Multi-cloud vs. hybrid cloud: What's the difference?

Explore multi-cloud strategy and how IT leaders use it in concert with hybrid cloud
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The increasing buzz around the term “multi-cloud” prompts a reasonable question: Is this just another way of saying hybrid cloud? Is this another IT rendition of: “You say tomato, I say toe-mah-toe?” Not quite.

While multi-cloud and hybrid cloud are closely related, they’re not one and the same.

What is multi cloud?

“Multi-cloud is one wherein you mix and match cloud services from different providers, often to meet specific workload needs, but not connected or orchestrated between them,” says Radhesh Balakrishnan, general manager, OpenStack, Red Hat. On the other hand, hybrid cloud means “a mix of on-premises private cloud and third-party public cloud with orchestration between these two,” says Balakrishnan.

[Need help explaining hybrid cloud pros and cons to colleagues? See our related article, 4 hybrid cloud misconceptions, examined.]

Regardless of your own specific definition of hybrid cloud, or your particular mix of private cloud, public cloud, and traditional datacenter, Balakrishnan is tapping into a helpful distinction between the two: Multi-cloud is more of an overarching mode of implementing and managing cloud, whereas hybrid cloud refers more specifically to the underlying technology portfolio.

"Multi-cloud is inherently multi-vendor."

“Multi-cloud is more of a strategy,” says Kelly Begeny, channel manager at DSM Technology Consultants. She also notes that multi-cloud is inherently multi-vendor: “You’re not going to find one particular vendor that says: ‘Here is our multi-cloud.’”

Begeny, similar to Balakrishnan, views hybrid cloud as the underlying mix of private (both on-premises or managed/hosted) and public cloud environments that enables CIOs to match and move workloads to the right environments at the right times, depending on their specific business and technology needs. A multi-cloud strategy might be a great enabler of a hybrid cloud model, but they’re not the same thing.

If you’ve had to explain the terminology to colleagues, you’re not alone. “Our technology industry loves its buzzwords, and I think a lot of IT folks do get confused as to what is what,” says Ed Featherston, VP and principal architect at consulting firm Cloud Technology Partners. “From my view, anything that is in a public cloud that still integrates/communicates/exchanges data with systems that are not part of that cloud is hybrid. Hybrid doesn’t necessarily imply other clouds, as there will also be some amount of legacy systems or systems external to ‘the cloud apps.’ Multi-cloud is a form of hybrid,  but is a specialized term used to connote running in multiple different public cloud environments, usually in discussions of avoiding lock-in to a single cloud vendor.”

Why use multi-cloud?

With that in mind, let’s look at why CIOs are pursuing multi-cloud strategies, often in concert with their hybrid cloud approach.

For many, it’s about more fully realizing the powerful potential of cloud and giving IT teams increased flexibility with and control over their workloads and data.

“[A] multi-cloud strategy allows an organization to meet specific workload or application requirements – both technically and commercially – by consuming cloud services from several cloud providers,” Balakrishnan says. “Not every department, team, business function, or application or workload will have similar requirements in terms of performance, privacy, security, or geographic reach for their cloud. Being able to use multiple cloud providers that meet their various application and data needs is critical as cloud computing has become more mature and mainstream.”

"Business units may begin using a cloud provider for a particular project, then IT will need to fold use of that provider into an overall cloud plan."

IT may see geographic benefits to using multiple providers, to address app latency concerns, for example. But another reality is that some business units may begin using a cloud provider for a particular project, then IT will need to fold use of that provider into an overall cloud plan.

Additionally, vendor lock-in concerns and possible cloud provider outages are two issues that pop up frequently when IT leaders advocate for multi-cloud strategy.

“Multi-cloud strategy can be an enabler for preventing vendor lock-in, a means to avoid single points of failure and downtime, or simply a mechanism to consume unique innovations from several providers,” Balakrishnan says.

Indeed, one interesting data point in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture capitalist Mary Meeker’s 2017 Internet Trends report is that while CIO security concerns regarding public cloud providers are trending down, concerns regarding vendor lock-in are trending up. In 2012, 42 percent of respondents cited data security among their top three worries, but only 35 percent did in 2015. And while 7 percent cited vendor lock-in concerns in 2012, 22 percent did so in 2015.

Begeny also sees a multi-cloud strategy – which to her always means “multi-vendor,” too – as a way of mitigating vendor lock-in risks. But that’s actually a secondary benefit, says Begeny. She believes the real advantage driving multi-cloud strategies is greater flexibility and agility to adapt to the breakneck pace of modern business.

“If your business needs change, your cloud can change with them” with a multi-cloud strategy, Begeny says. It’s not just a business enablement strategy, either. It’s also an IT-forward strategy. “Technology and cloud are changing so rapidly, and [they are changing] a lot. If you are less locked down, you will be able to grow with technology. You will be able to grow with the cloud. You will have a lot more options and flexibility. It’s a really good business case.”

What are multi-cloud challenges?

Multi-cloud, like any significant IT undertaking, involves hurdles that can trip you up without proper planning. CIOs need to be mindful of two key issues early on in a multi-cloud strategy, Begeny says: Choosing the right vendors and the doing initial migration, especially if you’re making a significant move from a traditional data center to multiple cloud environments.

Balakrishnan also stresses the need to be precise in your vendor selections and thoroughly understand potential platforms in terms of differences in pricing, security and compliance, and other areas.

“Not all clouds or cloud providers are created equal. So, challenges arise from having to deal with different management portals and processes,” he says. “CIOs need to ensure compliance when each provider is different, secure the environment from threats, and compare various pricing and billing options of providers.”

Maybe CIOs aren’t begging for another term in the cloud vocabulary. But you can expect multi-cloud to stick, and to be increasingly used in concert with hybrid cloud models.

“It is the future because nobody is going to want to just be sitting on one thing,” Begeny says.

Also read: The changing face of the hybrid cloud

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.