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How businesses are getting to grips with multi-cloud strategies

10 March 2021
Overview

An interactive discussion delving into multi-cloud strategies, asking the big questions. 

Following our recent CxO roundtable discussion featuring Forrester, we invited Forrester Principal Analyst Paul Miller and former CTO and current Googler John Johnson to share their views on how businesses are getting to grips with multi-cloud strategies.

Are you seeing multi-cloud approaches develop within businesses, and what are the primary drivers for this?

Paul Miller (PM): Companies in Europe, and around the world, have been forced into dealing with multicloud for a number of years. But recently we’ve seen a shift from what Forrester calls ‘accidental’ to ‘strategic’ multicloud. 

Accidental multicloud reaches back to the early days of enterprise adoption of public cloud, when many IT departments weren’t particularly interested. Without guidance from the central IT organisation, individual developers and small teams were left to their own devices: one might choose AWS, and expense the costs on a personal or corporate card; another might choose Azure, and do the same; a third might choose Google Cloud, and do the same. Very quickly, and entirely inadvertently, the company became multicloud.

As the workloads running in the public cloud became more important, the central IT organisation began paying attention. Companies developed cloud strategies, and governance policies, and established centres of excellence to make the most of available skills. Although these strategies usually see companies select a preferred public cloud provider (normally, but not always, one of the bigger hyperscale public cloud companies), the most pragmatic ones recognise that there can be good reasons to not completely ban alternative providers. This strategic approach to multicloud allows employees to use alternative public cloud providers for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Access to local cloud infrastructure in countries where the preferred cloud provider does not operate.
  • Access to specific technical capabilities (advanced AI libraries, dedicated hardware, etc.) which the preferred cloud provider cannot currently match.

John Johnson (JJ): I think it depends on the business, industry and the workloads. First of all we need to define what we mean by multi-cloud and I define this as using multiple "public" clouds for different functions i.e an application has functions in Azure, Google Cloud and / or AWS. 

We often see businesses adopting multiple public clouds to suit different business requirements i.e. workload characteristics, Lines-of-Business preferences, regulations, security policies etc. For example Google Cloud is considered a market leader in data analytics so might be adopted amongst Marketing to power their customer analysis.

With so many variables there isn’t a one size fits all approach meaning hyperscalers offering different things for customers. The question is, are they building distributed applications or micro-services that cross these different cloud platforms? 

The growing trend is towards micro-services, but the large share of applications are still on VM's and traditional architectures. When organisations adopt new architectures and develop new apps, they don't throw away ones that already exist. 

How are companies successfully implementing multi-cloud approaches? What are the risks of getting this wrong?

PM: The biggest risk is probably for companies making the shift from accidental to strategic multicloud. For them, the understandable desire to quickly bring cloud use under control risks alienating the company’s pioneers if the process is not handled sensitively. The teams that implemented their own individual pieces of the company’s accidental multicloud approach often did so because the central IT organisation explicitly stated that it wasn’t interested. Those teams and individuals learned how to use cloud, they worked out what worked and what didn’t, and they proved the value to such an extent that their companies then changed course and recognised the need to embrace cloud. Those pioneers need to be celebrated, and congratulated, and learned from: they don’t need to have all of their hard work taken away – or worse, shut down – by the IT organisation that ignored them in the first place. Make them valued and make them want to stay: don’t make them feel the need to take their skills and enthusiasm elsewhere.

Wherever companies are in their multicloud adoption, the guiding principle should be to err on the side of simplicity. Every additional cloud that your company uses increases the set of skills you need to develop and maintain. Every additional data transfer from one cloud to another increases the cost and complexity of securing that data. You really do want to use as few clouds as possible, but as many as you need.  

JJ: Agility is the key to digital business success. Business can use the cloud to build and deploy new applications quickly and deliver value at speed and scale. IT needs to become a strategic partner to the business in this respect or it risks becoming irrelevant, as LoB seek off-the-shelf solutions to specific business needs i.e. SaaS or No/Low-Code apps like Google Appsheets for drag n drop application development.

Additionally, I‘m not sure I agree with the principle of reducing the number of cloud platforms, as a multi-cloud architecture is designed with layers of abstraction. Take Google Cloud’s Anthos for example - a platform that allows developers to build, deploy and optimise applications across multiple public clouds that are decoupled from infrastructure, so they can focus on running applications anywhere - simply, flexibly and securely.

How are customers managing workloads across multiple cloud vendors?

PM: Most customers, most of the time, do not manage a single workload or application that is spread across multiple cloud vendors. The complexity of managing that, at scale, is rarely justified. 

A lot of multicloud deployments are simpler, with one workload running in the first cloud, and another – separate – workload running in the second cloud. But even these relatively simple workloads require companies to effectively manage their multicloud use. Security and governance policies need to be established for each cloud, and those policies need to be maintained as government regulations, customer requirements, or technical capabilities change. Tools that manage these processes across – and between – different clouds help to mitigate the risk that a change isn’t correctly implemented everywhere, or that changes in one cloud introduce unanticipated risks for another.

Another important consideration is that few enterprises are in a position to put everything they currently do into one or more public clouds. Many, possibly most, of their existing workloads run in their own data centres or in colocation facilities. This hybrid state, including both cloud and non-cloud, is the reality for most organisations today and for the foreseeable future. The balance is shifting towards cloud, but it will take most big companies years to get all the way there. Tools that manage on-premises and cloud-based resources, and that adapt as workloads move cloud-wards, help companies to think and act strategically on a single pool of technical capabilities: not entirely separate on-premises and cloud-based infrastructure and teams. 

JJ: I agree we are seeing a low adoption of distributed applications running across multiple public clouds today. However, it depends on the application architecture. 3% of businesses are solely using microservices today, which are distributed applications that are typically deployed across multiple public clouds. 

That being said, 76% are using a mix of traditional and modern applications and software development teams are working to replace monolithic applications with new, elegant and loosely coupled microservices that will help their businesses thrive. Solutions like Google Anthos are helping businesses to simply build and deploy containerised applications across multiple cloud platforms. 

Anthos is enabling BiqQuery Omni to analyse data across Google Cloud, AWS and Azure (coming soon), so multi-cloud organisations can break down data silos and gain critical business insights from a single pane of glass without having to manage the underlying infrastructure.

As more microservices are deployed we will see an increasing adoption of distributed applications including the rise of edge computing for new IoT use cases, as businesses expand the use of connected products to collect real-time data to create new forms of value for their customers.   

In my view this trend is towards "what I would call true" multi-cloud...

Are you seeing a drive for public cloud services within a business coming from outside the traditional IT and development departments? 

PM: Yes. Across the business, whatever the business, leaders and their teams recognise the potential for cloud to accelerate their digital transformation. New products and services can be explored, prototyped, deployed, and then globally scaled without the need to wait for someone else to procure, install, and manage racks of servers. Teams in marketing or sales or logistics don’t necessarily set out wanting to deploy their new applications in the public cloud, but they quickly recognise the value of doing so as those applications get better and reach customers further afield with each iteration. 

JJ: For me the key point here is that organisations need digital business agility and the capacity to change in order to respond to changes in customers needs, competitive pressures, regulatory changes or environmental conditions i.e. covid. 

CxO stakeholders and lines of business need these three capabilities to succeed and cloud platforms enable the capacity to change at speed and scale. Cloud providers are developing industry solutions that add value to LoB stakeholders and there is a trend towards No/Low code apps like Google Appsheets whereby business stakeholders can drag and drop logic to create automated workflows. 

This poses the question “where does central IT fit into this?”. As I’ve touched on earlier it’s my view that it needs to evolve and become a strategic partner to the business, working with stakeholders to provide the best solution for their needs.

 

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(Source: Global Centre for digital business transformation)

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