July 30, 2014

How Percona strives to remain neutral and independent

Many of the prominent companies in the MySQL ecosystem are Percona customers, including hardware manufacturers, software developers, hosted service providers, and appliance developers. We perform paid and unpaid research on their products, and we publish blog posts related to their products or services. Independence and objectivity are core Percona values. How do we balance the interests of all involved while maintaining our vendor-neutral stance? This is a very important topic for all of our current and potential customers to understand. It is essential that we set realistic expectations about how we’ll work with you, so that we don’t enter into a business relationship based on assumptions that could cause conflict.

The short version of the following lengthy blog post is that vendors can buy Percona’s time, but not our opinion or the use of our name.

We can separate customers into two main groups of interest for this blog post: customers who might be interested in a product or service that another customer provides, and customers who might be interested in selling a product or service to other Percona customers. We will call these groups “vendors,” and variously “consumers” or “prospects” at times for brevity.

Consumers: Percona customers needing products or services

Customers who need a product or a service can expect that Percona will make recommendations with as little bias as possible (but see also Peter’s post on bias) based on our knowledge of the product, regardless of whether the vendor is a Percona customer. For example, Virident worked with Percona to test and validate their PCI-E flash cards, and Fusion-IO sent us free cards to use as we wished. If we believe that a customer will benefit from these storage solutions, we might mention them, but we have no obligation to do so. We will reveal that the vendor is a Percona customer, and that we performed paid evaluations or that we were given free hardware to test.

If another vendor brings a good solution to market and isn’t a Percona client, we’ll also mention that product if we’re aware of it. We try to stay abreast of the latest technologies, but good research takes money and time, so we can’t always know about every product or service. We are naturally more likely to recommend products that we know well, and there should be nothing wrong with that as long as we disclose fully. If you ask us about solution X and Y, and we say “I know X well, and it’s a good fit for you, but solution Y is not something I’ve tested,” then you can either take that advice as it is, or pay us to research solution Y.

It sometimes happens that a vendor finds out that Percona also works with a potential consumer of their product or service. This happens through the grapevine, or through direct interaction between the vendor and the consumer, e.g. a sales call. However, we do not play a matchmaker role for its own sake, and we do not make our customer list available to any other customers. We will not take the initiative to tell any vendor to contact you. If we think you’re a good candidate for a vendor’s solution, we’ll offer you an introduction if that’s the best course of action, or just work with you to assess the solution without any interaction with the vendor, if that is not necessary to give you the best service. In summary, you get the best service, and we’ll suggest an introduction only if it’s in your interests, not merely because it’s in the vendor’s interests.

Vendors: Percona customers with something to sell

If you’re a solution vendor, there are several benefits of hiring Percona to assess your product. First, Percona can become intimately familiar with it, which can enable us to suggest improvements both to the product and to your marketing or positioning, to better match the true needs of your potential clients. It can also enable us to give unbiased advice to our other clients. Finally, if you hire us to research your offering, we can mention the results in outlets such as blog articles, webinars, white papers, and conference speeches. This has proven to be very valuable marketing exposure for many customers.

The level of detail that you expose to us determines how knowledgeable we are about your product. If you’re selling something closed-source and don’t want us to see the source, that’s fine, but it may mean that we aren’t as confident about our knowledge of the product. The more we know, the more valuable we can be to you and to our clients who might purchase the solution.

Being a Percona customer does not grant you any editorial influence over what we publish. For example, we can publish blog articles about your solution independently of our work with you. If you’ve hired us to research your solution, you can expect that we will publish only informed opinions on the solution. But to be clear, that is nothing more than non-customers can expect. Our editorial standard for our blog is that all articles are informed opinions. It is reasonable to expect that a qualified expert at Percona will review anything that is published. That is the norm for our blog. If we make mistakes, we welcome your corrections, but we are not obligated to get your approval before publishing (although we often extend the courtesy of sending drafts for review before publishing).

Being a Percona customer does not entitle vendors to purchase marketing exposure from us, but we will agree on an intent to publish the results of product research. The distinction is subtle, but important to understand. The deliverable in the contract will not be “publish a blog post” or “publish a white paper.” The deliverable will be to produce something publishable that meets our standards for balanced and objective reporting. However, Percona does the writing, not the vendor. Sometimes vendors suggest wording, but we decide whether to use it. When we are finished researching, and we have written our conclusions, we offer the draft to the vendor and invite any corrections. We then offer the vendor the option to publish in its entirety, uncensored. The vendor has the right to approve or refuse the publication in its entirety. If we found something negative and we want to publish that, vendors can’t ask us to remove that and publish the positive results.

Although we insist on editorial freedom, that does not mean that we operate with blinders on; that could be disrespectful to customers who pay for our research. When we work on paid research with the intent to publish, we try to be circumspect about anything else we write on the specific topic of research, and we try to err on the side of being too courteous to our customers if there is uncertainty.

If you hire us to review a product with a specific outcome in mind, then that will naturally influence the results of our research and subsequent publication. For example, suppose you are designing a product to perform very well on a specific benchmark, and you want us to validate that it does. When we publish the results, we will reveal that the pre-existing agenda was to validate this benchmark, and we will also try to provide a balanced assessment overall of the product and its suitability for various use cases, including all known downsides. For example, if your product does extremely well on TCP-H benchmark queries and crashes on other queries, we will reveal that to provide a balanced review of it. When feasible, we will try to evaluate the product in a way that protects us from bias and helps us be more thorough, such as being a “mystery shopper” as well as examining the product or service that the you are aware we’re inspecting.

There have been times when vendors have told us not to publish the results of our research. You may ask whether this is censorship in itself, and whether lack of disclosure creates an unbalanced and unfair situation — lying by omission, so to speak. The answer is that vendors might not be ready with their product. We aren’t here to throw tomatoes at unfinished solutions. Vendors who hire us to do research but then discover that the result isn’t as positive as they desire will often come back to us later, after fixing the issues we identified. Sometimes the outcome is more positive the second time around, and is something they are comfortable with letting us publish.

When we publish the results of paid research, we disclose that we were paid to do it. Gifts, such as FusionIO’s gift of hardware, follow the same rules. This transparency assures readers that when something isn’t mentioned as paid research, then it wasn’t paid for, and there is no puppetry behind the scenes. Examples of customers whose paid research resulted in a blog post or white paper are Virident and Tokutek. We try to ensure that our paid research is just as objective as unpaid research, but it is still necessary to disclose the paid nature of the work. This means that if you want to hire Percona to evaluate your solution, and hopefully publish an opinion about it, then you must be willing to disclose that you are a Percona customer.

Use of Percona’s name by vendors

We do not authorize vendors to use Percona’s name or reputation as an endorsement unless our executive team explicitly approves of it on a case-by-case basis. For example, suppose that you develop a proposed application architecture for a sales prospect (who may or may not be a Percona client). You hire Percona to review the architecture. We do not authorize you to mention our name in connection with the proposed architecture, unless we first approve. We will also require you to disclose to the client our full, uncensored report on the proposed architecture. For example, we will not authorize you to say “we developed this proposed architecture and had Percona review it” without saying anything more. The client is entitled to receive Percona’s review of the architecture without having to ask for it. If we do not think the proposed solution is a good idea for the prospect to implement, and you are not comfortable with our report, then we may not allow you to mention our name at all.

If a vendor wants to use the results of Percona’s research in part, but not perform the full and balanced disclosure that Percona would perform, then that is acceptable as long as our name is not revealed. To revisit the TCP-H example, a vendor whose product ran well on that benchmark but crashed on other simple queries is welcome to quote the benchmark results without mentioning the crashes, as long as they don’t say Percona’s name. The vendor can buy the benchmark, but not our name.

If we become aware of a vendor using Percona’s name as an endorsement in a way we have not authorized, then depending on the circumstances we may decide that we are obligated to respond, perhaps by contacting the person or organization who has been given misleading or incomplete information about Percona’s involvement. If you are considering hiring Percona to review a proposal, you might want to avoid disclosing our involvement until you see the results of our review. If the prospect knows that we are reviewing the proposal and you decline to reveal the results, then there could be an implied endorsement, and we may feel obligated to make the review available to the client directly. Our willingness to protect the integrity of our name through such direct action serves as a strong deterrent to most misuse.

If you are the sales prospect, and the vendor recommends a solution to you and says that Percona endorses it, then you are welcome to contact us and verify that claim, and clarify any details such as the extent of our involvement.

When vendors ask to involve us in the sales process

Vendors often ask us to work with them in the sales process. For example, they might ask us to participate in a product evaluation so the prospective client can decide whether the solution meets their needs. We are happy to do this, provided that it’s clear that our involvement doesn’t in itself constitute an endorsement, as per the previous section on use of our name.

When a vendor wants us to evaluate their solution for a prospective client, we generally bill them for all of the time that we spend on their behalf. However, if the prospect says “I’d also like you to compare the vendor’s solution to something else,” and that isn’t necessary to do a balanced evaluation, then we will bill the prospective client for that, not the vendor. If we think that this extra work is required for us to correctly assess the solution, then we will tell the vendor and bill them for the work. In other words, vendors can’t hire us to do a partial or inconclusive evaluation; we require that the evaluation is full and thorough, and we bill the vendor for that.

On the other hand, if the consumer requests us to do the evaluation, without the vendor’s involvement, then we bill the consumer for the work. If both of them request it, that might be a gray area we deal with on a case-by-case basis. In reality, this is rare. Most vendors have active sales efforts, so most evaluations are paid for by the vendors.

After the evaluation is over, we may indeed endorse the solution, but to the extent we can, we try to ensure that our endorsement is not influenced by any of the above. It will always represent our best effort at an objective opinion on the technical merits of the solution, and the suitability for the business use case. (Again, sometimes bias is unavoidable.)

Vendors who approach us to be directly involved with an evaluation should understand that it is possible that we’ll recommend against the solution, and even that the sales prospect might hire Percona instead to pursue an alternative solution. We do not enter into agreements that restrict our ability to help the prospect solve their problems in the best way possible. As such, we generally do not agree to exclusivity agreements or do-not-compete agreements with vendors. If we did, it would prevent us from offering the best possible service to all involved.

As with product research or evaluations intended for a general audience, we are fine with vendors hiring us to validate a certain result for a specific sales prospect, even if it’s not what we consider complete and balanced. As long as Percona’s name is not mentioned, the vendor is free to cherry-pick from the results they disclose to the prospect. We are also okay with vendors keeping us at arm’s length from the prospect and preventing them from ever knowing that Percona was involved in the sales cycle, or even with vendors hiring us to assess something for a prospect whose identity they don’t disclose to us, again provided that our name is not used as a sales tool. We will not endorse a solution for an unknown party, because we are not able to provide a balanced assessment of its suitability for them.

Sometimes when a vendor asks if we want to be involved with an effort to sell to a prospect, they will use a phrase such as “this could be a win-win deal for both of us.” We request that it be win-win-win for all three of us. Most vendors happily adjust their approach to try to make the prospect’s interests of equal importance when requested. We try to ensure that this is the case, and we may recuse ourselves if we have objections that are not addressed.

Sometimes vendors who want Percona to create a favorable outcome for them will offer something in return, or imply that they’ll withhold something if we don’t participate. For example, we were once offered future referrals of services in exchange for endorsing a sales proposal. When we declined, the vendor told us that this was a very large number of potential clients and they would not refer anyone to us if we did not have a change of heart. We think that providing the best possible service includes making referrals to providers whose expertise and ethics we trust, without expecting anything in return, when we aren’t the best fit. For example, we frequently refer people to expert PostgreSQL consultants when needed. We believe that people who need Percona’s services will find us without referrals, and we are not willing to sacrifice our integrity for a short-term gain.

Sometimes we have also been told not to involve ourselves in some aspects of the proposal we are evaluating, and asked to focus only on specific aspects, without advising on the broader picture, such as whether it’s good for the prospect’s business. This is equivalent to an editorial restriction, and is not something we can accept if our name is disclosed to the prospect. It is our job to counsel on the solution, not just an aspect of the solution in isolation. We are ethically and legally obligated to do so.

Partnership relationships

In general, we do not enter into the usual type of partner relationships, and no partnership status or obligation is implied by hiring Percona. We have had many companies approach us with a partnership in mind, but the standard partnership relationship does not usually mesh well with the values discussed previously in this blog post. A partnership relationship usually implies some type of preferential treatment, such as an expectation that Percona would promote the partner’s product or service above others that might be suitable for a customer. That would compromise our core values. Most offers of partnerships either turn into paid evaluations on a consulting basis, or we reach a mutual understanding that it isn’t a good match and we don’t form any formal relationship at all.

There are also vendors whom we know or have worked with, and we have no formal partnership or other relationship, but we have what you could call an “informational” partnership. For example, we sometimes seek out or respond to requests from vendors who want to get to know us and vice versa. Sometimes we invite vendors to speak to our consulting team on our periodic conference calls, to present their solution and enter into a technical dialogue with a large team of people, which is not only fun but creates very educational conversations. This has proven to be a good way to gain at least surface-level familiarity with technologies that we might not have looked into otherwise. We always make recommendations and suggestions based on what we know, and never because we’re paid to; and this is equally applicable to such friendship types of relationships.

Conclusion

I hope that the above discussion provides some insight into how we strive to remain independent and objective, making informed decisions and recommendations as fairly as possible, placing everyone’s interests on an equal basis as much as we can, and ensuring that the integrity of our name and work is uncompromised. If you have any questions or comments, I invite you to use the comment form, or if it’s not appropriate to discuss in public, then I and the entire Percona executive team would welcome a private conversation about this. You can contact us through our contact form and it will be routed to the correct people.

About Baron Schwartz

Baron is the lead author of High Performance MySQL.
He is a former Percona employee.

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