Albert McKeon

Sep 3rd 2021

Overcoming Vendor Lock-In Leads to Better Outcomes


Instead of having the world wait for one miracle drug, the governments of the world partnered with several pharmaceutical companies to create several vaccines to combat COVID-19.

This critical decision illustrated that when organizations work with many partners, they benefit from a wellspring of collaboration and ingenuity. Breaking the chains of vendor lock-in not only expands choice through competition, but it also better serves an open framework for design, computing and many other applications driven by technology.

As products and services development continues to advance by leaps and bounds thanks to rapid gains in technology, it no longer makes sense for organizations to limit themselves to one vendor and essentially one option.

Imagine if the world waited for one company to devise a COVID-19 vaccine, only to see hiccups in testing or manufacturing, or for the drug to not work at all. Even though the efficacy of the three COVID-19 vaccines on the U.S. market vary, they each reduce the chance of major illness and death nonetheless — a significant step toward a return to normalcy for society. The power of many is helping public health.

Wide-scale collaborations happen in many other industries, including defense, where militaries work with several partners at once to create aircraft, weaponry and defense systems more flexibly and faster than before. As the old saying goes, there’s safety in numbers — but there’s also an opportunity to create bold and exciting things that might not be possible with one vendor.

Lock-in With More Than One Vendor

The feeling of vendor lock-in doesn’t sink in overnight. Organizations sign a long-term services contract with a vendor because of favorable costs, familiarity with its employees, satisfaction with the work or lack of favorable competition. When a vendor remains flexible, delivers valued products and services and understands exactly what an organization needs, then it’s a relationship worth keeping. These contracts seem constricting only when delivery goes awry, costs stay higher than those of competitors, or other vendors are suddenly offering better products and services.

Lock-in draws scrutiny in technology, particularly the long-term contracts that organizations sign with cloud vendors. When businesses began moving data and applications to the cloud, they did so incrementally and usually to a public cloud service. There wasn’t a need to consider more than one cloud vendor.

But with organizations breaking free from monolithic infrastructure — shifting more data to the cloud, using scores of cloud-based applications and databases and creating their own cloud applications to develop products — suddenly, no one wants to get pinned to just one cloud service. For example, it’s advantageous to run software development workloads with a cloud service provider that’s responsive to that kind of deployment, while another provider may better manage data analytics workloads. Companies also want to seamlessly move workloads between cloud service providers.

Of course, vendor lock-in doesn’t apply only to digital technology. An automobile manufacturer, for one, ideally wants to avoid a long-term deal with a parts supplier because of the possibility that the vendor could face a shortage or an inability to keep up with changes in manufacturing. (Although, technology is at the heart of the computer chip shortage that’s slowing the production of cars, as the New York Times reports.)

And while farmers undoubtedly have long measured the value of staying with one vendor for tractors and other traditional farming equipment, they — as with many other industries — are now trying to avoid lock-in with technology suppliers. Many farmers are embracing technology to gauge weather and agricultural conditions to increase yield, but the vendors of these services are creating closed systems to keep customers locked-in, much as tractor manufacturers and parts suppliers have long done, according to Venture Beat.

Collaborating to Connect the Military’s Joint Forces

By expanding the web of development and creation to more than one vendor, organizations consider different ideas and strategies. New ways of working, solving problems and reaching goals take hold.

For more than a decade, the Defense Department has attempted to break free of the longstanding practice of typically sticking with one contractor for specific projects. That’s why it’s not surprising to see more than 100 different companies working on various components of Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2), a sweeping initiative to digitally connect the U.S. military’s weapons systems and similarly connect technologies used by the servicemen and servicewomen of the military branches. The military couldn’t undertake such a massive reconstruction of its technology with just one contractor.

Northrop Grumman’s work on JADC2 is less an agency-contractor relationship than it is a partnership to ensure the DOD stays ahead of the capabilities of other militaries that have long relied on commercial technology. The company is reviewing the existing digital and hardware systems of the joint forces and devising how to upgrade and integrate them with technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics.

That work includes creating an Internet of Military Things. According to Wired, wearables and smartphones will automatically communicate with vehicles, weapons and satellites, giving women and men across each service branch — and in allied nations — a clearer understanding of their missions in the field.

“The Department of Defense realized that our adversaries were using commercial software to get ahead,” Scott Stapp, a retired Air Force brigadier general who is now the chief technology officer at Northrop Grumman, told Wired. “So the military decided to get ahead of it by working with commercial partners that have been developing these types of technologies for years. Now we’re at a tipping point, working together to bypass our adversaries at an exponential rate.”

It Takes Partners to Fight a Pandemic

Proof of the power of collaboration could be found this year on the shoulders of more than 161 million Americans: a bandage covering the mark of a needle delivering a COVID-19 vaccination. When the pandemic all but halted life and many sections of global commerce in 2020, few would have bet on a quick turnaround. But with the governments of the world working closely with several pharmaceutical companies to develop, manufacture and ship more than 3.7 billion doses of a vaccine as of July 2021, a return to normalcy has begun, even if slowly.

As the New York Times notes, a joint effort to develop COVID-19 vaccines shouldn’t be surprising; government research and the funding of private initiatives has created transistors, silicon chips, radar, jet airplanes, satellites, artificial limbs, cortisone, flat-screen TVs and monitors.

Work to combat the latest coronavirus started before its global spread. Moderna and Pfizer for several years leaned on government-funded research of viral genetics and proteins. As Kaiser Health News outlined, all that research set the stage for the fast development of COVID-19 vaccines.

The U.S. government worked closely with the pharmaceutical companies as they raced against the clock, funding Moderna’s efforts and helping Pfizer acquire manufacturing supplies, according to The Atlantic.

The government-corporate focus on ending COVID-19 has carried over borders. Pfizer will start helping a company partially owned by the South African government to manufacture vaccines in Africa, as the Associated Press reports, while the U.S. and E.U. will provide funding for vaccine distribution in the continent. The advance against COVID-19 demonstrates, again, that expanding relationships with many vendors can benefit companies, governments and society.

Are you interested in science and innovation? We are, too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.