As cloud awareness and adoption grow, more enterprises are beginning to appreciate the benefits of using multiple cloud platforms.
Going multi-cloud brings a variety of advantages. The approach lets an enterprise tap into only the best parts of individual cloud platforms and mix together an infrastructure that meets its specific needs. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, a multi-cloud environment can be configured to provide a rapid failover capability. Even if one host fails, business operations can continue running at full speed by immediately switching to another platform already incorporated into the multi-cloud system.
"Other benefits for deploying a multi-cloud strategy include reduced costs, greater elasticity and high availability," says Ellen Rubin, CEO and co-founder of cloud storage provider ClearSky Data. "Being able to easily engage multiple cloud providers to meet your exact application needs is nirvana for IT teams," she adds.
A multi-cloud approach also gives adopters a higher degree of operational flexibility. "One of the risks of using a single cloud provider is lock-in, where the enterprise might find itself unable to easily offload or move applications to other cloud providers or on-premises," says Amir Jerbi, CTO and co-founder of Aqua Security, a container security company. "So adopting a multi-cloud strategy is key to maintaining flexibility and agility.
According to the 2017 State of the Cloud survey released by cloud management platform provider RightScale, 85% of enterprises now have a multi-cloud strategy, up from 82% in 2016.
Motivation for cloud adoption usually begins from a tactical vantage point and is guided by an effort to better access and connect data that lives in various places, explains John Considine, IBM's general manager of cloud infrastructure services. The effort often evolves into an even more strategic vision. "Many enterprises started by adopting public cloud infrastructure to boost IT efficiency and reduce costs, but they have quickly moved beyond that to modernizing applications and building cloud-native solutions that leverage AI, IoT, Blockchain, serverless and more," Considine says. "This strategic vision requires integrated platforms, industry solutions and a multi-cloud approach."
New management tools
The biggest roadblock to multi-cloud adoption has been a shortage of reliable management tools, leaving IT departments to cobble together their own management approaches. This situation is now changing as vendors such as Cisco, RightScale, VMware and BMC Software begin offering tools that help enterprises gain blanket control over their multi-cloud environments.
The new management platforms fulfill several critical needs in a rapidly evolving cloud environment. Juggling multiple cloud providers offering a wide range of pricing models, security and compliance policies, service-level agreements (SLAs) and support policies is a big undertaking for enterprise IT teams that are accustomed to controlling and managing every aspect of their on-premises environments. "While enterprises are working hard to realize their cloud deployment benefits, if they don’t take an active daily role in managing and monitoring their cloud projects, they will fail," Rubin says.
A typical problem enterprise managing multi-cloud workloads encounter is not just virtual machine (VM) sprawl, but VM sprawl spanning several locations. "This can cause spend to get out of hand, with teams spinning up apps and VMs in various clouds," says Jason Monden, vice president of application services at cloud service provider HyperGrid. A strong multi-cloud management platform gives adopters tighter control over VM deployment.
New multi-cloud adopters also face the danger of creating silos, with teams working separately from each other, unnecessarily duplicating work and costs. A multi-cloud management platform enables managers and staff across the entire enterprise to easily view all cloud-related services and activities, boosting efficiency and eliminating needless expenses.
Multi-cloud management tools also make it easier to manage the lifecycles of applications hosted in multi-cloud environments. "Each cloud has its own infrastructure configurations, APIs and services," observes Dave Cope, cloud marketing chief at Cisco. Having to custom-configure applications and write cloud-specific scripts for each environment makes it costly and complex to migrate applications to multiple clouds.
Yet another challenge facing multi-cloud adopters is the growing need for strong governance and security measures. "Companies need to think seriously about how their rapidly changing business processes impact integrations, identity management and compliance," says Laurent Bride, CTO of cloud and big data integration for Talend, a cloud data integration software provider. "With the volume of data being generated in the cloud today, ensuring metadata consistency is a key part of any enterprise IT shop’s list of to-dos."
IT leaders at global businesses must also tackle the additional challenge of dealing with data deposited in multiple locations. For such organizations, creating a geographically-distributed multi-cloud strategy requires adhering to the specific rules and regulations of the countries where cloud data will eventually reside. In Europe, for instance, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) places a heavy emphasis on data privacy and sets stiff fines for non-compliance.
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The global multi-cloud era also brings with it expectations surrounding rapid application performance, even when data is scattered across multiple clouds in disparate locations. "This translates into selecting the right geographically located cloud service provider that will best process the data where is it stored in order to reduce latency," Bride says. "When thinking about data movement, the actual computation needs to be close to where the data is stored."
While a management platform should enable users to successfully address the myriad challenges of handling workloads in multi-cloud environment, it also needs to be easy to deploy and use. "It's draining and wasteful to manage separate consoles, so a platform that offers commonly understood and actionable management capabilities is critical," says Tim Prendergast, CEO of Evident.io, a provider of public cloud compliance and security solutions for AWS and Microsoft Azure platforms. "A customer should look for a solution that allows them to see their environment as a whole, not just as individual tools."
A single pane of glass view of all workloads is generally regarded as the most effective and easiest to use type of multi-cloud management interface. "Be sure the single pane supports all of the clouds in use today and a few that might be employed in the future," Monden says. Other key features to look for in a multi-cloud management offering include ease of migration to and from the cloud, bi-directional access and trouble-free integration into the organization's existing infrastructure. "Enterprises must be able to easily, securely and economically access data from the cloud," Rubin explains.
It's also important to select an agile management platform that can adapt quickly to market changes without forcing the adopter to rework its business-wide cloud architecture. The platform should also offer the flexibility and portability needed to allow development work designed for one cloud platform to be easily reused on other cloud platforms. "Additionally, compliance and security can be difficult to maintain across clouds, so look for a management platform that ensures governance and includes identity and access management," Bride says.
With cloud security growing increasingly stronger and ever more complex, a multi-cloud management platform should be able to effortlessly, yet securely, handle complex roles carrying varying levels of authorization. "A good multi-cloud management tool needs to integrate with identity management tools to accommodate an appropriate level of design, deploy and monitor privileges," says Madhan Kanagavel, founder and CEO of cloud file sharing service FileCloud.
Kanagavel notes that full support for public, private and hybrid clouds is also essential. "More vendors, such as Microsoft Azure Stack, are announcing platforms that run on a public/hybrid/private cloud," he explains. "Management of public clouds alone is not sufficient," he says. Simplified metering and billing is another benefit a multi-cloud management platform can provide. "The billing methods and metrics—even within one provider—are so complex that any abstraction to reduce billing complexity will be very helpful," Kanagavel says.
A multi-cloud management platform should be extensible enough to support an array of different technologies and provider protocols. "It must support cloud VM deployment, storage, networking, user authentication and authorization, container technologies and analytics,"Jerbi says. "From a cloud perspective, it must support the main providers: AWS, Azure and GCP, and common virtualization technologies such as VMWare, Xen and Azure Stack."
Prendergast recommends testing cloud management platforms in live scenarios against real environments and workloads. "The solutions that are most efficient will rapidly deliver value within your first day of use and seamlessly tie into your operational and SDLC-oriented systems to embed practice and policy together," he says.
The time is now
Enterprises are already well past the stage where they look at the cloud in isolation or strictly as a cost-saving initiative, Considine notes. "The role of cloud is changing and has moved beyond pure infrastructure-as-a-service to become the platform for innovation and business value," he says.
For most organizations, it is no longer a question of "if" but "when" it comes to shifting workloads to multiple cloud providers. "As long as IT shops and businesses do their homework and understand their data footprints, the migration process, the performance requirements and costs and operations their multi-cloud environments will thrive," Rubin says.John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic ... View Full Bio