Going straight to the public cloud: Should private/hybrid even be a consideration for your business?

It seems like the marketing hyperbole of ‘cloud’ has settled down somewhat, as cloud-based services have become more mature, more mainstream and more appropriate for a range of business needs. But if you recall, we were also being pretty heavily pitched on hybrid and private cloud solutions, almost as a way of getting us to buy into ‘cloud’ without sending all of our servers and data to someone else’s data centre. Now that we’re a few years in, though, do hybrid or private cloud solutions still make sense, or should you just give up and start outsourcing key services to public cloud providers?

The case for public cloud for business

Believe it or not, I’m not going to make a cost-based argument for using public cloud services. Sure, you might save some capital expenditures, but you might make up for it on the operational expenditure side. It depends a lot on the kinds of services you’re running in the cloud, really, and the jury is quite definitely still out when it comes to arguments based purely on cost. No, what the public cloud definitely offers is scale and lack of worry. It’s definitively easier to scale a properly architected cloud-based service, simply because cloud providers have a virtually infinite number of resources that you can purchase almost on-demand. Cloud providers are also vastly more reliable, in part because they have all those resources that can step in and take over – almost invisibly – when a failure occurs. And you get all that for substantially less capital investment than if you were building a private-cloud solution.

And keep in mind that ‘private cloud’ simply means ‘your own data centre, but run as if you were your own cloud provider.’ That’s an easy statement, but it’s a tall order to build. The automation systems needed to let you behave like a cloud provider are hard to build, and they’re not really available off-the-shelf. I haven’t really run across any private cloud that made me say, ‘Yeah, that works a lot like AWS works!’ So gaining the flexibility, the on-demand access to resources, and so on – all the things ‘private cloud’ is supposed to mean – is really, really hard. But it’s built into the fabric of the public cloud.  

The case for private cloud for business

There are only three solid, proven arguments for private cloud.

First, you have services that simply can’t run in a public cloud situation. This might be legacy workloads like a mainframe-based application, extremely specialised workloads like manufacturing control, or something similar. You’re stuck with those. But you probably will never run them like an actual ‘private cloud,’ either – you’ll just run them the same way you have been running them for years, until you can re-architect, re-build or obviate them.

Second, economics. While a given workload may be cheaper to run in the public cloud today, we know that public cloud providers are running on razor-thin margins and are racing to be at the bottom of the price heap. At some point, you might imagine that something has to give, and we’ve certainly seen similar situations in other fields. AWS and Azure and Google and whoever are going to have to raise prices, and if you’ve made a major commit to their services, you’re going to be stuck paying whatever they tell you to pay – because moving off the cloud is harder than moving to the cloud. 

Third, privacy. Now, look: this is an argument that’s tossed around way too casually, often by people who’ve no idea what cloud-based privacy even looks like these days. Cloud providers know that data protection is a concern, and they’re constantly changing their game on that front. Whatever you thought about data privacy in the cloud six months ago is probably not true today. So you can’t just say, ‘Oh, we’re in ______ industry and we can’t store data in the cloud.’ You might be wrong. But, if you’ve looked into it recently, and you’ve found that you can’t meet your legitimate, concrete business requirements through a public cloud – well, then private cloud (or a plain old, non-cloud-style data centre) is obviously your only option.  

The case for hybrid cloud for business

This is the bet-hedging option, and it’s probably right for most companies. You simply look at those workloads that you can run in the cloud, and you run ‘em there. This does not make your data centre a ‘private cloud.’ It simply means that you’re pushing into the public cloud where you can. And this doesn’t even mean running virtual machines – you might outsource a portion of your identity management, for example, as Azure Active Directory offers. You might outsource certain backup and site recovery operations, or outsource certain data archival needs.

The argument against this ‘hesitant’ approach, as some would call it, is that you’re only going to see incremental gains, and some of those will be more about convenience than finances or another business-level concern. The cloud is a bit like the stock market: there’s obviously some risk involved, but investing $5 a month isn’t going to impress anyone. You need to go all-in, or at least significantly in, to see real results in anything less than a lifetime.

An analogy: Think of the cloud like the stock market

 The stock market is actually one of the best ways to think about the cloud. There’s risk to your business, of course. There’s also risk in not working in the public cloud to some degree – it’s just a risk that you’re comfortable and familiar with, so it doesn’t feel like risk. And, just like the stock market, the best way to mitigate risk is to become educated on the options. Like the stock market, the cloud market changes continuously, often with seemingly minor changes that don’t grab headlines (and are thus easy to miss), but can make a significant difference in your decision-making. Being able to navigate the cloud – like the stock market – requires a commitment to continual education and updating, so that you can make of-the-moment business decisions that provide a best-fit for your particular situation, at that particular time.

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Don Jones, Director of IT Operations at Pluralsight. Don’s IT experience comes from 20 years in the business, with a focus on Microsoft server technologies and is recognised as one of the top trainers in the Microsoft sector.