant to be an abstract mental concept … that somehow represents how well a product should behave, and the support/engineering behind it. However, a brand is rarely that. It is really, just a name. There is little empirical evidence that shows that slapping a particular label on the outside of a box does anything to make it better/more stable. And if I’m wrong, I’d love to see the peer-reviewed studies of this (a cursory google search yielded a few results of popular anecdotal articles, with limited real analysis behind them).

My claim is that engineering matters. What you put into your design and implementation matter. What doesn’t matter, I claim, is the brand name on the box.

Sure, you can claim “they have better access to supply chain, OEMs, etc.”. And you may be right. Without revealing anything specific, I can tell you that this access doesn’t necessarily result in better outcomes.

Actually, if your boxes never have issues to begin with … well, you understand.

But more to the point. Architecture matters. Engineering matters. Support matters. Brand? Not so much.

If you or your company are making decisions based upon brands, it might be a good exercise to ask … “why” … is this being done? Is this risk reduction? If so, what risk can you quantifiably and empirically determine has been reduced? I am guessing this isn’t the real reason.

Is it comfort level with a vendor? That is, you know the brand names won’t go away, be sold off, or go into bankruptcy. Like IBM, Apple, Sun … er … oh wait.

What is the real reason that you have to buy vendor X?

And getting back to the RAID analogy above, in order to reduce risk, shouldn’t you have 2 vendors (at minimum) whom can produce the same things, with different parts (it is possible that some parts may be in common … you can’t escape that, but hey, a VW and a Porshe have pistons, and they are very different vehicles, engineering and built to different standards).

It’s too late for my old company … though I am getting support requests now to my personal email account … but in general, the question you need to ask yourself is, am I really reducing risk by concentrating risk? Will I really get better support from a behemoth who only wants to deal with massive customers, or a smaller dedicated team of experts whom are highly focused upon me, because … hey … I am core to their business, and they are invested in you.

The question is, do you want a brand, or do you want solid engineering and support, invested in your success? Not every smaller company is like that.

Scalable was.

And we lost.

Because people wanted the single brand, single throat to choke.

On the other side of this now, I see the impact with that single throat to choke doesn’t result in better outcomes.

So … you are going to get failures. You should be engineering for this. Planning for this.

Who will support you better?

That is who you should buy from.

Anyone focusing on ease of procurement over quality of engineering needs to be pulled out of the decision and purchasing loop. Really.

My argument is that operational and project risk increases when you do this. I don’t have hard numbers to demonstrate this. Merely observations of this risk being realized in various forms. With the common aspect being the single large preferred vendor taking business that would likely have gone elsewhere.

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