Vendor Selection: Focusing on Direction vs. Following the Crowd

Don Allen, Senior Director, Technical Operations, Zulily
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Don Allen, Senior Director, Technical Operations, Zulily

English writer and broadcaster Nigel Rees famously quipped, “How come there’s only one Monopolies Commission?” Though he is humorously referring to the forces acting against monopolies across all business areas, the reality is that many forces act against market share leaders and monopolies already, particularly in the technology sector. The short history of technology products and services has clearly demonstrated that any short-term monopoly will be challenged on price, feature, functionality, and relationship management. In a more practical sense, despite the market leadership of Cisco across several areas, companies like Juniper, Silicon Mechanics, and others continue to place products alongside of Cisco and in some cases supplant them. What are the forces that drive these decisions and effectively level the playing fields?

With the industry-wide swing to cloud computing well underway, fewer individual technology managers are making network platform decisions. The balance is shifting to selecting services instead of selecting products. Unless building their own datacenter and networking core, technology infrastructure managers are turning to managed collocation, cloud, and SaaS providers to simply provide the final solution required. In these spaces, the remaining datacenter providers are either large enough to manufacture their own equipment (ex: Google) or utilize very large contracts to drive market leaders down to steep discounts. Despite these conditions, quite suitable for allowing technical monopolies to thrive, key points of differentiation still arise, often in the form of specific functionality requirements.

In the early days of Intrusion detection, TopLayer switches beat out several competitors due to their ability to mirror port-specific traffic through particular interfaces while maintaining the ability to issue reset packets through mirrored interfaces. Put simply, they performed a function that other switches did not. Their use in the FBI’s Carnivore project and inclusion in prescriptive architecture guides pushed the industry forward. Today, 15 years later, those early innovations are commonplace.

“Juniper is not the only company that has found its way into Zulily through the use of our open-minded, non-monopolistic view of vendor selection”

Non-blocking switches are also common today, but were somewhat innovative upon initial arrival. Extreme Networks ‘price point and product lines made an early foray into Costco.com’s infrastructure due to their ability to move packets across all interfaces simultaneously without queuing across the backplane. Predictably, this functionality was soon commonplace as well and, when functional equilibrium was reached; Cisco was soon back into the fold.

At the end of a long and thorough debate, I feel confident that I could convey the need for the market to continue to support the existence of multiple network vendors. Despite the fact that competition is best for all consumers, selecting networking vendors cannot be done out of altruism. Vendor selection done properly takes into account business needs while prioritizing price, feature/functionality, and vendor relationship. Though it may be best for the industry to have multiple vendors, care must be taken to neither place market leaders on pedestals nor select a smaller provider solely for a niche solution. History has shown that any network innovation significant enough to drive selection will undoubtedly find its way into the operating systems of all players.

At Zulily, we heavily rely on managed collocation and cloud providers for our primary datacenter operations. In that regard, and with only a few exceptions, we do not recommend vendors, but instead only ask for final solutions. However, there are many other instances where we must build and maintain our own infrastructure.

Last year, when moving our Seattle headquarters into a new office space across the city, we faced the need to build an entire office without knowing the required density for each floor area. Studio operations are a large part of Zulily’s office environment and the networking needs for the studio areas are much different from that of a “normal” office layout. What we needed was the flexibility to place as many switches as necessary into our network closets while having the ability add or remove them as needed, all working as one virtual switch. While this requirement could be solved by almost any network vendor, we would be faced with hiring an additional dedicated network engineer, or at a minimum retraining our infrastructure team for the task. For a few years, we had already been using Juniper SRX Firewalls in our home and remote offices and we quickly realized that Juniper’s Junos OS is utilized across nearly their entire technology stack. Utilizing Juniper for our enterprise user base would require no additional training other than a review of the virtual switch configuration. Any established expertise would directly translate into an ability to administer all Juniper products within our stack. This key point, coupled with lower price point and solid reputation, was all that we needed to make our final decision. Looking back on this decision, 18 months later, we could not be happier with the results.

Juniper is not the only company that has found its way into Zulily through the use of our open-minded, non-monopolistic view of vendor selection. Firstly, PagerDuty, and HipChat come to mind as well; each selected against competitive solutions offered by larger vendors. Going through an honest selection process will indeed bring more vendors into your infrastructure, and while this is not without the downside of additional vendor management, the benefits to your company and the tech industry are clear: competition breeds innovation and ultimately reduces costs. Though over a longer period of time vendor solutions reach feature parity, the advantages of leveraging early adopters can be substantial.

In conclusion, I want to make it clear that we also use Cisco, F5 Networks, and other vendors with clear market share; the 800-pound gorillas, if you will, roam the halls of Zulily. The true balance comes from keeping an open mind and encouraging leadership to truly review vendor selections, they should be made carefully once all aspects are properly considered. Choosing among several vendors is better for the technology industry, and, whether they like to admit it, better for the vendors themselves, be they startup or behemoth.

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