11 May 2018

One Database, Two Vendors, No Love Story or Maybe…


Introduction

Situation: An organization has several BI tools provisioned with data from the same data warehouse (DW), the BI infrastructure being supported by the same service provider (vendor). The organization wants to adopt a new BI technology, though for it must be brought another vendor into the picture. The data the tool requires are already available in the DW, though the DW needs to be extended with logic and other components to support the new tool. This means that two vendors will be active in the same DW, more generally in the same environment.

Question(s): What is the best approach for making this work? Which are the challenges for making it work, considering that two vendors?


Preliminary

    When you ask IT people about this situation, many will tell you that’s not a good idea, being circumspect at having two vendors within the same environment. Some will recall previous experience in which things went really bad, escalated to some degree. They will even show their disagreement through body language or increase tonality. Even if they had also good experiences with having two vendors support the same environment, the negative experiences will prevail. It’s the typical reaction to an idea when something that caused considerable trouble is recalled. This behavior is understandable as generally human tend to remember more the issues they had, rather than successes. Problems leave deeper marks than success, especially when challenges are seen as burdens.

    Reacting defensively is a result of the “I’ve been burned once” syndrome. People react adversely and tend to avoid situations in which they were burned, instead of dealing with them, instead of recognizing which were the circumstances that lead to the situation in the first place, of recognizing opportunities for healing and raising above the challenges.


   Personally, at a first glance, the caution would make me advise as well against having two or more vendors playing within same playground. I had my plate of extreme cases in which something went wrong and the vendors started acting like kids. Parents (in general people who work with children) know what I’m talking about, children don’t like to share their toys and parents often find themselves in the position of mediating between them. When the toy get’s broken it’s easy to blame other kid for it, same as somebody else must put the toy at its place, because that somebody played the last time with it. It’s a mix between I’m in charge and the blame game. Who needs that?

  At second sight, if parents made it, why wouldn’t professionals succeed in making two vendors work together? Sure, parents have more practice in dealing with kids, have such situations on a daily basis, and there are fewer variables to think about it… I have seen vendors sitting together until they come up with a solution, I’ve seen vendors open to communicate, putting the customer on the first place, even if that meant living the ego behind. Where there’s a will there’s a way.


The Solution Space

    In IT there are seldom general recipes that always lead to success, and whether a solution works or not depends on a serious of factors – environment, skills, communication, human behavior and quite often chance, the chance of doing the right thing at the right time. However, the recipe can be used as a starting point, eventually to define the best scenario, what will happen when everything goes well. At the opposite side there is the worst scenario, what will happen when everything goes south. These two opposite scenarios are in general the frame in which a solution can be defined.

    Within this frame one can add several other reference points or paths, and these are made of the experience of people handling and experiencing similar situations – what worked, what didn’t, what could work, what are the challenges, and so on. In general, people’s experience and knowledge prove to be a good estimator in decision making, and even if relative, it proves some insight into the problem at hand.


    Let’s reconsider the parents put in the situation of dealing with children fighting for the same toy, though from the perspective of all the toys available to play with. There are several options available: the kids could take (supervised) turn in playing with the toys, fact that could be a win-win situation if they are willing to cooperate. One can take the toys (temporarily) away, though this could lead to other issues. One can reaffirm who’s the owner of each toy, each kid being allowed to play only with his toy. One could buy a second toy, and thus brake the bank even if this will not make the issue entirely go away. Probably there are other solutions inventive parents might find.

    Similarly, in the above stated problem, one option, and maybe the best, is having the vendors share ownership for the DW by finding a way to work together. Defining the ownership for each tool can alleviate some of the problems but not all, same as building a second DW. We can probably all agree that taking the tools away is not the right thing to do, and even if it’s a solution, it doesn’t support the purpose.


Sharing Ownership

    Complex IT environments like the one of a DW depend on vendors’ capability of working together in reaching the same goal, even if in play are different interests. This presumes the disposition of the parties in relinquishing some control, sharing responsibilities. Unfortunately, not all vendors are willing to do that. That’s the point where imaginary obstacles are built, is where effort needs to be put to eliminate such obstacles.

    When working together, often one of the parties must play the coordinator role. In theory, this role can be played by any of the vendors, and the roles can even change after case. Another approach is when the coordinator role can be taken also by a person or a board from the customer side. In case of a data warehouse it can be an IT professional, a Project Manager or a BI Competency Center (BICC) . This would allow to smoothly coordinate the activities, as well to mediate the communication and other types of challenges faced.


    How will ownership sharing work? Let’s suppose vendor A wants to change something in the infrastructure. The change is first formulated, shortly reviewed, and approved by both vendors and customer, and will then be implemented and documented by vendor A as needed. Vendor B is involved in the process by validating the concept and reviewing the documentation, its involvement being minimized. There can be still some delays in the process, though the overhead is somehow minimized. There will be also scenarios in which vendor B needs only to be informed that a change has occurred, or sometimes is enough if a change was properly documented.

    This approach involves also a greater need for documentation, versioning, established processes, their role being to facilitate the communication and track the changes occurred in the environment.


Splitting Ownership

    Splitting the ownership involves setting clear boundaries and responsibilities within which each vendor can perform the work. One is forced thus to draw a line and say which components or activities belong to each vendor. 

    The architecture of existing solutions makes it sometimes hard to split the ownership when the architecture was not designed for it. A solution would be to redesign the whole architecture, though even then might not be possible to draw a clear line when there are grey areas. One needs eventually to consider the advantages and disadvantages and decide to which vendor the responsibility suits best.


    For example, in the context of a DW security can be enforced via schemas within same or different databases, though there are also objects (e.g. tables with basis data) used by multiple applications. One of the vendors (vendor A) will get the ownership of the objects, thus when vendor B needs a change to those table, it must require the change to vendor A. Once the changes are done the vendor B needs to validate the changes, and if there are problems further communication occurs. Per total this approach will take more time than if the vendor B would have done alone the changes. However, it works even if it comes with some challenges.

    There’s also the possibility to give vendor B temporary permissions to do the changes, fact that will shorten the effort needed. The vendor A will still be in charge, and will have to prove the documentation, and do eventually some validation as well.


Separating Ownership

    Giving each vendor its own playground is a costly solution, though it can be the only solution in certain scenarios. For example, when an architecture is supposed to replace (in time) another, or when the existing architecture has certain limitations. In the context of a DW this involves duplicating the data loads, the data themselves, as well logic, eventually processes, and so on.

    Pushing this just to solve a communication problem is the wrong thing to do. What happens if a third or a fourth vendor joins the party? Would it be for each vendor a new environment created? Hopefully, not…

    On the other side, there are also vendors that don’t want to relinquish the ownership, and will play their cards not to do it. The overhead of dealing with such issues may surpass in extremis the costs of having a second environment. In the end the final decision has the customer.


Hybrid Approach


    A hybrid between sharing and splitting ownership can prove to give the best from the two scenarios. It’s useful and even recommended to define the boundaries of work for each vendor, following to share ownership on the areas where there’s an intersection of concerns, the grey areas. For sensitive areas there could be some restrictions in cooperation.

    A hybrid solution can involve as well splitting some parts of the architecture, though the performance and security are mainly the driving factors.


Conclusion

   I wanted with this post to make the reader question some of the hot-brained decisions made when two or more vendors are involved in the supporting an architecture. Even if the problem is put within the context of a DW it’s occurrence extends far beyond this context. We are enablers and problem solvers. Instead of avoiding challenges we should better make sure that we’re removing or minimizing the risks. 

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