Ten years ago the concept of ‘cloud technology’ was largely alien to businesses, who up until then had utilised their own data centres for storing and sharing data. Some even said cloud technology might never catch on. Fast forward to the present day and not only are the majority of organisations using the cloud in some form, but many are using multiple cloud services at the same time.

A recent study from IDC, surveying 6,100 organisations in 31 countries, showed that ninety-five per cent of respondents have now built an infrastructure that uses, “multiple private and public clouds based on economics, location and governance policies”. In simple terms – a growing number of businesses are adopting multi-cloud. What the stats don’t show however, is that many CIOs and IT leaders aren’t fully aware of this development and struggle to describe what multi-cloud actually is. Some are even unaware that their own organisation is already using multi-cloud.

With the ever-changing nature of business, it’s crucial that CIOs and IT leaders understand the multi-cloud services their organisations are utilising, or the benefits they can provide. With any leadership change, the difficulty of inheriting responsibility for these applications, databases and infrastructures increases, but an understanding can minimise this difficulty and expedite business processes.

Often different cloud providers and provision resources are chosen by the various teams across a business, each to best suit their individual needs. These decisions occasionally happen with little or no input from an organisations IT department, this is known as shadow IT.

So what does multi-cloud actually mean, why are businesses adopting it, and why do some IT experts not even realise they are using it already?

Multi-cloud: it’s in the name

To give ‘multi-cloud’ an exact definition – it is a term which applies to any digital environment where applications are deployed across two or more cloud platforms. These can include any combination of private clouds (whether powered by OpenStack, Microsoft Hyper-V or VMware); public clouds (such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services or OpenStack); or dedicated servers.

Despite becoming an increasingly common architecture, the term ‘multi-cloud’ is often used interchangeably with ‘hybrid cloud’, while in fact they are different entities entirely. Hybrid cloud is actually a specific type of multi-cloud architecture. It usually refers to a digital environment that combines public or private cloud platforms with more-traditional deployment models, such as managed or on-premise hosting, and includes orchestration among the various platforms.

Multi-clouds, multi-benefits

While by definition, ‘multi-cloud’ introduces more IT complexities through sheer scale, using multiple clouds can offer businesses several significant benefits including:

  • Best-of-breed infrastructure –  A multi-cloud strategy gives the flexibility of being able to select the best-suited cloud service for each department’s workload. This in turn means enabling the business to meet the unique requirements for each specific use case, instead of being constrained by one cloud framework.
  • Reduced risk of vendor lock-in – By investing in multiple cloud providers, businesses have more choice as to where they run their cloud workloads, giving them leverage to minimise price increases and other risks related to sticking with just one vendor.
  • Disaster mitigation – If a business properly utilises multiple clouds, they can minimise the risk of application downtime or widespread data loss as a result of a localised failure.
  • Added geographical data flexibility – The leading cloud providers all have data centres across the globe, however some companies may require that data for specific workloads resides within certain national boundaries. A multi-cloud strategy means businesses can easily meet those requirements, while still engaging with a global cloud platform.
  • Innovation – Organisations that host their legacy applications on older infrastructures can turn to the public cloud for innovation. As these older processes often run at capacity, public cloud can enable innovation without interfering with the day-to-day digital business operations.

More clouds, more challenges

Despite the numerous benefits that a multi-cloud strategy can bring to a business, it isn’t without its share of difficulties. As mentioned, the chief obstacles introduced by multi-cloud relate to additional complexity by definition of having more than one cloud. These include:

  • Expertise – It’s true that learning the ins and outs of the infrastructure and lingo of more than one cloud can be challenging, especially for a smaller company. Meanwhile, bigger companies are faced with tremendous competition to retain the specialised engineers and architects who are versed in each cloud, meaning that even they often struggle to keep the required skills. However, this isn’t a burden that IT departments need to shoulder alone and it doesn’t need to get in the way of benefiting from multiple clouds.
  • Integration – It can be challenging to integrate public clouds built with different platforms. For example, Azure is based in Windows, whilst AWS’ code is founded on Linux.
  • Administration and Vendor costs – The more clouds a business adopts, the more contracts they would need to manage with their vendors, resulting in increased administrative interfaces, potentially complicated cost tracking and additional billing management.
  • Security – With more than one cloud being employed, a single security solution may not cover them equally, resulting in additional planning around security and governance.
  • Right choice – A business would have to ensure it has chosen the correct cloud providers for the appropriate workload, such as more processing intensive cloud solutions for data analysts.

It’s a multi-cloud future

Despite the benefits and challenges, multi-cloud is here to stay. The key to navigating this digital environment is making sure that businesses are working with people who have the knowledge and expertise to execute multi-cloud successfully. This could mean employing third party cloud experts, or training existing IT staff with transferable skills that can be adapted to different cloud technologies. Businesses need to ensure they work with people who understand the array of services offered by the leading providers, their strengths and weaknesses and how they map to their specific needs. Although multi-cloud may begin by accident, IT leaders should embrace it sooner rather than later to protect themselves against security risks and access the many advantages.