How to explain hybrid cloud in plain English

What is hybrid cloud? Experts share some straightforward definitions you can use when explaining or discussing hybrid cloud with colleagues, customers, or anyone
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hybrid cloud explained

Hybrid cloud can be a tricky concept to explain to others – especially if they don’t work in IT – because there isn’t a consensus definition of what hybrid cloud is and is not.

Hybrid cloud is an IT architecture that incorporates some degree of workload portability, orchestration, and management across a mix of public cloud, private cloud, and/or on-premises (or bare metal) servers.

Most definitions describe some mix of public cloud, private cloud, and/or on-premises (or bare metal) servers; they also often include some level of integration or orchestration between these different environments. There have been attempts to come up with a standard explanation, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s original definition of cloud computing in 2011.

As Gordon Haff, technology evangelist at Red Hat, explained recently, the NIST definition of “hybrid” was based pretty much entirely on the idea of flexing out from a private cloud to a public cloud to handle a load spike. That’s still a possible use case, but times and technologies evolve, and there’s a wider range of possibilities for hybrid cloud today. (In fact, as Haff notes in the definition below, hybrid doesn’t actually have to include on-premises servers.)

In that sense, a fluid definition is quite reasonable: It can be adapted for emerging technologies and strategies. Regardless of how you specifically define hybrid cloud, though, it’s definitely a thing: In a recent Everest Group survey of 200 enterprises, 72 percent of respondents said they have a hybrid-first or private-first cloud strategy.

[ Learn the do's and don'ts of hybrid cloud: Get the free eBook, Hybrid Cloud Strategy for Dummies. ]

Yes, capacity surges might be one reason to use a hybrid cloud strategy, but it’s not the only one. Scott Sneddon, senior director and evangelist of multi-cloud solutions at Juniper Networks, notes that some enterprises want to be able to put some workloads in a public cloud but keep a tighter rein of some data, whether for compliance or proprietary reasons or otherwise. Hybrid cloud also allows enterprises to achieve a scale that they might otherwise not be able to support on their own.

“Hybrid cloud gives IT professionals more control, with greater options and flexibility for deploying workloads in a way that makes the best use of on-premises investments and budget,” Sneddon says.

So, you can expect hybrid cloud to be a continued conversation topic in IT and business contexts. Let’s share some straightforward definitions you can use when explaining or discussing hybrid cloud.

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What is hybrid cloud?

“Hybrid cloud is a term used to refer to the IT setup or architecture – and connection of – two or more types of IT environments, which use both on-premises datacenter and cloud environments, whether public or private.” –Ryan Murphy, VP and North American cloud center of excellence leader at Capgemini

“Hybrid cloud takes advantage of system interoperability, which describes multi-environment software solutions that can utilize disparate computing environments in concert, like a self-hosted system cooperatively using data with a cloud system, for example.” –Daniel Herndon, senior product manager, cloud infrastructure at Laserfiche

“A hybrid cloud represents a set of resources that are distributed across disparate environments. A subset of the resources are deployed in a data center (often referred to as on-premises/on-prem) that is managed by an organization themselves, while the other set of resources are deployed in a public cloud.” –Onkar Bhat, technical staff member at Kasten

“Hybrid cloud is a computing environment that connects a company’s on-premises private cloud services and third-party public cloud into a single, flexible infrastructure for running the organization’s applications and workloads.” –Scott Sneddon, senior director and evangelist of multi-cloud solutions at Juniper Networks

“While cloud computing in general retains many of the characteristics originally identified by NIST – self-service, flexibility, scalability, and so forth – it has expanded to encompass a much richer set of cloud-native services that can vary across providers. Thus, while a hybrid cloud often does often include some level of on-premises compute and storage, it doesn’t have to. Instead, it can refer to some combination of public cloud provider(s), software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications, content delivery networks (CDN), and other types of outsourced capacity and capability – typically integrated to a greater or lesser degree.” –Gordon Haff, technology evangelist, Red Hat

[ Related read: Hybrid cloud by the numbers, 2020: 10 stats to see ]

How to explain hybrid cloud to non-technical folks

Most technical folks probably don’t need a nuts-and-bolts breakdown of hybrid cloud architecture, but it’s still useful to be able to translate the concept for others in the organization – perhaps the CFO’s office, or folks concerned about regulatory compliance, or any department whose digital services and strategy will depend upon your hybrid cloud infrastructure.

Here are some ways to explain it to them.

The Toyota Prius comparison

“Hybrid cloud” might sound like part of a weather report to people outside of IT.

But most people probably have a basic understanding of a hybrid car: It’s a combination of a gas-powered engine and electric vehicle technology.

Herndon notes that hybrid cars offer a middle ground for drivers. Electric vehicles today can be a leap too far for many car buyers: “It requires adding a charging station to your home. It has a shorter range. There are fewer cars to choose from, and in many cases, they cost more than their combustion engine counterparts,” Herndon says.

Hybrid vehicles allow drivers to have some of the benefits of an electric vehicle – you won’t stop buying fuel entirely, but you’ll likely buy less of it – without having to go all-in on the electric vehicle.

“Hybrid cars like the Prius helped the American public bridge the gap, conceptually, culturally, and in terms of time between the combustion engine and the latest generation of electric vehicles,” Herndon says. “I believe hybrid cloud systems will play a similar role for enterprises that want to take an alternate road to the cloud.”

The electric utility analogy

Murphy likes to explain one aspect of cloud in general by noting that it has been moving IT to more of a consumption-based model, similar to a power utility: You don’t need to own and operate a power plant in order to turn all of your lights on. (Longtime cloud industry watchers will note this utility analogy has been made - and debated – in the past. You can still use it judiciously.) Murphy notes that this is as much true for software as it is for hardware or infrastructure.

“You don’t necessarily have to own the entire environment, which is not the case with your own on-premises data center,” Murphy says. “You can buy some of those services from someone else, much like electricity. You can buy it as you need it, or you can use it as you need it.”

This comparison also helps to introduce non-technical personnel to some of the “why” of hybrid cloud, including the flexibility it allows. The metaphor needs some tweaking here, but it remains a helpful reference point: It’s sort of like if you relied on the electric utility for some of your power, but had your own generator for some needs.

While the consumption-based IT model may be growing, many enterprises will still manage some systems in a private cloud or another on-premises environment. So you might only pay for your lighting when you flip the switch on, but you still own and operate your refrigerator (rather than rent space in someone else’s refrigerator) and keep it running 24-7. Moreover, you’re the one in control of those choices.

“The complexity is: How do you decide which part of the ecosystem to manage, purchase, and use?” Murphy says. “While there’s a lot of change in the environment, striking the right balance for your organization also allows for more responsiveness and flexibility for the business and end customers.”

The moving day example

This one might be helpful if you do count resource utilization and capacity planning among your hybrid cloud use cases – a common example would be handling seasonal or unexpected surges. (This is the “load spike” scenario.) Most days, your regular car gets you to and from where you need to go. But what if you move from one house to another, for example, or you need to move a lot of stuff in or out of storage?

Few people buy and maintain a large truck for such scenarios, just to have it sit idle most days of the year. In IT and business, there might be more “moving days” than in a typical household. But buying and operating a ton of physical infrastructure just in case you might need it at some vague point in the future is sort of like parking an 18-wheeler in your driveway just in case you need to relocate cross-country five years from now.


“Think about a hybrid cloud as a means of transportation when moving to a new house,” Sneddon says. “In normal circumstances, a car works for you to transport things back and forth, but when you’re moving, you might need some more room, so you rent a trailer. It works with your existing car while giving you the additional space you need for this temporary situation. Even though you don’t own the trailer, you are able to use it. This is what companies do when they build a hybrid cloud.”

[ Learn more about hybrid and multi-cloud workload strategy: Get the free eBook, Multi-Cloud Portability for Dummies. ]

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.