In-depth

What is multi-cloud?

With so many cloud offerings out there, it can pay to take a pick-and-mix approach

For some years now businesses of all sizes have been adopting cloud services, either as part of a drive to modernise their IT infrastructure through digital transformation or starting out in the cloud as so-called cloud native companies.

Moving to the cloud has been much discussed on the very pages of IT Pro and in all manner of technology-oriented conferences and gatherings and for good reason. Not only can some off loading of on-premise IT infrastructure reduce operation costs and maintenance complexity for IT departments, it also allows organisations to operate in a more agile and flexible fashion.

Cloud services help facilitate flexible working thanks to easy access to virtual machines and workplace environments, as well as providing a slick means to collaborate without emailing documents and files back and forth. While it might seem like a phrase uttered by a marketing department or salesperson, cloud services truly do have the potential to transform a business.

But there is rarely a one-size-fits-all cloud service that can simply be rolled out across an organisation to solve all its IT needs. This is where multi-cloud comes to play.

The multi-cloud concept

As the name would suggest, at its most base level multi-cloud refers to the practice of using multiple cloud services at the same time.

This shouldn't be confused with hybrid cloud, which involves mixing public and private cloud platforms to extract the benefits of both rather than opting for one over the other. Rather, multi-cloud combines multiple public and private cloud environments, each chosen with a specific workload or set of workloads in mind.

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For example, an organisation might use a private cloud to house its most sensitive data or information that needs to stay within specific national borders as per data regulations such as GDPR. At the same time it might use Salesforce's cloud-based customer relationship management services to handle its CRM functions, while Google's G Suite or Microsoft's Office 365 provide the productivity tools for an organisation that wishes to facilitate easy document sharing and collaboration for its employees.

The same company's website could be hosted on Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure public cloud infrastructure, with the scope to scale compute resources depending on demand. App development and testing, meanwhile, could be carried out on the IBM Cloud, supporting DevOps teams as they create cloud-based apps.

Given many businesses are now data rich, a private deployment of the SAP Cloud Platform, which includes the HANA in-memory relational database management system, could be used to not only process that data in a secure cloud-based environment, but also run analytics on it to gain useful business insights.

Finally, if the organisation uses a lot of contractors, then cloud-based virtual machines from the likes of VMWare could be used to spin up virtual desktops and apps for them to use, without needing to provide dedicated hardware-linked desktops and workplaces.

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Having a multi-cloud infrastructure is arguably a means by which to drive digital transformation within an organisation without running the risk of opting for a few services that do not quite fit the demands of an enterprise.

What are the benefits of multi-cloud?

The most prominent benefits of multi-cloud is flexibility. Given the myriad cloud services out in the market, with each one offering all manner of different services and features, it can be difficult just to select one or two and be sure you have the best suite of digital services and cloud-based infrastructure in place.

As such, being able to essentially mix and match different cloud services can lead to a more comprehensive cloud strategy than if just a couple of "comprehensive" products were chosen. The multi-cloud approach also has the flexibility to allow for change in some areas without needing to overhaul or migrate entire swathes of infrastructure or data from one core cloud service to another.

A multi-cloud approach also avoids vendor lock-in, whereby an organisation is beholden to using a limited number of cloud services due to the function and technology they provide and thus at the mercy of the provider ramping up its prices or forcing unpalatable service agreements on its existing customers.

What are the disadvantages of multi-cloud?

With flexibility comes complexity, and that is the most prominent disadvantage of a multi-cloud infrastructure.

While managing cloud services and infrastructure has become more streamlined in recent years, having several to look after at the same time is never going to be a simple task.

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Managing a complex portfolio of cloud services can end up putting increased strain on an IT team, rather than freeing them up to pursue one of the great promises of the cloud: Pursuing tasks and technologies that provide a more direct benefit to the business.

There are services that can provide management systems to oversee and control multiple cloud services at once, delivering a so-called "single pane of glass" from which all cloud services in an organisation's operation can be managed from. Of course, this is an additional cost that will need to be considered when deciding whether to take a multi-cloud approach to IT.

Indeed, cost in general is another major disadvantage of multi-cloud: Having multiple specialised cloud services and systems rather than a couple of heavily-featured cloud platforms, could be an expensive undertaking. As such, there needs to be a balance of cost per service and the advantages specialised cloud systems can deliver.

Managed service providers can help here, bundling multiple cloud services into a single package and thereby keeping overall costs manageable, but again an IT team and other business decision-makers will need to measure up the costs versus benefits.

Regardless of the advantages and disadvantages of a multi-cloud approach, more companies appear to be taking their IT strategies down that route, with IBM noting that 85% of organisations now use a multi-cloud IT model.

As such, if your business is undertaking a digital transformation push, then the multi-cloud approach is worth giving some careful consideration.

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