What is multicloud?
Multicloud is the use of two or more clouds from different cloud providers. This can be any mix of Infrastructure, Platform, or Software as a Service (IaaS, PaaS, or SaaS). For example, you may consume email as service from one vendor, customer relationship management (CRM) from another, and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) from yet another.
Currently, most organizations — 85 percent, according to one survey — use multicloud environments. You might choose multicloud to address specific business requirements; you might also choose it to avoid the limitations of a single-vendor cloud strategy. For example, if you standardize on a single cloud vendor or approach for all of your IT services, you might find it difficult later to switch to a different vendor t that offers a better platform for application development and more competitive prices. And, if the vendor you’re locked into has an outage, it will affect your whole environment.
With multicloud, you can decide which workload is best suited to which cloud based on your unique requirements. Different mission-critical workloads (such as an inventory application for a retailer or distributor, a medical records repository for a healthcare provider, or a CAD solution for an engineering firm) have their own requirements for performance, data location, scalability, and compliance, and certain vendors’ clouds will meet these requirements better than others.
Multicloud versus hybrid cloud
Multicloud and hybrid cloud are distinct but often complementary models. Hybrid cloud describes a variety of cloud types. In a hybrid cloud environment, an organization uses a blend of public and private clouds, on or off premises, to meet its IT needs. The goal of the hybrid cloud is to get everything working together, with varying degrees of communication and data sharing to best run a company’s daily operations.
Multicloud refers to a variety of cloud providers. Each cloud may reside in its own silo, but that doesn’t prevent it from interacting with other services in a hybrid environment. In fact, most organizations use multicloud as part of their hybrid strategies.
A common hybrid/multicloud use case: your website and its load balancing solution run on public cloud IaaS, while the website connects to a user database and an inventory system on a private cloud on premises to meet security and regulatory requirements.
Pros and cons of multicloud
Speaking generally, the chief advantage of multicloud is the flexibility to quickly adopt the best technologies for any task. The chief drawback is the complexity that comes with managing many different technologies from many different vendors.
Multicloud’s inherent flexibility offers a number of benefits, including risk mitigation, optimization, and ready access to the services you need.
Multicloud helps mitigate risk in two ways: by limiting exposure from a single vendor approach and by preventing vendor lock-in. In a multicloud environment, if a particular provider’s cloud experiences downtime, the outage will affect only one vendor’s service. If your hosted email is down for a few hours, services from other providers, such as your website or software development platform, can still run.
Multicloud also lets you choose the service that best suits your needs. One service might offer extra functionality or employ a security protocol that makes it easier to meet your compliance requirements. Or, all things being equal in security and functionality, you might choose the provider with the best price.
Another significant multicloud benefit is access to technology. For example, if you lack the budget to deploy an analytics solution on premises, you can access it as a cloud service without the up-front capital expense. This also means you can get the service up and running more quickly, accelerating your time to value.
Similarly, when you have the freedom to choose any provider for any solution, you can access new innovative technologies more quickly than you might be able too from a single vendor’s catalog, and you can combine services from multiple providers to create applications that offer unique competitive advantage.
The more clouds you use — each with its own set of management tools, data transmission rates, and security protocols — the more difficult it can be to manage your environment.
You may lack visibility into entire applications and their dependencies. Even if some cloud providers offer monitoring functions, you may have to switch between dashboards with different APIs (interface rules and procedures) and authentication protocols to view the information you need. Cloud providers each have their own procedures to migrate, access, and export data, potentially creating serious management headaches for administrators.
Multicloud management platforms address these issues by providing visibility across multiple provider clouds and making it possible to manage your applications and services in a consistent, simplified way. Through a central dashboard, development teams can see their projects and deployments, operations teams can keep an eye on clusters and nodes, and the cybersecurity staff can monitor for threats. You might also consider the adoption of microservices architecture so that you can source cloud services from any mix of providers and combine them into a single application.
Multicloud use cases
The number of multicloud use cases is expanding quickly. Multicloud helps you meet a virtually infinite number of business goals.
For instance, you may choose to develop and test applications on multi-tenant public cloud infrastructure to speed access to compute and storage resources and optimize costs; but, you may choose to deploy your applications on a dedicated cloud environment from another vendor that offers more compelling security and compliance features, or on a bare metal environment that meets specific performance requirements.
For data storage, you may choose one vendor for data that is frequently in transit and a different vendor for data archiving because the costs may vary significantly with data in motion versus data at rest. Or, you may want the freedom to move your data off a given cloud vendor in response to new regulations or other unforeseen events.
When you develop a multicloud strategy, architecture is a central consideration. Architecture decisions you make today will have repercussions far into the future. Careful planning and vision are required to avoid architecture that may eventually work against you by constraining your ability to scale, make changes and upgrades, and adopt new technologies.
When designing your multicloud architecture, consider factors such as where data resides, who has access to it, and from where. If certain applications are spread across different clouds, take into account the API formats and encodings for each cloud and how you can create a seamless experience for IT administrators and users alike.
You should also account for the geographic spread of your applications, databases, and web services to make it easy to access and manage your data regardless of location. You’ll also want to consider how far data travels and create a flow with the lowest possible latency.
While multicloud environments help modernize IT environments, making them more agile and flexible, they also create challenges because of the differences between cloud providers. For instance, you have to address ownership boundaries — where do your management and security responsibilities end and where do those of the cloud providers begin?
- Integration: Some cloud services may operate seamlessly out of the box, but many are bound to require some level of integration, especially if you are linking them to other resources within your IT environment, such as a website or database. For the environment to operate optimally, you will have to address differences between each cloud in areas such as APIs, containerization, features, functions, and security protocols.
- Portability and interoperability: Are you able to migrate components to more than one cloud without having to make major modifications in each system? Once components are moved to a cloud, you also may face challenges of interoperability with your on-premises systems.
- Latency: Where data resides, its proximity to user, and the distances it has to travel all contribute to latency issues. If users experience delays in accessing applications and databases as a result of latency, productivity may suffer, and that would be counterproductive to using a multicloud approach that is supposed to deliver benefits like agility, flexibility, and efficiency.
- Privacy regulations: Regulations sometimes require you to use security controls like encryption when transmitting and storing data. Regulations also may restrict where you can archive personal data (such as medical, financial, and human resources records), so you need to know where the cloud infrastructure is located and whether it complies with relevant data-handling laws.
Security challenges associated with multicloud
One of the biggest challenges you’re likely to face with a multicloud environment is security. Cloud providers have appropriate security controls and tools in place to protect their services, but it’s up to you to implement proper protocols and solutions to secure data when it sits in your on-premises environment and when it travels back and forth to the cloud.
Your multicloud security plan needs to include authentication policies to ensure users access only the cloud-based resources they need for their jobs. And since using cloud services gives user access from any device, you also have to secure the mobile devices your employees use to connect to the services.
Each multicloud environment is different, so some level of security customization is usually necessary. Whatever your customization requirements, visibility into the entire multicloud infrastructure is critical, enabling you to monitor the environment at all times to ensure data is being accessed properly, that security vulnerabilities are addressed, and cyberattacks are prevented.
Strategy for multicloud
As you build and expand your multicloud environment, it’s wise to set strategy to maximize benefits and prevent complexity. It’s easy to lose control of a multicloud environment without a proper management strategy. Currently, fewer than half of organizations with a multicloud environment have a management strategy and only 38 percent have the necessary procedures and tools in place.
Setting a strategy starts with deciding which workload belongs in which cloud so you can achieve optimal data resiliency. Resiliency refers to how you handle and back up data to ensure business continuity in case of data loss.
Part of your strategy should cover how to manage APIs to achieve interoperability between multiple clouds and on-premises systems. Typically, cloud services come with API lifecycle solutions that include centralized management and flexible deployment options for multiclouds and on-premises environments. But getting everything to work together will require some configuration expertise.
Your multicloud strategy should cover the migration of on-premises services to the cloud and any modifications you have to make so they can run in a cloud environment. It should specify rules and best practices for building, testing, and running applications that will interact with your cloud services. Lastly, the strategy should cover security controls, practices, and solutions that ensure a safe multicloud environment.
Key technologies of multicloud
In a multicloud environment, the use of software containers solves portability issues and accelerates application deployment.
A container is a small file that packages together application code along with all the libraries and other dependencies that it needs to run. By packaging together applications, libraries, environment variables, other software binaries, and configuration files, a container guarantees that it has everything needed to run the application out of the box, regardless of the operating environment in which the container runs.
The consistent application of open standards across clouds makes containerization ideal for moving applications within a multicloud infrastructure. Since the application can run in any environment, you can take its container from an on-premises environment and place it on any public cloud infrastructure for the purpose of cloud bursting, a process that allows you to scale up when you run out of capacity. In another scenario, if you need to run an application in different places across a multicloud environment, containerization enables you to do so with efficiency and consistency.
According to a recent study, 57 percent of surveyed organizations are using containers today (link resides outside IBM). To deploy and run multicloud efficiently, enterprises will look to adopt management solutions that leverage open standards like Kubernetes to give them full visibility and control across environments in a consistent and repeatable way, regardless of the vendor or infrastructure they choose.
To get the most value out of your multicloud environment, you need a data storage strategy. You can run your storage infrastructure either on premises, in the cloud, or use a combination of both depending on your specific needs.
Cloud storage adds flexibility and scalability, but data privacy or archiving regulations may limit what types of data you can store in the cloud. Privacy laws differ between states, countries, and regions, and, in some cases, specify where data can be saved. For instance, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) places severe restrictions on how to handle and store data of EU subjects outside the region’s borders, so many companies simply opt to keep the data within member countries.
Other considerations regarding multicloud storage revolve around management of stored data. You may have multiple storage locations to keep the data as close to users as possible but, of course, using multiple sites adds complexity. Thankfully, management solutions are available that bring consistency and order to cloud storage no matter how geographically dispersed your storage network is or how many clouds it uses.
As IT environments expand across geographic zones and multiple clouds, getting everything to work together efficiently is a priority. Automating management of a multicloud environment eliminates manual tasks and with them the chance of human error, improving efficiency and operational consistency while freeing up staff for strategic work.
While multicloud offers plentiful benefits, as already discussed, it can create silos and added complexity, making it difficult to monitor your entire IT environment. Even when a cloud provider offers monitoring, the capability is limited to that provider’s cloud, which means other parts of your cloud environment stay in the dark from an administrative standpoint.
To address the issue of visibility, vendors have started introducing monitoring tools that give you a comprehensive view of your multicloud environment. You should select a management tool as early as possible in the process of implementing a multicloud environment. Trying to manage a multicloud without full visibility is likely to result in performance issues that will only get more severe the longer they are allowed to exist— and poor performance can discourage customers from doing business with your organization.
To help you choose a tool that best suits your needs, Gartner has assembled a set of criteria (link resides outside IBM) to evaluate monitoring solutions.
Multicloud and VMware
One way that organizations can gain visibility into their multicloud environments is by leveraging VMware’s multicloud solutions. From a central console, you get a unified view of the health, performance, and security of all your applications and services wherever they are located within the multicloud infrastructure.
When leveraging VMware solutions, you can accelerate software development through the use of containers that make it possible to run applications seamlessly in different environments. Within the VMware environment, you also can leverage microservices that enable quick changes to applications and Kubernetes, which automate application deployment and management.
Some organizations are using VMware multicloud solutions in conjunction with a cloud provider to develop and manage containerized applications in a customized multicloud infrastructure. This approach makes it possible to scale the environment on demand and manage it from the centralized VMware console.
Multicloud and IBM
IBM supports multicloud strategies for application development, migration, modernization, and management with a range of cloud migration and integration technologies, services, and consulting offerings.
IBM Cloud Satellite allows you to deploy and maintain applications across multicloud environments consistently with more global visibility and less management complexity. Satellite offers a fully managed set of core application services that run across all cloud environments including on-premises, edge and public cloud. You have the flexibility to build and run applications in the cloud environments where they make sense to you, with faster time to market, scalability and reliability.