Businesses, particularly retail businesses, have had a hard time of late. There have been sea changes in the global economy that are reflected in local operations. Budget cuts are increasingly common, and IT is tasked with doing more with less. 

One strategy that IT adopted to stabilize operational costs and defray capital expenditure is to operate systems from the cloud on infrastructure provided and managed by a service provider. Many organizations have their operations spread over several clouds from different service providers, known as a multi-cloud environment. 

This post defines what multi-cloud is, why and how businesses use multi-clouds, how to manage one, and the benefits of adopting a multi-cloud strategy. 

What Is a Multi-Cloud?

Before looking at the operational characteristics of a multi-cloud and how to manage one, we need to define what a multi-cloud is and how it differs from the two other major cloud types. 

Simply put, the cloud is an infrastructure made up of servers, networks, software, and the like. It can be local (managed and operated using internet tools) or remote (managed and operated using remote tools or on your behalf by a managed service provider). There are two basic types, private and public. 

  • A public cloud is usually hosted by a third party and delivers services over the internet. Public clouds are resources shared across organizations.
  • A private cloud is dedicated to an individual organization, again delivering services using internet technologies. It's usually behind the organization’s firewall.

Beyond public and private clouds, there are hybrid clouds and multi-clouds. 

  • A hybrid cloud is an environment that has more than one cloud service, often a mixture of private and public clouds.
  • A multi-cloud is similar to a hybrid cloud. All hybrid clouds are multi-clouds, but not all multi-clouds are hybrid clouds. The difference is in the degree of integration.

In particular, multi-clouds use both private clouds and public clouds such as AWS and Google. This means that the clouds need to be integrated, synchronizing security policies and governance and keeping data consistent across the various clouds. This is a strain on the management of the environment because different clouds have different operating, often proprietary, environments. 

IBM has a very clear definition of a multi-cloud environment. Google has also presented its views. 

Why a Multi-Cloud?

Organizations can benefit from a multi-cloud strategy in a number of ways. 

  • Access to new innovative technologies: Multi-cloud service providers give you access to new technologies, providing you with infrastructure benefits without capital expenditure.
  • Better resilience and reliability: Using multiple suppliers provides better operational reliance and reliability by reducing the number of single points of failure. You can also move between suppliers more easily should that be needed in the event of an outage.
  • Reduced commercial risk from supplier lock-in: A problem that many early adopters found in public clouds is supplier lock-in. They wanted to move but couldn’t do so easily or economically because of technical limitations.
  • Cost benefits: Regular operational costs are more easily funded from the operational expenditure budget derived from income. That can be a great benefit in tough times.

Cloud Issues

While attractive, a multi-cloud environment brings issues with it. 

  • A multi-cloud environment can be complex because of the variety of platforms and systems used.
  • Operating applications on different platforms can bring integration and management issues. Different cloud platforms can be proprietary, making it difficult to move systems and data around.
  • It can be complex to organize security and governance policies and procedures to coordinate IT functions across multiple multi-cloud service providers.

Multi-Cloud Management Best Practices

Multi-cloud management is the simultaneous management of multiple cloud environments. These clouds are provided by different service providers, both public and private. For example, a multi-cloud might be a private cloud supporting an organization’s internal systems and data with customer-facing services provided using public clouds supported by AWS or Microsoft Azure. 

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As with other aspects of IT management, multi-cloud management needs to follow a defined strategy. Having such a strategy will make management a lot easier and cost-effective. 

Here are some best practices for multi-cloud management. 

Have a Strategy

Under pressure, many organizations have rushed into a multi-cloud environment and now find themselves not achieving the benefits they anticipated. For example, in the case of lock-in you could find it difficult to switch service providers at a later stage. 

You need to research which clouds are the best for your current, medium-term, and long-term needs. 

Elements of the analysis will include projected workloads, whether the cloud supports your systems, and the management environment you'll use. 

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Implement Security and Compliance

One of the major considerations is the security of your and your client’s data and compliance with any relevant regulations. By moving to the cloud and having third parties manage your data, you open yourselves up to serious security risks. 

You need to have in-depth discussions with potential suppliers about their security policies and procedures. SSAE16 SOC 2 is a very good reference. This is particularly important in some regulated business sectors, such as aviation, finance, and pharmaceuticals. 

Internally, you need to ensure that you have comprehensive security and compliance policies that cover all your clouds. Regular monitoring and audit of the security environment is a must. 

Review and Assess the Tools You'll Use

You'll need a management platform, perhaps including automation, monitoring, and analysis tools. You also need to look at training requirements for your staff. 

Define Policies for Effective Cloud Governance

Part of the overall management environment is effective governance. You'll need defined policies and procedures for cloud usage, over and above those you use to control systems and data access. 

These policies should be clear and effective. They'll cover areas such as change management, service levels with service providers, and especially access control, both physical and logical. 

Establish and Promote Inter-Team Collaboration

Making a secure, cost-effective, and productive multi-cloud environment requires collaboration between the teams responsible for managing each cloud. The teams can be internal or provided by a managed services provider, or a composite of both. 

Manage Your Costs

Ensure that you have tools available to help you monitor your operational costs. Install forecasting tools that allow you to model the effects of infrastructure changes following changes in business profile or workload. In a similar vein, tools that allow you to model changes in procedures are available. 

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You also need to keep up to date. The cloud environment is very fluid and new techniques and technologies are arising daily—as are malware and network attack threats. The business environment is also changing rapidly. Both mean that the strategy that you develop must be flexible and able to evolve to cope with change. 

Choosing a Multi-Cloud Provider

Many businesses may not have the internal expertise to establish a multi-cloud environment and will need to use existing staff to keep their existing services running during the transition to multi-cloud. For most, the easiest way to approach multi-cloud is through a managed cloud service provider. 

Most managed service providers will be able to help with advice, resources, and infrastructure. 

However, as indicated above, you must take care when looking at managed service providers and public cloud platforms. They must be evaluated for compliance with your future strategy. Some will make it difficult to move away and effectively lock you into their strategy. 

Some integration is needed between different service providers in a multi-cloud environment. You need to be careful not to have proprietary linkages that will restrict your future strategy. 

A company that manages its infrastructures and monitors and controls each cloud manually will probably come up against complex resource and time management problems. Having a clear action plan, adopting tools, or partnering with a managed service provider can take much of the hassle out of managing multi-cloud environments. 

Selecting Tools and Seeking Assistance

As noted above, one of the issues with multi-cloud environments is that different cloud platforms have different management requirements. Automation can go a long way in addressing these issues. Some platforms, such as Firefly, automate the cloud asset inventory, configuration management, and fixing configuration errors in real time. In conjunction with automation and effective policies, you can manage your multi-cloud consistently, thereby improving security and reliability and achieving cost benefits. 

Final Words

All businesses are under pressure today and are looking for innovative ways to offer services to customers while managing and reducing business costs. Moving to the cloud, and more recently to multi-cloud, has become a go-to option. 

However, it does have risks despite the undoubted benefits. A careful strategic approach is essential to manage a multi-cloud environment. 

This post was written by Iain Robertson. Iain operates as a freelance IT specialist through his own company. He provides onsite and remote global interim, contract and temporary support as a senior executive in general and ICT management. He usually operates as an ICT project manager or ICT leader in the Tertiary Education sector. He has recently semi-retired as an ICT Director and part-time ICT lecturer in an Ethiopian University.