Cloud services are now well established in enterprises, but different companies are using these storage and services solutions in radically different ways. A small company, or one new to the cloud, might have just one cloud provider. At the other extreme, other companies have already implemented “multi-cloud” environments that use cloud-native applications built from containers alongside microservices that utilize component services from many different cloud providers.
This kind of multi-cloud infrastructure can have many advantages, and not least the ability to build a truly bespoke system from scratch. In fact, and as we’ve pointed out in our article on hybrid cloud infrastructure, “cloud solutions are dramatically changing the way we design redundancy, resiliency, and disaster recovery,” because “the cloud changes the fundamentals of base designs.”
In this article, we’ll take a look at the most common types of multi-cloud environments, their benefits, and how to manage them.
The Market for Multi-Cloud Infrastructure
To understand the different types of multi-cloud infrastructures available, it’s first worth making a distinction between multi- and hybrid-cloud systems. Hybrid cloud has traditionally been used to refer to a combination of private and public cloud systems, and the deployment of managerial tools to negotiate between them. Multi-cloud goes further, and takes a more strategic approach, combining the use of many small services into one bespoke system.
Though the term multi-cloud is a relatively new way of thinking about these systems, it is a new name for an old practice. In reality, most companies are already using multi-cloud solutions, whether they call them this or not.
In a survey by analyst firm Forrester on behalf of Virtustream, for instance, it was shown that 86% of respondents characterized their firms’ strategy as multi-cloud, in that they used “multiple public and private clouds for different application workloads.” A similar survey, the annual RightScale State of the Cloud Report, found a more complex picture. Though 90% of their respondents reported using cloud infrastructure in at least part of their operations, far fewer were using multi-cloud approaches. Of companies using multiple clouds, 60% said that they used hybrid models, and just 20% a true multi-cloud model.
Companies using multiple clouds are generally using one of three systems. Among public cloud solutions, RightScale's reports show Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the clear leader, with Microsoft Azure increasing in popularity but still some way off. Among private cloud providers, Vmware is way out in front thanks to its vSphere private cloud software.
The Advantages of Multi-Cloud infrastructure
When it comes to the advantages of multi-cloud systems, it’s worth pointing out, first and foremost, that all of these are essentially types of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), and that the advantages of SaaS apply to all types of multi-cloud architecture.
According to software research group Blue Tree, there are many different SaaS business models, but the ability to avoid up-front costs along with ongoing code management are shared by them all. Similarly, there are many security advantages to cloud infrastructure that apply regardless of what approach is taken to its implementation.
On the other hand, cloud service providers tend to make their systems ‘sticky’ – that is, lacking compatibility with their rivals. Whilst this makes good commercial sense, it is also one of the major reasons why companies are now adopting multi-cloud models. As Gartner analyst Michael Warrilow puts it: "Most organizations adopt a multi-cloud strategy out of a desire to avoid vendor lock-in or to take advantage of best-of-breed solutions... We expect that most large organizations will continue to willfully pursue this approach."
Security is another consideration behind the adoption of multi-cloud infrastructures, and the EC council has pointed out that as companies transition from DevOps to DevSecOps, they tend to move to a multi-cloud system in order to segment their systems. This segmentation also has benefits when it comes to resilience. In Spiceworks' recent Public Cloud Trends in 2019 and Beyond survey, the Big Three cloud providers were ranked similarly on 'Maximum uptime,' but each was down for at least 300hr a year. By splitting cloud services across multiple platforms, companies can avoid their entire systems being offline at once.
Managing Multi-Cloud Infrastructure
In addition to the many benefits of multi-cloud infrastructure, there are some downsides.
The most apparent are the challenges involved in monitoring multi-cloud environments. As we’ve pointed out before, “as complexity increases — as it inevitably does with multi-cloud — monitoring what is happening in all the different cloud environments becomes much more difficult.”
The ability to monitor these environments is decreased if multi-cloud adoption occurs in an ad-hoc manner, rather than being planned from the outset. The Forrester survey from 2018 shows that roughly half of firms have adopted multi-cloud systems on the fly, rather than this being a planned move. Using multiple clouds in this way greatly complicates the security management of internal communication, which are often a target for cybercriminals.
Companies, to their credit, are aware of these difficulties. Spiceworks' report on Public Cloud Trends in 2019 and Beyond survey showed that 'managing multiple cloud solutions' was of major concern for businesses, who also said that they need more support from cloud vendors in this area. This finding was more pressing for small and mid-size businesses than enterprises, who can generally deploy the resources necessary to lock down this kind of complex system.
The Future of Multi-Cloud Systems
As the adoption of multi-cloud systems increases, some security providers have developed systems for monitoring them, and an increasing number of providers are making their cloud applications compatible across different cloud platforms. These developments promise to eliminate some of the problems with this type of infrastructure while retaining its advantages.
This means that, in the near future, multi-cloud environments have the potential to become the best of both worlds: giving companies the mobility and agility of cloud-based solutions, whilst also allowing the development of bespoke, business-specific software.