One of the most important decisions you have to make as an IT leader is the choice of a product or solution when implementing new infrastructure. That decision sometimes comes down to the vendor of the product and whether you already have other products from the same vendor.
Multi-vendor environments are those where the infrastructure is a combination of devices and products from two or more vendors.
A single-vendor environment is where only one vendor is used. This type of environment is affectionately known as a “<vendor name here> shop”, e.g. a Cisco shop or a Microsoft shop.
So a multi-vendor network environment may use Cisco switches, Juniper routers and Aruba networks for wireless, whereas the single-vendor environment may use only Cisco for its switches, routers and wireless.
There are arguments for and against multi-vendor environments, with the majority of arguments against them coming from vendors who can supply all the devices. Cisco once had a report prepared by Deloitte that discussed the risks of multi-vendor environments such as higher operating risk in service, support, and operational integration.
The Pros and Cons of Multi-Vendor Environments
I have put together my own list of the challenges and the advantages of multi-vendor environments.
- Support. You have several people whom you need to contact when you have a problem. You have multiple relationships to maintain, multiple support contracts to renew and multiple SLAs (Service Level Agreements) to keep track of. This can sometimes be overwhelming depending on the number of vendors and devices installed.
- Administration. While devices of the same type may perform the same task, the vendor implementation may be very different. Ask anyone who has managed both a Cisco and a Checkpoint firewall (like me!); while both are firewalls, the configuration is quite different. Someone with a Cisco background may find the Cisco ASA less daunting than someone with a Checkpoint background. You will find that the IT administrators in a multi-vendor environment will have to know and experience much more than those in a single-vendor environment. Some people thrive in multi-vendor environments, while others flounder.
- Troubleshooting. Whenever problems arise, vendors may blame each other for them. Troubleshooting the problem becomes a battle, with IT coming in the middle of it. In a single-vendor environment, that vendor has to take ownership of the problem regardless of the device. I’ve seen instances in single-vendor environments where the tech-support personnel pass tickets between each other while trying to resolve problems, and the IT administrator doesn’t have the headache of mediating between vendors.
- Best-in-class features. By using multiple vendors, you can choose the best product with the features that you need and want. You don’t have to settle for a lesser product, or an over-the-top one, simply because you want to stay with the same vendor.
- Leverage. When you’ve made a choice to go with a certain product or vendor, there is a cost to change from that product to another vendor’s product; this is known as the cost of switching. This cost reflects the costs associated with retraining employees, reconfiguring infrastructure, and changing processes. In a single-vendor environment, the cost of switching is high as the IT staff has little knowledge of or experience with other products. Vendors know this and are sometimes complacent about their relationship with the customer. In a multi-vendor environment, the IT staff has more experience and exposure to other products, and there is a lower cost of switching. As a customer, you also have greater leverage as the vendors know that you have options and are willing to exercise them.
- Excitement. While working in a multi-vendor environment can be frustrating sometimes, it is hardly ever boring. IT staff are exposed to a wide variety of devices and technologies, and there is always something new to learn. And since IT is not tied to a vendor, they are free to explore technologies and solutions that other vendors offer that one vendor may not.
- All of your eggs are not in one basket. There is some risk involved in a single-vendor environment. What happens if the vendor makes some drastic management changes? Or what if a company is acquired by a larger rival and then changes the way products are supported? In some cases, the same software codebase is used in different devices within the same vendor, for example Cisco IOS or Juniper JunOS; what happens if there is a security bug in the core code? Then all the products are potentially at risk. Multi-vendor environments reduce that risk.
Choice of environment
By now, you may realise that some businesses may be better-suited for either multi-vendor or single-vendor environments. So how do you choose? Use the following as a guide.
You may like a multi-vendor environment if…
- Your IT infrastructure is relatively small and easy to manage. You can afford to have many vendors without compromising your supportability.
- You want the greatest value for your money and want the flexibility to be able to choose the products and features you want.
- You have an IT team that prefers variety and thrives in an environment that is always changing. They also have a wide range of expertise and experience and are also willing to learn new technologies.
You may like a single-vendor environment if…
- You have a large IT infrastructure, and managing too many vendors may be difficult, especially when uptime and availability is important.
- You prefer simplicity and supportability and are willing to pay extra for that and to have a single person to call.
- Your IT team has invested heavily in learning a certain product range and prefers working in a stable and minimally changing environment. Their range of expertise is limited, but their knowledge of the current infrastructure is outstanding.
- You have a great relationship with the vendor and you are well taken care of.
There are no right or wrong choices when choosing between a multi-vendor or single-vendor environment. Be aware of the advantages and challenges of both, and make the choice that best suits you.