The multi-cloud reality is here already. We just need to deal with it.
Cloud computing: pros and cons
As cloud computing has matured the advantages of public cloud have become reasonably well understood. They include the low cost of entry, the ‘as-a-Service’ OPEX-oriented billing model, practically “unlimited” scale, comparatively fast time to deploy, a level of ease of use, and access to cutting edge services (such as machine learning).
Increasingly, the disadvantages of public cloud are becoming more widely understood as well. These include lock-in (both contractual and technological lock-in), a lack of cost transparency (with complex, non-intuitive billing and potentially ballooning costs for high I/O), a potential performance penalty relative to workloads that are in closer proximity, the lack of true data sovereignty offered by global players and the complexity of integration with on-premises data and apps.
Then reality dawns
However, is it realistic to think in terms of public cloud as a single vendor scenario? As much as any organisation may want to go ‘all in’ on any one particular public cloud vendor, the reality is somewhat different. Although CIOs may dream of unified infrastructure standardized on one or two strategic vendors, the reality of enterprise infrastructure is that applications will be split between disparate public clouds, certain specialist SaaS environments, legacy on-premises resources, and in all likelihood elements of private cloud and non-cloud (mainframe, sparc, etc) as well.
IT organisations have to focus on three main challenges:
- The OLD: 80% of IT budgets (or more) are often spent maintaining legacy environments, many of which are unlikely to be migrated to the cloud anytime soon, if at all.
- The NEW: With what little budget is left for innovation, there are often unrealistic expectations. The digital transformation agenda in many organisations assumes a level of skills as well as cultural harmony and support that simply don’t exist and a level of control and direction that is often illusory at best – as shadow IT so often demonstrates.
- And REALITY: Almost all organisations are already in a heterogenous, multi-cloud situation and are likely to be in one for the foreseeable future, so need to get on and deal with it.
This can seem daunting, and this multi-cloud reality may be deemed a dream by some and a nightmare by others, but it needs to be addressed all the same. In a world driven by developers, no CIO can dictate a monogamous cloud relationship. So the IT function needs to focus on minimising collateral damage and trying to unify cloud capabilities, as much as is possible.
Multi-cloud has many advocates, including IDC. “Connecting cloud environments with ad hoc bridges in a hybrid fashion won’t be enough in 2018. Nor will standardizing on one external provider, at least for large or innovative companies. Developers and line of business require ‘best of breed,’ and the purchasing department wants to avoid being locked in,” said Giorgio Nebuloni, research director, IDC European Infrastructure Group (see here).
For these advocates, multi-cloud is not only the best way to improve disaster recovery and failover, but is also a great way to optimise workloads based on the strengths of each particular cloud platform. They argue that multi-cloud shares all the advantages of public cloud (stated above), but given that no one cloud platform is best for all use cases, it allows you to match each workload to a ‘best fit’ environment – playing to the strengths of each.
These advocates also argue that multi-cloud overcomes many of the disadvantages of public cloud (stated above) as well. Hedging your bets can help you overcome both contractual and technological lock-in, while enabling you to play providers off against each other. Putting workloads in their ‘best fit‘ environments can also reduce operational risks and interoperability challenges.
This leaves us with only a small number of remaining potential disadvantages to address:
- Latency: there is a potential performance penalty incurred by integrating a number of public clouds via the Internet relative to ‘clustering’ systems in closer proximity within a campus like environment. This can be mitigated by using a community campus that houses a large number of critical workloads and datasets in close proximity. A case in point is the clustering of UK public sector workloads in data centres operated by Ark that are used by the government’s own JV Crown Hosting, as well as by leading cloud providers like UKCloud, IBM and others.
- Data sovereignty: while the public cloud providers only offer a level of data residency, customers can achieve full data sovereignty by opting to use a UK-based cloud provider, particularly for their most sensitive or critical workloads.
- Procurement and supplier management (including billing and cost transparency): tools to allow for cost management are increasing in their sophistication, but you can also opt to use a single provider for as much of your requirements as possible to simplify billing. There are some providers, such as those in the community cloud or community campus environments mentioned above, where a full set of multi-cloud options can be offered under a single roof.
- Integration: this remains the biggest problem for multi-cloud environments. There are few shortcuts here, but strategies for mitigation can include opting to use a provider that can offer multi-cloud options under a single roof as above – so that you can enjoy the choice of cloud platforms, but have a single throat to choke at the same time – or by seeking a provider that has a track record of customer service excellence, where support for management and integration issues is best in class. Such high-level support can also help mitigate the skills gap experienced by many customers when first adopting cloud native technologies or where seeking to support multiple technology stacks.
The argument in favour of specialist community-focused cloud providers, such as the afore-mentioned clustering of UK public sector workloads and providers around Crown Hosting, is eloquently explained in this video by IBM, but IBM is just one of the providers offering multi-cloud options from these facilities, so you not only have a choice of cloud platforms, but also have a choice of cloud providers as well – leading to healthy competition that drives innovation and keeps prices low. All the same you need to choose your provider wisely!
The sooner that organisations realise that multi-cloud is a reality, the sooner they will be able to take steps, such as those listed above, to address the challenges of multi-cloud, embrace the many advantages and mitigate the small number of disadvantages. Indeed, the multi-cloud reality is here already. We just need to deal with it.