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What is Multicloud?

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Today, most enterprises have a multicloud IT environment. In other words, they use more than one public cloud or private cloud.

Some people use the word multicloud to refer to all three main types of cloud computing — software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and infrastructure as a service (IaaS). By that definition, virtually every organization on the planet is deploying a multicloud strategy, because nearly every organization uses at least two SaaS providers.

It is more common to use the word multicloud in reference only to IaaS and PaaS. A company is said to be adopting multicloud architecture if it has more than one private cloud, utilizes multiple public cloud vendors or has both public and private clouds.

For deeper insight on multicloud, see our articles on multicloud strategy, multicloud trends, and multicloud benefits.

Multicloud Use

A survey conducted by RightScale, which used the second definition of multicloud, found the following:

  • 81 percent of enterprises have a multicloud strategy.
  • On average, these large organizations use 4.8 different clouds.
  • 64 percent of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) take a multicloud approach.

Frequently, organizations end up with a multicloud environment by accident. One group of employees decides to use a particular cloud vendor for a particular project, and then another group of employees selects a different vendor for another project. In some cases, the IT department might not even be aware of all the different clouds being used by their employees. This sort of shadow IT represents a big risk for companies, because it makes it difficult to manage costs, control access or properly secure applications and data.

Other times, organizations adopt a multicloud strategy on purpose in order to meet business goals, such as avoiding vendor lock-in or ensuring business continuity. And some people establish multicloud environments because they want to create a full-featured hybrid cloud.

Multicloud vs. Hybrid Cloud

Although disagreement persists about the exact definition of hybrid cloud and multicloud, most cloud computing experts make a distinction among the two.

Both terms refer to an IT environment where more than one cloud is in use. However, a hybrid cloud always has both a public cloud and a private cloud. Multicloud, by contrast, can be any combination of public and/or private clouds. Thus, a hybrid cloud can be considered a kind of multicloud.

In addition, the most important point of differentiation is that a hybrid cloud is set up with a single purpose in mind and managed as a single entity, while that may or may not be true for multicloud. In a hybrid cloud setting, the private cloud is configured just like the public cloud so that workloads can easily move from one to the other.

For example, some organizations establish hybrid clouds for disaster recovery purposes. The public cloud environment exactly (or as close as possible) mirrors the in-house private cloud so that operations can continue as normal after failover in the event of an emergency. Other hybrid clouds are used for archiving, cloud bursting or for application development with development and testing housed in the public cloud and production workloads moved back in-house.

By contrast, most non-hybrid multicloud environments serve many different purposes. Some workloads run in one cloud and others run in another because of cost considerations, security and compliance needs, or for other reasons. And while IT may have tools that allow it to manage and monitor multicloud architecture, most multicloud situations are not unified in the same manner as hybrid clouds.

Hybrid Cloud

Multicloud

Always includes both public and private clouds

May include public and private clouds, multiple private clouds or multiple public clouds

May have just one vendor

Usually has multiple vendors

Both clouds are serving a single purpose

Different clouds usually serve different purposes

Workloads can easily move from one cloud to the other

Workloads may or may not move from one cloud to the other.

Benefits of Multicloud

Organizations choose to pursue a multicloud strategy for a wide variety of reasons, including the following:

  • Cost savings. Public cloud pricing is complicated, and while AWS might have the lowest price for some workloads, Azure or Google may be a better deal in other situations. A multicloud approach allows companies to match each workload with the best price.
  • Flexibility. In the same vein, one vendor may have a particular service that is superior to other vendors’ offerings. In multicloud architecture, organizations can look for the best fit for specific cloud workloads rather than restricting themselves to a single vendor.
  • Avoiding vendor lock-in. Vendor lock-in is one of enterprises’ biggest cloud concerns. They worry that they could become so tied to one vendor that it could become difficult to move elsewhere. Consciously choosing to spread your workloads among different vendors makes this less likely.
  • Reliability. While they have very impressive availability numbers, public cloud services can and do get knocked offline. Organizations worry about what could happen in the case of a natural disaster, an equipment failure or even a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack if all their workloads are running in the same cloud. Using multiple vendors reduces the likelihood that all of your applications would experience downtime at the same time.
  • Security and compliance. Not all data needs the same level of protection. In some situations, certain data must stay in a company’s own data centers or in data centers within the same country for compliance reasons. Multicloud allows companies to match their workloads with an appropriate level of protection.
  • Proximity. Multicloud approaches also allow organizations to utilize cloud data centers that are close to users. This can reduce latency and improve performance, as well as helping to address some compliance concerns.
  • Employee satisfaction. Some developers or other employees have preferences for particular cloud vendors. A multicloud strategy makes it easier to allow staff to use the tools and services they prefer, provided that cost and security targets are met.

Disadvantages of Multicloud

Clearly, a multicloud approach also comes with some significant drawbacks, including the following:

  • Complexity. Multicloud environments are far harder to manage than single-cloud environments. IT will likely need new orchestration and monitoring tools to keep track of all the different workloads running in different places.
  • Increased management costs. Those new tools and all the time it takes IT to manage the disparate clouds is going to increase operating expenses. If enterprises aren’t careful, they may find that their TCO is actually higher when using multiple providers, even though they are able to get very low rates on their services.
  • Security. While a multicloud environment may have some security benefits, a bigger network — much of which is not under IT's control — will by its very nature be more difficult to secure. Again, the company may need new tools to defend its systems, which could also drive up costs.
  • Talent scarcity. With so many employers in need of workers with cloud computing skills, many companies struggle to find workers with in-depth knowledge of a single cloud vendor. If they are looking for IT pros who know several different vendors well, that makes the recruiting process even more difficult — and potentially costly.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Multicloud

Pro

Con

·   Potential cost savings

·   Flexibility

·   Potential security improvements

·   Employee satisfaction

·   Avoiding vendor lock-in

·   Proximity

·   Greater reliability

·   Potential high TCO

·   Complexity

·   Potential security risks

·   Talent scarcity

Tips for Managing Multicloud Architecture

To help manage the complexity and costs associated with a multicloud strategy, experts suggest a number of tips:

  • Rely on automation and orchestration. Many of the automation tools used by DevOps teams also make life easier when dealing with multicloud architecture.
  • Use containers. Having applications packaged with all their dependencies increases portability and can simplify management.
  • Consider a cloud service broker. These tools and services can help you match workloads to the most appropriate cloud vendor.
  • Invest in a multicloud management tool. Having a single pane of glass to manage all of your clouds can be invaluable in keeping costs under control, and tools that make use of artificial intelligence can be particularly helpful.
  • Create an API management strategy. Multicloud architecture means dealing with many different APIs from different vendors; you'll need a plan for dealing with them.
  • Keep integration in mind. When selecting vendors or creating new applications, you'll need to consider how you'll integrate data and applications residing in different clouds.
  • Build your in-house team. You'll need IT pros with strong cloud computing skills to manage your multicloud architecture, so plan to build out your team over time.
  • Reevaluate regularly. Just because a particular vendor was the best choice for a particular workload at one point in time doesn't mean that this will continue to be the case forever. Public cloud vendors are adding capabilities and changing prices all the time, so you'll need to revisit your decisions on a regular basis.

Multicloud Costs and Multicloud Billing

Attempting to understand the costs of multicloud is a new – and vexing – challenge for most companies. But it's certainly a challenge with which most firms would welcome more help. 

The problem is that the concept of multicloud is relatively new, so a system of multicloud billing has yet to become standardized across the industry. Companies very much want such a solution: understanding cloud computing costs is a complex topic even with a single vendor, much less a handful.

At this point, multicloud billing is euphemism for “let’s add up all our individual cloud bills.” Even as you read this there are certainly IT managers doing exactly that.

A related problem is that individual cloud vendors have little interest in multicloud billing. Neither AWS, Microsoft Azure or Google offer multicloud billing that encompasses other providers. They issue their own invoices with no regard for any other contracted service. That these fiercely competitive cloud vendors would work together to provide a unified multicloud bill is highly unlikely.

However, while multicloud billing software has yet to be standardized, it’s probable that this tool will see great strides in the years ahead. The rapidly growing sector of cloud management platforms offers an array of cost monitoring tools. These include solutions from Rightscale, Scalr, BMC and several more.

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