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Published: 12 January 2024
Contributors: Stephanie Susnjara, Ian Smalley

What is hybrid cloud architecture?

Hybrid cloud architecture refers to an environment that combines on-premises, private cloud, public cloud and edge settings to create a single, flexible managed IT infrastructure

As an architecture model, hybrid cloud plays a critical role in digital transformation, offering businesses a flexible, portable and cost-effective way to modernize existing legacy applications, deploy data and run workloads across multiple computing environments.

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How does hybrid cloud architecture work?

Hybrid cloud architectures are complex and vary based on individual business needs and use cases. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to architecting hybrid cloud infrastructures, they all share a mix of computing environments—both on- and off-premises—including the following: 

On-premises environments (“on-prem”)

A traditional form of computing that involves an organization running and managing computing resources, networking, storage and software on hardware and servers at its own physical location, such as in an office building or at an on-premises data center.

Private cloud environments

A cloud computing environment where all resources are isolated and operated exclusively for one organization. Private cloud combines many benefits of cloud computing with the security and control of on-premises IT infrastructure.

Public cloud environments

A type of cloud computing hosted by a third-party cloud service provider (CSP), such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, IBM Cloud or Google Cloud. These public cloud service providers host public cloud IT resources like individual virtual machines (VM) and other cloud computing services over the public internet on a pay-per-use basis. 

Many mid-sized businesses use more than one and most large enterprises use all three of the cloud provider services listed below: 

  • Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) delivers compute, network and storage resources to consumers on-demand, over the internet and on a pay-as-you-go basis. IaaS enables end users to scale and shrink resources on an as-needed basis, reducing the need for high, up-front capital expenditures or unnecessary “owned” infrastructure, especially in the case of workload spikes.
  • Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) provides a complete cloud platform (e.g., hardware, software and infrastructure) for developing, running and managing applications without the cost, complexity and inflexibility associated with building and maintaining that platform on-premises.
  • Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) refers to application software hosted on the cloud for end-user applications (e.g., Zoom, Dropbox). The SaaS service provider is responsible for operating, managing and maintaining the software and the infrastructure on which it runs. SaaS is the most common public cloud service and the dominant software delivery model. 
The evolution of modern hybrid cloud architecture

Before cloud computing, enterprise businesses stored data and ran software applications within their own on-premises data centers comprised of servers, networking hardware and enterprise software applications. This traditional infrastructure setup typically requires more power and physical space than cloud-based infrastructure. As cloud computing for business took hold, and the need for digital transformation increased, organizations began turning to hybrid cloud solutions to control costs and improve overall agility. 

The overarching goal behind a hybrid cloud model is to create the flexibility needed to move applications and workloads to the cloud and leverage cloud services based on compute needs and other circumstances. For instance, public cloud compute and cloud storage resources can scale up quickly, automatically and inexpensively in response to unplanned spikes in traffic without impacting private cloud workloads. This critical hybrid cloud feature known as “cloud bursting” supports companies with sudden surges in computing demand like online retailers, who often use cloud bursting to support increased traffic during flash sales.

Hybrid cloud vs. multicloud

While hybrid cloud architecture combines and unifies public cloud, private cloud and on-premises infrastructure, it’s not to be confused with multicloud—the use of cloud services from two or more cloud vendors within a single architecture. Multicloud offers enterprise businesses the freedom to pick and choose a combination of the best services to meet their needs. Multicloud also minimizes cloud vendor lock-in, which can cause performance issues, limited options and unnecessary costs resulting from only one cloud vendor. 

Most modern enterprise organizations leverage the capabilities of hybrid cloud and multicloud to create hybrid multicloud environments—the combination of public cloud, private cloud, on-premises infrastructure and cloud services from at least two cloud service providers.  

The building blocks of hybrid cloud architecture

The ideal hybrid cloud architecture provides a business with high-performance compute and storage capacity, low-latency network connectivity, virtualization and robust security. 

Beyond combining applications run on multiple resources (on-premises, private and public cloud infrastructure), hybrid cloud architecture consists of these other critical components.

1. Network connectivity

Network connectivity is a critical component of hybrid cloud architecture. Network connections enable the sharing of resources across multiple locations. 

Hybrid cloud connectivity relies on the use of the following technologies:

  • VPN (virtual private network) establishes a secure, point-to-point connection between two network endpoints (nodes). A VPN establishes an encrypted channel that keeps a user’s transferred data and identity and access credentials private over the internet. With a VPN, on-premises and private cloud infrastructure can connect safely over the public network with private, secure connections. 
  • WAN (wide area network) connects computers over a wide area, such as from region to region or even continent to continent. The internet is the largest WAN, connecting billions of computers worldwide. In enterprise business, a WAN connects offices, data centers, cloud applications and cloud storage together. A cloud-based WAN allows organizations to connect on-premises networks at their company offices and data centers with cloud-based storage, applications and other resources. 
  • APIs (application programming interfaces) are a set of defined rules that enable different applications to communicate with each other, acting as an intermediary layer that processes data transfers between systems. APIs allow companies to open their application data and functionality to external third-party developers, business partners and internal departments. In a hybrid cloud architecture setup, APIs are calls through an HTTP request between clouds to connect apps, databases and networks.
2. Virtualization

Modern hybrid cloud architecture relies on virtualization technology, which uses software to create an abstraction layer over the physical hardware to a virtual compute system, essentially creating multiple virtual computers known as virtual machines (VMs). Virtualization, first developed for business by VMware, is a critical component of enterprise cloud computing. It enables organizations to run multiple virtual computers, operating systems and applications on a single physical server. It also allows users to purchase computing resources on an as-needed basis and efficiently scale those resources cost-effectively as their workloads grow.

Beyond virtual servers, hybrid cloud architecture uses many other types of virtualization, including network virtualization. Network virtualization includes software-defined networking (SDN), which virtualizes hardware that controls network traffic routing (called the “control plane”). Network function virtualization (NFV) virtualizes one or more hardware appliances that provide a specific network function (e.g., a firewallload balancer or traffic analyzer), making those devices easier to configure, provision and manage. 

Virtualization also enables Infrastructure as Code (IaC), which automates the provisioning of infrastructure, allowing developers to develop, deploy and scale cloud applications with enhanced speed, less risk and reduced cost. 

3. Containerization

Containers—lightweight, executable application components that combine application source code with all the operating system (OS) libraries and dependencies required to run the code in any environment—also comprise an essential part of modern hybrid cloud architecture. Rather than virtualizing the underlying hardware like VMs, containers virtualize the operating system (usually Linux or Windows). 

With better portability and resource efficiency than virtual machines (VMs), containers have become the de facto compute units of modern cloud-native applications. Built to operate only in the cloud, cloud-native applications are designed by DevOps and other teams to be scalable and are comprised of microservices (also called microservices architecture). This means that a single application is composed of many smaller, loosely coupled and independently deployable components or services.

Microservices speed the development and deployment of software because each service can be developed and deployed separately. Many leading enterprises have moved from developing monolithic applications to microservices applications, such as Amazon, which uses microservices to track user activities, their history and other data to make real-time recommendations for better customer experiences.

4. Unified hybrid cloud management

Today’s hybrid cloud computing approach involves a unified platform for discovering, operating and managing on-premises, private and public cloud data and resources. A combination of hybrid cloud platforms and tools unify compute, storage, networking databases analytics and security functions to provide consistency and reliability throughout the diversified hybrid cloud landscape.

Common hybrid cloud platforms featuring pre-configured hardware, software and services include AWS Outposts, Google Cloud Platform, VMware Hybrid Cloud and Red Hat OpenShift. Each platform typically incorporates standard cloud technologies like Kubernetes to orchestrate container-based services and other software-based features. These unified management tools for monitoring, allocating and managing those resources from a single pane of glass provide an IT and network management strategy used to consolidate multiple monitoring tools and data feeds into a single interface.

Here’s a rundown of the critical functions associated with a hybrid cloud management platform: 

Resource management: Hybrid-cloud-managed service tools help stakeholders allocate and reallocate resources across on-premises and cloud environments based on application requirements. For instance, an organization like a financial institution can use a private cloud to keep sensitive customer information and use the public cloud to test new applications, such as mobile banking apps.

Workload orchestration: Hybrid cloud architectures use container orchestration tools (e.g.,  Kubernetes or Docker Swarm) to automate containerized workloads. These technologies help developers to quickly deploy, run and sync their containers on clusters of servers at different locations. They also enhance the scalability of containerized workloads, which means DevOps and other teams can automatically add the Kubernetes clusters that run containerized applications as needed, resulting in less downtime and optimal performance. 

Data integration: Hybrid environments gather and process data from various diverse sources, which calls for data integration—the process of combining data from multiple source systems to create a unified view.

Data management solutions for hybrid cloud include data analytics software platforms that collect, organize and analyze data using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Many of these data integration tools incorporate the design concept of a data fabric, which runs on top of the diverse technologies in a hybrid environment, combining data from multiple source systems to create a unified view. 

Data governance: Data governance tools provide another technology layer in hybrid cloud architecture for organizations to create and maintain policies and protocols that outline how their data must be stored, managed and used according to compliance and regulatory standards.

Security: Hybrid cloud security involves the technologies and best practices used to protect an organization’s sensitive information in an environment where data and applications flow across a combination of on-premises, private cloud and public cloud platforms. The security layer of hybrid cloud architecture involves technical controls like encryption, network authentication and management software:

  • Data encryption: Data encryption is used in hybrid cloud settings to protect sensitive data against data breaches or cyberattacks, including malware and ransomware
  • Identity and access management (IAM): IAM management tools are a standard method of authorization that create digital identities for all users so they can be actively monitored and restricted during all data interactions.
  • Security information and event management (SIEM): SIEM management tools provide security monitoring and observability consoles along with a comprehensive security orchestration solution that automates threat monitoring, real-time threat detection and response.
  • Disaster recovery (DR): Disaster recovery hybrid-cloud-based tools provide data protection for data backup, retention and retrieval to expedite the recovery of lost data and resume normal business operations.
Benefits of hybrid cloud architecture

A hybrid cloud architecture offers multiple benefits, including the following:

Agility and scalability

Hybrid cloud architecture boosts agility by rapidly allocating and de-allocating resources housed on-premises or in public or private clouds, making it easy to respond to changing business needs. Hybrid cloud also offers almost unlimited scalability up or down due to on-demand cloud resources.  

Business continuity

Hybrid cloud deployment optimizes business continuity by replicating mission-critical data to the cloud and enabling scalability during demand spikes, thus reducing downtime.

Cost savings

A hybrid cloud strategy can help lower capital expenses by shifting workloads to the public cloud to avoid the ongoing costs related to maintaining and upgrading legacy hardware.

Application modernization

A hybrid cloud environment offers the flexibility and security to enable application modernization—the process of updating legacy applications to scalable, cloud-native app environments. This allows applications to be built quickly, deployed automatically and updated regularly, thus avoiding waterfall development cycles.

Generative AI adoption

Hybrid cloud infrastructure accelerates generative AI and its heavy reliance on vast amounts of data and large language models (LLMs) by providing unlimited storage capabilities, compute power and rapid scalability.

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