Authored by Ed Benson
Multi-cloud is the new reality for organizations and a requirement for large Digital Transformations. But what does “multi-cloud” actually mean? And with 92 percent of enterprises having a multi-cloud strategy today (see Flexera’s 2021 State of the Cloud Report), why is it so popular? What are the motivations and benefits and how do those balance against additional risks of having a more complex environment?
The meaning of “multi-cloud”
Multi-cloud simply refers to using different cloud providers for services like computing, storage, network, and/or software applications. Cloud Service Providers (CSPs) provide Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and—along with many other providers—Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions. Among the key benefits of adopting cloud solutions are agility and resilience. In the quest for the best end-user experience possible, these are key attributes that enable you to respond to customer needs quickly, while providing robust solutions. However, not all solutions can be found in one place. For the Agile Enterprise, multi-cloud has become an inevitability, not only through planned expansion but also through acquisitions where re-platforming to one provider doesn’t make sense.
The key drivers of multi-cloud adoption
Striving to meet business needs ever more quickly and cost-effectively has driven the adoption of cloud solutions. The flexibility, scalability, and low upfront costs are highly desirable and can drive real benefits for both the business and IT stakeholders. Some of these solutions are well planned and thought out strategically, while others have grown organically, sometimes without even IT management knowledge or sign-off. (For in-depth view on shadow vs. business-led IT, see Why CIOs should embrace a Business-led IT: Q&A with Ed Benson).
The desire for best-of-breed solutions or specific services drives the use of different cloud solutions from specific providers, as each has different features and functionality. Seeking the most cost-effective solution and avoiding vendor lock-in (where it becomes too difficult to change providers in the future) also drives organizations to adopt multiple cloud solutions. With the benefits of lower cost, better-fit solutions, and lower vendor risk, adoption of multi-cloud continues to increase, but so do the concerns.
The manifold concerns of multi-cloud environments
Major CSPs like Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, Google Anthos, and Oracle ERP Cloud, among others, all provide the same basic services around computing, infrastructure, and storage. However, the higher-level features around solution management, security, data transmission, workflows, and Artificial Intelligence are unique to each, and are managed differently. This causes issues with interoperability and portability of solutions between providers. While containerization of solutions and management with open source orchestration software like Kubernetes helps manage multi-cloud environments, each provider has different requirements, so this is not seamless. Cloud management platforms also exist—for example, Morpheus, CloudBolt, and Flexera—but these solutions have gaps and most organizations opt for cloud management tools with more limited functionality.
Similarly, while major CSPs have stout security, there are variations in the controls between them, further complicated in hybrid environments where security needs to be coordinated with on-premise solutions. Identity Access Management (IAM) becomes a more complex and higher-risk area, especially in highly regulated environments and compliance-heavy industries. On top of all the governance challenges, latency is also a concern as data flows between service providers, on-premise servers, and the customer’s computer.
Managing multi-cloud complexity to reap the benefits
While multiple clouds provide benefits, it behooves organizations to limit the proliferation of service providers to minimize the challenges. In-house expertise and capabilities should also play a part in the decision process. Building out those capabilities to manage and support new providers could be costly. Similarly, data governance is huge and becomes more challenging with more providers, proliferating data across multiple systems 5, 10, or more times to have local data for processing.
The flexibility and speed that multi-cloud provides, enabling organizations to meet the customer’s needs faster, far outweigh the challenges that the Agile Enterprise must face. Managing multiple clouds centrally and easily would be the panacea, but having a single pane of glass for data, monitoring, and security across multiple clouds is still in the future. However, with solid data governance, standardization, and transparent communication, multi-cloud solutions can be implemented with great efficacy, for the benefit of the line of business, the IT organization, and most importantly the customer. Planning and maintaining a multi-cloud strategy is critical to your organization’s ability to adapt in real-time to the ever-changing business environment.
Ed Benson, Management Consultant, Benson Consulting LLC
With over 20 years of experience in engineering and technology, Ed has worked in consulting and management roles at several information technology and financial services companies, including Catapult Systems, CitiGroup, Dell, and Farm Credit Bank of Texas. He holds an electrical engineering degree from Johns Hopkins University, and both an MBA and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas.