Multi-cloud vs hybrid cloud – what's the difference?

With no shortage of cloud providers, we take a look at two of the most popular options for businesses

Several small clouds hanging from strings against a blue backdrop

Digital transformation efforts are underway across almost every industry, with the demands placed on businesses by the COVID-19 pandemic fuelling these projects. The accelerating pace of change has come in parallel with a shift to remote and hybrid working, and greater availability of devices and technologies, meaning cloud computing is playing a more pivotal role in business than ever before.  

The cloud has been essential to helping big businesses as well as small companies keep their IT infrastructure up-to-date, bolster security, and devise new ways to engage their customers.

Some of the biggest tech companies have been central to these efforts, including Google, Microsoft and AWS - with Oracle, IBM and VMware also providing cloud services. It's a wide field, with various competing forces vying for new business. As such, these entities themselves are also undergoing digital transformation efforts and reorganisations in order to stay relevant.

This is great for businesses, given the variety of options from which they can choose, with customers generally given more flexibility to fine-tune their IT estates in the ways which suit them best. In this respect, hybrid cloud and multi-cloud setups have become more and more popular since they allow businesses to deploy their apps and services as they see fit. The difference between these two regimes, however, is the involvement of private and public cloud services. We refer to private cloud as in-house and on-premise infrastructure, or managed services, while public cloud is offered by providers such as AWS and Azure.

Hybrid cloud

This is a combination of public and private clouds, with services and applications divided across the breadth of the infrastructure. Businesses can make use of hybrid cloud if they would prefer to host certain functions on a private network, while others might be more appropriate for a public cloud environment. Payroll software, for example, could be hosted on the public cloud, while sensitive data is perhaps best suited to a private cloud environment. These sorts of arrangements offer flexibility and another layer of security, as well as better latency sometimes, with private clouds tending to offer smoother connections.

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Spinning up some cloud instances for a time-limited project and turning them off when no longer required may be relatively inexpensive compared with provisioning extra capacity in an on-premise data centre. Long-term storage, however, can often be cheaper in a private cloud than in a public cloud, so businesses will need to dip into both depending on the circumstances. Local laws may also restrict what kinds of information might be stored in a third-party service, too, meaning organistions often appreciate the flexibility that hybrid cloud configurations offer.

Hybrid cloud used to be quite a niche model, with some industry watchers claiming it was just a step on the way to the full public cloud. Increasingly, however, it's becoming mainstream: A recent survey from RightScale estimated that the number of enterprises with a hybrid cloud strategy grew to 58% in 2019, up from 51% in 2018.

Pros

The hybrid cloud gives companies the reassurance that sensitive information, such as intellectual property or customer data, can still be stored and maintained within their own data centres. For organisations with lots of "cold" data - information that's accessed infrequently - it may also be cheaper to use a hybrid approach than full public cloud.

Cons

Hybrid approaches can be more technically difficult to manage, requiring IT departments to dedicate plenty of time and effort to configuration, planning, deployment and maintenance of two different platforms. On top of that, there's the arduous task of adapting in-house systems to work effectively with third-party ones. Security is also an issue with hybrid infrastructure, causing more major incidents than cloud-hosted applications or on-premise workloads. According to a 451 Research report, 51.8% of companies see hybrid cloud storage as less secure.

Multi-cloud

Multi-cloud differs from hybrid cloud in that it uses multiple public cloud environments rather than a mixture of public and private. For example, an application in a multi-cloud environment may run all compute and networking activities in AWS while using database services from Microsoft's Azure.

It's a complex way of operating, but one that's rapidly on the rise within the business world. According to an IBM survey, 85% of organisations are now using a multi-cloud business model, with 76% of those opting for multiple hybrid clouds - just to confuse things further. It doesn't stop there: IBM also predicts that the number of companies using a multi-cloud strategy will increase to 98% by 2021.

Pros

Without being tied to one provider, companies can operate and innovate at speed. If tied to one host, you may find that, although it's great for some things, it might not have the best of everything, which could limit your ambitions.

This also reduces the risk of vendor lock-in, as companies won't necessarily become dependent on one provider's technology.

Cons

The obvious problem with a multi-cloud environment is the 'multi' part, as the more you use the more complicated it gets. This could lead to mismanagement and result in increased costs and disrupt your business, not to mention, the more clouds you use, the more you'll need to secure.

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