Could your business be using multiple clouds without knowing?

At the start of the millennium, businesses were still largely dependent on their own internal data centres for storing and sharing data. The concept of ‘cloud technology’ was alien to many organisations, and some even claimed it would never catch on. Now, not only do most organisations use the cloud in some capacity, but it’s not uncommon for them to adopt several cloud services at a time. 

The truth is that a growing number of businesses are adopting multi-cloud. Nearly ninety-five per cent of businesses in 31 countries have now built an infrastructure that uses “multiple private and public clouds based on economics, location and governance policies”, according to a recent study from IDC. Despite this impressive number, the report also revealed that a large number of CIOs and IT leaders aren’t entirely aware of this development, and struggle to define what ‘multi-cloud’ actually encompasses. Some are even unsure if their business utilises multi-cloud already. 

The reason these IT leaders don’t appear to be informed is that often the decisions made happen with little or no input from their IT department (known as shadow IT). Instead, different cloud providers are chosen by the various teams, such as HR, IT and finance to best suit their individual needs. 

What is multi-cloud?

Though it is an increasingly common IT architecture amongst businesses, the term ‘multi-cloud’ is occasionally used interchangeably with ‘hybrid cloud’, despite being entirely different entities. Specifically, hybrid cloud is a particular type of multi-cloud architecture, while ‘multi-cloud’ itself applies to any digital environment where applications are deployed across two or more cloud platforms. Hybrid cloud refers to a digital environment that combines public or private cloud platforms with more-traditional deployment models, such as managed or on-premise hosting, and includes orchestration among the various platforms.

Multi-cloud, however, is broader in its scope, and can include any combination of public clouds (such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services or OpenStack); private clouds (whether powered by OpenStack, Microsoft Hyper-V or VMware); or dedicated servers. 

What are the benefits of multiple clouds?

What follows logically with having more than one cloud, is more complexity. What follows from sheer scale however, are several significant benefits that using multiple clouds can offer, including:

  • Not locked in by one vendor – If using a single vendor, businesses risk being exposed to price increases and unrequested changes in service. By investing in multiple cloud providers, a business has more choice as to where they run their cloud workloads, giving them leverage to minimise these risks.
  • Best-of-breed infrastructure – Instead of being constrained by one cloud framework, a multi-cloud strategy gives the flexibility of being able to select the best-suited cloud service for each department’s workload. In turn, this enables the business to meet the unique requirements for each specific use case. 
  • Added geographical data flexibility – The leading cloud providers all have data centres across the globe, however some companies may require that data for specific workloads resides within certain national boundaries. A multi-cloud strategy means businesses can easily meet those requirements, while still engaging with a global cloud platform. 
  • Disaster mitigation – If a business properly utilises multiple clouds, they can minimise the risk of widespread data loss or application downtime as a result of a localised failure. 

Does multi-cloud have any challenges? 

Naturally, despite the benefits that multi-cloud provides, it isn’t without it’s challenges.  Most of the obstacles that multi-cloud introduces relate to the additional complexity of running more than one cloud. These include:

  • Expertise – Learning the ins and outs of the infrastructure and language of more than one cloud is challenging, particularly for smaller companies. Bigger companies are also faced with competition to retain specialised engineers and architects with the skills to understand each cloud. IT departments don’t need to shoulder this alone however, and it doesn't need to get in the way of benefiting from multiple clouds. 
  • Administration and Vendor costs – The more clouds a business adopts, the more contracts they would need to manage with their vendors, resulting in increased administrative interfaces, potentially complicated cost tracking and additional billing management.
  • Integration – It can be challenging to integrate public clouds built with different platforms. For example, Azure is based in Windows, whilst AWS’ code is founded on Linux.
  • Security – With more than one cloud being deployed, a single security solution may not cover them equally, as a security solution for AWS will not scale to Azure, resulting in additional planning around security and governance.
  • Right choice – A business would have to ensure it has chosen the correct cloud providers for the appropriate workload, such as more processing intensive cloud solutions for data analysts.

Will multi-cloud continue to gain momentum?

Multi-cloud is continuing to gain momentum with businesses, harnessing the benefits and regardless of the challenges. The key to ensuring that businesses can navigate this emerging digital landscape is executing multi-cloud successfully through working with people who have the expertise and relevant knowledge. This could mean training existing IT staff with transferable skills that can be adapted to different cloud technologies or employing third party cloud experts. Businesses need to ensure they work with people who understand the strengths and weaknesses of each cloud provider, the array of services offered by the leading providers and how they map to their specific needs. IT leaders should embrace multi-cloud sooner rather than later, as although multi-cloud may begin by accident, implementing it properly means they can protect themselves against security risks and access the many advantages. 

Darren Norfolk, UK Managing Director at Rackspace
Image Credit: Stokkete