No one likes being in a prison. Yet the history of enterprise technology is a move to virtual prisons, whether by virtue of choosing to standardize on a vendor (so it's not a prison) or agreeing to lock-in as the only viable solution in terms of affordability or capability.
Even when they willingly shut out themselves, enterprises have eventually escaped these prisons. At one point, for example, IBM dominated mainframes, and companies accepted the resulting lack of freedom. Then came midframes, followed by client-server computing, and enterprises clawed their way to freedom, where they had wide vendor choice and complete control over on-premises servers.
Since then, the market has consolidated to two main server platforms (Windows Server and Linux), running apps from a handful of companies (SAP, Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Adobe Systems, EMC, VMware, and so on).
Enterprises are looking to break out of their on-premises prisons, and cloud services are what they’re looking to escape to.
In other words, IT tends to move from prison to freedom, then back to prison. They savor the initial freedom in their new digs but get uncomfortable as those freedoms diminish, markets consolidate, and vendors grow their reach.
The same fate awaits those who adopt the cloud. Whether it's the cloud, on-premises servers and apps, or a mainframe, once you are all in you are, well, all in -- and locked in.
Portability is the answer to data prisons, if you can get it
When it comes to your data, the reality is often "Hotel California": You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
That's what you could be doing when you put email data, file/folder data, and so on in a single vendor's tool or service. Therefore, it's essential that your vendor understands whose data it's holding and shows respect for that boundary. You never want your data held hostage, whether purposely or simply because of an inability to move it.
Make sure your vendor agreements clearly state that your data is your data. Microsoft's agreements for Office 365 spell it out.
Even when the company is sure that your data is your data, your data may be effectively locked in due to technology limits. In the case of Office 365, as blogger Tony Redmond has explored, that may be why some IT organizations are interested in third-party archive or backup/recovery offerings that work with Office 365.
Some organizations may be looking into backup because old habits die hard -- IT systems used to be unreliable, and backups were essential to normal operations. But backups also bring up a trust issue. Yes, Office 365 protects your data availability, but it doesn't provide a backup that is actually yours should you decide to leave Microsoft. There's no separate backup -- only four redundant passive copies kept in two data centers in case they're needed for failover.
Keeping your data portable lets you change your email platform if desired or needed. Even if you don’t want to move your data, having portable data gives you some leverage.
How Microsoft handles data portability
Microsoft lets you take your data from Office 365 should you decide to do so. But how would you actually do it? Microsoft outlines a few methods, including the use of Import and Export wizards for email data, document downloading manually for SharePoint Online data, domain removal (to eliminate your domain from Office 365), and PowerShell cmdlets to pull down user metadata.
Even with such methods, the sheer volume of data may make it unrealistic to actually move that data. You may be effectively locked in even if you have a key to the prison door. Using a third-party archive or backup might provide a safe house should you decide to walk out that door.
Companies like Microsoft that don't lock in your data have little to fear from being open. Customers will feel better that they have a path out should they need it -- and having that path usually reduces fears of being trapped and decreases the likelihood a customer will leave. Plus, they have extra safety in case of a catastrophic data loss at Microsoft's data centers.
With that strategy, a prison could instead become a gated community you want to live in.