Multi-cloud is a relatively new term and is a very popular architecture among enterprises. This is for good reason, it is part of cloud’s natural evolution. A survey released by the IBM Institute for Business Value found that a staggering 85% of polled businesses use multi-cloud.

South African businesses are already prolific adopters of cloud – at least 65% of local CIOs intend to invest in cloud during 2019 (IDC). A significant number of those deployments will be multi-cloud.

One Channel CEO Bernard Ford says the main reason is to avoid lock-in. “Even though cloud has created a new way to use infrastructure, platforms and services, there is still the risk of becoming too reliant on one provider and going back to the dreaded days of being locked into a technology environment.”

But there are more options that promote multi-cloud as the solution. The arrival of Microsoft Azure and Amazon We Services (AWS) in South Africa has added even more choice for companies, thus stoking interest in multi-cloud models. It’s about lock-in, but also a sign of the market’s maturity.

CIOs know that one cloud provider can’t effectively meet all their needs. They want to take advantage of pitting the different providers against each other and getting the best performance for their use cases and budgets. Cloud is not a one-size market, which is why multi-cloud exists.

“But what is multi-cloud and why is it almost inevitable – especially for enterprises,” he asks. “If you’re scratching your head over yet another bit of cloud semantics, you’re not alone. Today’s technologists have to juggle concepts such as private, public and hybrid cloud. Many end up confusing the latter with multi-cloud and the two are often used interchangeably. But they are actually very distinct.”

Hybrid cloud is when one combines a public and private cloud, so perhaps services on Azure with services on private servers co-located somewhere. Multi-cloud specifically refers to using more than one public cloud service. But there is also overlap: one can have a private cloud and several public clouds. Many multi-cloud environments also have hybrid cloud alongside them.

“You could say hybrid- and multi-cloud are different flavours in the same broth. But there are specific advantages and considerations that render multi-cloud different from hybrid. To understand why we should look at what creates multi-cloud environments,” says Ford.

Multi-cloud lets companies take advantage of different cloud providers, aligning the best cost, performance requirements and security with specific use cases, workloads and applications. Different features, SLAs and uptime expectations can dictate whether it is appropriate to, for example, do payroll crunching on a specific service even though other HR services are on a different cloud.

Apart from performance, multi-clouds can emerge for several reasons:

* New services, perhaps due to vendor changes or acquisitions, need to be brought into the fold of the company, but it’s impractical or unwise to shift those to the current cloud provider. So they are instead integrated while remaining on their provider.

* Shadow IT has created large systems outside of the company that now need oversight. It’s often better to keep those on their platform and integrate the services rather than shift everything.

* Latency issues caused by operating in different regions can be greatly reduced if required workloads and data are hosted at a local cloud provider.

* The risk of disaster and reduced failover is met head-on by multi-cloud setups. Targeted attacks such as denial-of-service are much less effective.

* Advanced digital practices such as DevOps benefit from using environments suited to their projects. But those same environments can be ill-suited for other business services.

“You could argue that all cloud roads eventually lead to multi-cloud,” says Ford. “This depends on the size of the company, but every year the model becomes more relevant to all kinds of organisations. It’s a natural evolution for cloud because cloud is not a single place or service. It’s a way of doing things in modern IT.”

Yet even if multi-cloud’s momentum is assured, it’s not seamless. The growing popularity of multi-cloud is also creating management problems. As one might guess, oversight of multiple cloud environments is not easy. This has prompted a number of management solutions, including multi-cloud-as-a-service, cloud management platforms and cloud service brokers.

Multi-cloud adopters are actively pursuing automation as another management strategy. Then there are the advances in cloud that have made this model even more appealing. Specifically, containers are changing how companies can move workloads and applications without worrying about proprietary standards at different providers.

“It may seem like multi-cloud is in its early stages, which is true. But it is still enjoying an explosive rise as necessity encourages demand for using different public cloud environments. In fact, organisations are much more receptive to multi-cloud than compared to the early days of cloud adoption,” he concludes.

The same IBM survey found that at least 41% of companies have a multi-cloud strategy, up from virtually nothing a few years ago. Management of these environments, including scope creep, are the most pressing concerns. But the future is definitely a multi-cloud one.