How to explain multi-cloud in plain English

What is multi-cloud? How does it differ from hybrid cloud? What are the use cases and security concerns? Here's how to discuss multi-cloud strategy in plain terms with anyone
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Multi-cloud means using more than one cloud service from more than one cloud provider. Pretty simple as far as tech jargon goes, right?

Explaining why you’re using multi-cloud can pose challenges.

“Multi-cloud is exactly what it sounds like: the use of more than one cloud provider to run your applications,” says Mor Cohen, cloud CTO at Turbonomic. “Some organizations stick solely with one cloud provider, but others, in an effort to leverage all the options that cloud providers make available and the different specialties that each cloud brings to the table, utilize multiple clouds.”

So we’re done here, right? Not if we want to achieve a strong understanding of the term. While multi-cloud can be defined in a refreshingly basic fashion – in an industry not always known for that skill – IT leaders implementing multi-cloud strategies know that execution can be anything but basic. Explaining why you’re using it can also pose challenges.

[ Learn the do's and don'ts of multi-cloud: Get the free eBook, Multi-Cloud Portability for Dummies. ]

What is multi-cloud strategy? 

Note that Cohen’s definition and explanation isn’t really referring to organizations that meet multi-cloud’s simplest definition because they run a few SaaS applications from different vendors, and perhaps an app of their own in a public cloud. Moreover, it’s not just an organic byproduct of shadow IT, where different teams are spinning up their own environments independent of one another. Rather, multi-cloud – as Cohen’s definition indicates – will increasingly refer to an intentional choice. It’s not a fit for every organization, but its use cases are growing.

Notes Red Hat chief security architect Mike Bursell: “Although the multi-cloud model might seem to bring extra complexity, there are real benefits. These include the ability to control costs by scheduling workloads based on geography and time, reducing risk by having a more heterogeneous computing base, and avoiding lock-in to a particular vendor.”

“As the name implies, multi-cloud refers to the ability of an organization to run applications utilizing services from multiple [public] cloud providers or even private clouds,” says Rani Osnat, VP strategy, Aqua Security. “While many organizations might run applications on different clouds by virtue of separate teams having chosen different platforms or providers, true multi-cloud has come to mean having the capability to move an application between clouds, or even run an application across multiple clouds at the same time.”

[ Why are more organizations using multiple cloud providers? Read also: Multi-cloud: 5 important trends. ]

What are the top multi-cloud use cases?

“Multi-cloud” today does not typically mean an organization has gone full-blown cloud-native. A more common multi-cloud scenario, according to Tim Malfara, VP of hybrid IT and cloud services at Anexinet, might be a SaaS suite (such as Office 365 or Google Apps) for messaging and collaboration, another (such as Salesforce) for CRM, some workloads running in a public cloud (such as AWS or Azure), and other applications continuing to run on-premises.

Cohen from Turbomonic shares a similar perspective: “While multi-cloud is a popular term at the moment, the reality is that most organizations are a mix of multi-cloud and traditional on-premises infrastructure, with some workloads still residing on-premises, some with one [cloud] provider, and others with another.”

Cohen adds that there can be a cost-benefit trade-off: Operating multiple clouds effectively comes with greater complexity than more homogeneous environments, but with greater potential flexibility and other upsides. (The latter is the “why” of multi-cloud, which we’ll get to below.)

Our seemingly simple definition of multi-cloud becomes more complicated when we start adding other variables to these relatively common scenarios, such as the ready ability to move workloads between different clouds (both public and private) and, in some organizations, between cloud and on-premises environments.

“More advanced organizations build a hybrid cloud environment where applications can freely move between the different cloud providers based on their changing needs, changing demand, locality of users, compliance and regulatory constraints, and cost differences,” Cohen says. She notes that these organizations are often using cloud-centric technologies like containers and orchestration to enable this approach.

What is the difference between multi-cloud and hybrid cloud?

Did we really just gum up our straightforward definition of multi-cloud by adding “hybrid cloud” to the mix? We did, but it’s relatively easy to distinguish between the two related terms. Dan Juengst, senior principal technology evangelist at Red Hat, did just that in a recent blog post:

“A multi-cloud consists of multiple cloud services – public or private – from multiple cloud vendors that are not interconnected.”

“A hybrid cloud architecture combines two or more public or private cloud environments, where the different clouds are separate, yet connected. This means an enterprise can run some workloads in the private cloud, others in the public cloud, pull resources from either, and use the clouds interchangeably,” Juengst explains. “A multi-cloud consists of multiple cloud services – public or private – from multiple cloud vendors that are not interconnected.”

Ready to explain the why of multi-cloud - and why it fits your problem or situation? Let's break that down:

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.


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