Like so many marketing terms before it, multi-cloud is the latest IT buzzword that means everything and nothing all at once. The rush to pin the multi-cloud label on everything and the dire warnings that you need a multi-cloud strategy only serve to confuse IT pros and obfuscate today's real, technical cloud challenges.
Industry analysts and vendors are eager to claim that multi-cloud is not only the future -- it's here now. Yet ask them to define multi-cloud, and you're likely to get competing or even evasive answers. Many analyst firms, including IDC, help feed this confusion by defining multi-cloud broadly as the use of any cloud-based services, including SaaS. One vendor even inexplicably slapped the multi-cloud sticker on its existing hyper-converged infrastructure boxes. While it's true that today's businesses use a variety of cloud services, let's not roll back the clock to when the cloud was a mysterious concept.
There's no reason to confuse SaaS with IaaS or imply that a single term with such a broad definition is useful. Under this definition, an organization with a dusty old server closet could qualify for the multi-cloud label if it used both Office 365 and Box. That organization would face vastly different challenges and provide a much different level of IT service than a company that allows developers to spin up instances across multiple IaaS providers.
Saying organizations need a multi-cloud strategy to help manage SaaS subscriptions is like saying organizations need a multi-software strategy. The SaaS delivery model actually simplifies or eliminates many technical challenges for developers and IT professionals. It does present new administrative challenges and requires admins to look closer at user access, governance and billing. But these challenges aren't unique to a cloud delivery model. Used in this overly broad fashion, multi-cloud is nothing more than a checkbox for business leaders and a term serious IT professionals should ignore.
Remember when everyone needed a private cloud?
It seemed like only yesterday these same vendors and analysts were touting the advantage of private clouds. C-level executives heard the hype and told their IT teams to build one without understanding that a true private cloud has a specific definition -- one that emphasizes self-service portals, automated provisioning and chargeback. As a result, many IT admins just adopted the lexicon and began calling their existing virtualized data centers "private clouds." The business-savvy among them used the opportunity to justify a new virtualization management tool purchase. I poked fun at this trend in 2013, joking that, "we won't tell if you need to start calling your infrastructure a private cloud to get your boss off your back." Today's equivalent would be using your company's Office 365 migration to justify a new IaaS cloud management tool in the name of multi-cloud strategy. You're welcome.
Multi-cloud is a dangerous word
There's a problem with blindly adopting the multi-cloud vocabulary. It was easy to gloss over the technical gap between vanilla virtualization and private cloud, and it didn't matter much to executives so long as your infrastructure met business needs. Multi-cloud is a more dangerous buzzword because organizations still face difficult technical challenges to managing IaaS clouds.
Large-scale IaaS provider outages are rare, but how will you explain to the CEO that, while it's true Office 365 runs on Azure, your multi-cloud strategy doesn't include a contingency for an AWS EC2 outage? How will you articulate that egress fees make IaaS migrations painfully expensive after proclaiming to be a multi-cloud whiz? Broad definitions absent of technical discussion invite communication breakdowns that can hurt businesses and your career.
What should a multi-cloud strategy look like?
The challenges associated with managing multiple IaaS clouds continue to grow. If you thought keeping track of multiple SaaS bills was tough, try deciphering invoices from different IaaS providers. The problem with vendor lock-in also worsens as IaaS providers continue to expand their proprietary services and developer tools. Many IT admins are discovering they're locked in to multiple clouds as a result of pet projects, silos or shadow IT.
Unfortunately, many initiatives that aimed to set open standards and provide cross-cloud compatibility, such as OpenStack and Eucalyptus, have lost steam. But there's still room for hope. Amazon's reluctant acceptance of Kubernetes solidifies a common container orchestration platform across several IaaS providers. And many function-as-a-service platforms offer unbiased access to compute resources. Organizations don't just need multiple clouds or software delivered as a service. They need tools, standards or platforms that aim to abstract away the underlying infrastructure differences and allow multiple clouds to work like one. Whether we'll ever see wholesale commoditization of cloud infrastructure resources is an open question, but don't let today's multi-cloud hype distract from this goal.