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Are orgs shifting from a cloud-first to hybrid-first policy?

While cloud-first gained popularity for its scalability and cost efficiency, the hybrid-first approach acknowledges that not all workloads are suited for the cloud. Which is better?

The journey to cloud has typically started with a hybrid approach -- enterprises test the capabilities and costs of various offerings that enhance existing on-prem systems. But, as confidence in the cloud grows, enterprises are increasingly adopting a cloud-first policy that prioritizes investments in cloud computing.

Hybrid is often required when there are regulatory constraints, existing on-premises investments, ultra-low latency needs or a desire to modernize legacy systems gradually.

Nick Kramer, leader of applied solutions at SSA & Company, a global consulting firm, said, "Many enterprises, particularly in financial services, government and healthcare, are forced into a hybrid model because of existing, legacy technology platforms that simply cannot be migrated to the cloud in the foreseeable future."

However, many in these regulated industries are realizing that cloud providers are better at security. Kramer said this is helping to accelerate a shift toward the same focus on cloud-first strategies championed by startups and digital-native firms. Aside from security, a cloud-first strategy can improve cost, flexible scalability and performance.

Still, considerable work will be required to transition from a hybrid to a cloud-first approach.

Which is better: cloud-first or hybrid?

Each approach has its merits, depending on the situation. Cloud services enable companies to get started quickly and with minimal investment. Increasingly, Vadim Vladimirskiy, CEO and founder of Nerdio, a cloud management solution provider, sees more enterprises use a cloud-first approach due to its flexibility and quick time-to-value.

However, those contemplating a hybrid approach that combines on-premises and cloud workloads might find that it takes more time and upfront expense to deploy. Hybrid remains a viable option for many firms where it can help optimize cost and performance. Certain workloads might benefit from being on-premises due to data proximity.

Going hybrid doesn't mean fully reverting to on-premise solutions, it's more about finding the right balance between on-premise and cloud services.
Vadim VladimirskiyCEO and founder of Nerdio

Also, enterprises might have compliance-driven requirements to keep certain data and applications outside the public cloud for regulatory purposes. On top of this, some enterprises might already have certain stable, steady-state workloads that run more cost-effectively on premises.

"Going hybrid doesn't mean fully reverting to on-premise solutions, it's more about finding the right balance between on-premise and cloud services," Vladimirskiy said.

How to decide

Enterprises must consider their current infrastructure and future goals when considering a hybrid or a cloud-first strategy. A lot depends on the company's current tech debt and invested IT infrastructure.

"The more that is already running within the company's four walls, the more likely a hybrid approach will be optimal," said John King, a partner in Lotis Blue Consulting's business transformation practice. Many companies have highly customized systems and internal staff who are experts in them, and migrating those systems, processes and skills to a cloud provider is very expensive and risky. All those elements can sit on IaaS and PaaS layers, which will capture some of the benefits of the cloud.

How many businesses opt for the cloud for new workloads.

King believes a 100% cloud-first approach is better when you don't have or need a lot of customization and can manage and run applications in a low-code or no-code environment. Otherwise, it's best to segment the application and look at which layers of the tech stack can meet these requirements. This allows you to use cloud approaches for those layers and retain direct management over layers that don't match.

Negative experiences

Some companies have experienced unexpected challenges when transitioning to a cloud-first approach. King has worked with companies that struggled when trying to move customized legacy systems to a SaaS offering that was not mature enough to take on the full scope of application maintenance and development.

He has also seen cases where companies moved systems back to on premises from the cloud, but they are rare. More often, a company will keep the cloud deployment but hire internally to manage the application. "This can be difficult if the company has redeployed or eliminated formerly on-prem roles," King said.

How edge computing factors in

Many industries, such as retail and manufacturing, need to run apps on premises. Kramer sees many of these firms considering edge computing as a finer distinction than hybrid. The edge brings cloud computing workflows on premises for real-time, low-latency monitoring and automation.

For example, a department store might have an on-prem point-of-sale system but cloud-based inventory and recommendation engines. AI tools, such as those that listen to the customer and the associate interact and offer real-time recommendations and guidance, will also drive an increased need for edge computing in retail.

The proliferation of IoT devices and 5G networks will drive demand for edge computing. Kramer expects this will lead to a more distributed hybrid model, with workloads spanning core data centers, public clouds, and intelligent edges. Telecom operators are partnering with cloud providers to offer 5G edge services that will accelerate this trend.

The future of hybrid and cloud-first

King believes that as more companies develop fully cloud-based applications, there will be less need for hybrid deployments. Also, cloud providers are developing more configuration options to support more complicated applications. However, many enterprises will continue to make strategic choices to manage and run mission-critical or proprietary applications on premises. Expect a hybrid presence in the foreseeable future, although that share might shrink some.

The more that is already running within the company's four walls, the more likely a hybrid approach will be optimal.
John KingPartner in Lotis Blue Consulting's business transformation practice

Kramer expects the cloud-first versus hybrid cloud debate to continue to evolve and blur. Hybrid and multi-cloud architectures will become more seamless and easier to manage. Cloud platforms, such as AWS Outposts, Google Anthos and Azure Stack, are bringing cloud services on premises, while technologies like Kubernetes enable consistent deployment across clouds. As the distinctions fade, hybrid-first might replace cloud-first as the default enterprise mindset, Kramer added.

In the long run, as cloud platforms continue to mature and address the unique needs of different industries and use cases, Kramer predicts the balance will gradually shift more toward the public cloud.

"But the future is not pure cloud-first or hybrid-only, it's a continuum where enterprises can choose the right mix of cloud, on-premises, and edge infrastructure to meet their business goals and serve their customers best," Kramer said.

George Lawton is a journalist based in London. Over the last 30 years, he has written more than 3,000 stories about computers, communications, knowledge management, business, health and other areas that interest him.

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