Barry Nance: Vendor installation can be a costly favour

So the salesman tells you that once you buy the software, his engineers will come on-site and handle the installation, as it’s standard practice for all customers. At first blush, you think you’re saving time, effort and money when you take a software vendor up on its offer to sow its product across your network.

In reality, you’re risking your network’s reliability when you nod your head in assent and tell the vendor to schedule system engineer visits to your sites. When the system engineers finish the installation, you become responsible for reinstalling the product when hardware failures crop up.

Likely very late on a Friday night, a network adapter card fails in one of your servers. The troubleshooter called in to fix the problem decides to replace the failed adapter or shift the computing workload to a spare computer. In either case, the troubleshooter spends the rest of the night and part of the next day putting the computer back to work.

If the troubleshooter decides to shift the workload to a spare computer, the first problem occurs when the documentation doesn’t adequately describe the necessary steps to fire up the software. The system engineer who performed the original installation might have taken some shortcuts or might have put files into different directories to avoid disk space problems. But those moves aren’t noted anywhere.

Whether your troubleshooter replaces the failed network adapter or switches to a spare computer, a license key error is surely the next roadblock. Intended to thwart software piracy, license key schemes tie the software to a specific media access control address, IP address, digital certificate or parallel port hardware device. On-call troubleshooters get to drink lots of coffee while third-shift vendor support people try to generate new license keys.

When we evaluate network software in the lab, we resist vendor installation. Because vendors love to take time during the installation process to give pep talks about the product’s features, those vendors of otherwise superior products that don’t send system engineers to perform the installation are at an unfair disadvantage. We want to experience the installation procedure to discover how modular the product is and how difficult that procedure is. Moreover, we almost always install the product on different computers to see how it behaves in different computing environments, and that second or third installation may very well take place late on a Friday night. Fortunately, when they learn about these subsequent unscheduled installations, most vendors forego sending the system engineer and just ship us the software.

When a vendor says your software purchase includes installation, avoid the temptation to say, “Just let me know when it’s finished.” Make sure you oversee the installation procedure, and plan to carry out a fire drill to ensure you can reinstall the product when necessary. Under no circumstances should you let the vendor’s system engineer leave your office before your staff clearly understands the procedure for generating new license keys or otherwise getting the software back up to speed if a network adapter or entire computer fails late on a Friday night.

Nance, a software developer and consultant for 29 years, is the author of Introduction to Networking, 4th Edition and Client/Server LAN Programming. He can be reached at