The competitive arms race that is the public cloud market affords CIOs several options as they look to rent software and infrastructure. Differences in price, business requirements and feature sets often force IT leaders to solicit more than one cloud vendor to serve their business technology needs, which many refer to as multi-cloud strategy.
Most CIOs refer to a multi-cloud strategy as using two or more IaaS (infrastructure-as-a-service) platforms such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud Platform (GCP). Some IT leaders consider multi-cloud a single IaaS provider plus SaaS tools from Salesforce.com, Workday, ServiceNow and other vendors.
Gartner has a more formal definition of multi-cloud: The deliberate use of the same type of cloud services from multiple public cloud providers, says Gartner analyst David Smith. In this construct, a mobile app may dynamically move, via containers or other technologies between AWS or Azure based on prescribed business requirements. These portable apps are managed and monitored for uptime, reliability and security via a single dashboard.
Few enterprises check all of these boxes on Gartner’s multi-cloud rate card because such prescribed, dynamic scaling is hard to do, Smith says. Regardless of how you define multi-cloud, of the 52 percent of 1,200 respondents using public cloud, 81 percent work with one or more public cloud vendors, according to a survey Gartner conducted in November 2018.
Pros of multi-cloud
Multi-cloud strategies evolve differently, but most CIOs tend to implement a single public cloud vendor, then procure one or more vendors to hedge against lock-in to any one platform, says Gartner analyst David Smith. “Nobody wants to be locked in or hamstrung by taking advantage of cloud,” Smith says.
Flexibility and functionality are among CIOs’ key reasons for multi-cloud adoption. The Pentagon is preparing to make AWS the sole provider of its general purpose cloud infrastructure, but it also uses Office 365 and several “fit-for-purpose” public and private clouds, CIO Dana Deasy said in February. “It allows us to take advantage of all the new technology from the various commercial cloud providers and create applications that are a lot more resilient [and elastic],” Deasy said.
Zulily leverages GCP to run analytics and personalize offers to its retail consumers, but when a consumer makes a purchase, the transaction is executed in AWS, to which Zulily moved its warehouse management and other operations in 2018. Zulily CIO Luke Friang says AWS gives Zulily the ability to “innovate very fast on the tech side,” which in turn helps serve customers better.
Tired of managing the growing infrastructure requirements required to run his electronic health record software, Novant Health CTO James Kluttz moved his Epic system to a managed private cloud hosted by Virtustream. But he also leverages Azure for analytics and deep learning software and leaves the door open to adopt AWS or GCP based on business need.
“The holy grail is elasticity, but we may deploy in AWS today and tomorrow the financial drivers might be better in GCP or Azure,” Kluttz says, adding that it is incumbent upon IT leaders to avoid lock-in and maintain flexibility while adopting the cloud. He adds, “All-in with a single anything is short-sighted … but time will prove itself out.”
Cons of multi-cloud
Multi-cloud architectures include a series of trade-offs. Many CIOs are drawn to the cloud to reduce costs but savings becomes more challenging when migrating to a multi-cloud environment, says Sridhar Vasudevan, an Insight Enterprises principal strategist who counsels companies on how to implement cloud software. As a result, CIOs sometimes spend more than they intended, Vasudevan says.
Multi-cloud also ushers in more complexity. Containers and orchestration software may make apps portable, but their customizations and data (thanks to data persistence issues) may not make their way downstream to the next cloud. Moreover, traversing multiple clouds naturally courts more risks, at least theoretically, because more touchpoints widen the perimeter for security threats. “A lot of data is exposed when you go from one cloud to multiple,” Vasudevan says.
There is also the people problem to consider. Enterprises consuming compute services from AWS, Azure and GCP have a hard time fielding enough talent to support the security, compliance and government requirements for each platform, says Tolga Tarhan, CTO of AWS consulting partner Onica. Tarhan says he’s seen companies roll back a multi-cloud implementations 6 months into production because it’s hard to keep up with the work. “Teams must tool up in all of the platforms and build best practices for backups and security,” he says. “It can be challenging.”
True enterprise-scale, multi-cloud implementations are rare today, Smith says. Even so, many CIOs are well along the path of a multi-cloud journeys. For those that aren’t, Gartner analyst Lydia Leong and Insight’s Vasudevan offer the following recommendations when pursuing a multi-cloud strategy.
Choose strategic partners
Pick one a strategic provider for broad capabilities, but leave the door open to leverage more cloud providers. In fact, Leong recommends running pilot projects with multiple cloud providers. This will expose your IT department to the challenge of managing multi-cloud environments.
Educate business peers
Believing that cloud services are commodities, finance and sourcing organizations may try to pressure the business or IT to the cheapest service. CIOs must ensure that these leaders understand that a key value of cloud providers is their innovation and differentiation and that treating them like commodities will reduce business value, Leong says.
Set cloud policies
Craft a cloud computing policy that specifies what application workloads can be placed with cloud vendors, aligned to application type, application design and the application stack. What functions and features do you need today and in the future? Vasudevan says this will go a long way to addressing the challenges associated with bolting on new features in new cloud environments.
Integrate and iterate
Work with your DevOps teams to develop skills for integration between applications and data sources that live on different cloud providers, Leong says.
Carefully consider your vendor ‘lock-in‘ problem
Tactical applications do not usually benefit enough from cloud portability to warrant the development time and cost and may remain wed to one platform, Leong says. But if some of your apps may require greater portability, you’ll want to leverage containers, such as Docker, Kubernetes orchestration or Cloud Foundry PaaS.
Multi-cloud may provide some advantages, but CIOs need to perform a cost-benefit analysis and consider the myriad trade-offs. Or you can stick with one strategic partner — for now.
“My clients are still figuring out how to make a single cloud work,” Vasudevan says. And as clients build that out, he urges them to consider, “If you truly focused on developing the things your business needs in a single cloud, are you meeting pre-requisites for multi-cloud?”