David A. Wheeler's Blog

Sun, 15 Apr 2012

The magic cookie parable

In some presentations I include the “magic cookie parable”. Here is the parable, for those who have not heard it (I usually hold a cookie in my hand when I present it). Anyway…

I have in my hand… a magic cookie! Just one cookie will supply all your food needs for a whole year. What is more, the first one is only $1. Imagine how much money you will save! Imagine how much time you will save!

Ah, but there’s a catch. Once you eat the magic cookie, you can only eat magic cookies, as all other food will become poisonous to you. What’s more, there is only one manufacturer of magic cookies.

Do you think the cookie will be $1 next year? How about for the rest of your life? Are you as eager to eat the cookie?

Is that a silly parable? It should be. Yet many people accept information technology (IT), for themselves or on behalf of their organizations, that are fundamentally magic cookies. Too many are blinded into accepting technology that makes them, or their organization, completely at the mercy of a single supplier. You can call dependence on single supplier a security problem, or a supply chain problem, or a support problem, or many other things. But no matter what you call it, it is a serious problem.

Now please do not hear what I am not saying. I am not here to attack any particular supplier. In fact, we all need suppliers, and I am grateful for suppliers! The problem is not the existence of suppliers; the problem is excessive dependency on any one supplier.

There are only a few information technology (IT) strategies that counter sole-supplier dependency that I know of:

  1. Build and control it yourself. In a few cases this is reasonable, but in most cases, that is too expensive and it risks obsolescence.
  2. Open systems/open standards. Here, you ensure that your system is made of modular parts with key interfaces covered by standards; that way, you can later switch to a different product. This can work, but suppliers may create proprietary extensions that (if you are not careful) lock you in anyway.
  3. Open source software. Since open source software allows anyone to modify and redistribute the software, if a supplier goes in a direction you did not like, you can band together with other customers to ensure a supply of software that meets your needs.
  4. A Combination. That is, a combination of the above.

Before getting locked into a single supplier, count the true cost over the entire time it will occur. Sure, in some cases, it may be worth it anyway. But you may find that this true cost is far higher than you are willing to pay. (The cookie image is by Bob Smith, released under the CC Attribution 2.5 license. Thank you!)

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