Multi-cloud vs hybrid cloud – what's the difference?

With no shortage of cloud providers, we take a look at two of the most popular options for businesses

Several small clouds hanging from strings against a blue backdrop

Businesses across many sectors have been pressing on with digital transformation plans in recent years, with the COVID-19 pandemic also providing ample opportunity to fast-track projects. This has happened in tandem with more and employees adopting a flexible way of working, meaning these businesses are relying on cloud computing more than ever. 

This technology has been vital to helping companies both large and small modernise their infrastructure, improve security standards and innovate to better serve their customers. 

Many big names have been at the heart of these digital transformation efforts, including the likes of AWS, Google Cloud and Microsoft, as well as firms like IBM and VMware. The field is clearly intensely contested, with these businesses, alongside others, themselves undergoing major transitions to stay ahead of the pack.

For customers, this is a great thing as it offers more choice, as well as the flexibility to configure their infrastructures as they wish. This is where hybrid cloud and multi-cloud configurations have grown in relevance. The key difference between these two models is the involvement of a private and public cloud service. Private cloud refers to in-house and on-premise infrastructure or managed services, whereas public cloud is packaged up by providers such as AWS. 

Hybrid cloud

This model is a combination between public and private clouds, with internal business services divided across this infrastructure. Organisations may choose to run payroll software on the public cloud while keeping inactive data in the private cloud, for example. These configurations are often adopted to balance flexibility with security, cost-effectiveness and latency, given private clouds offer very smooth connections

Spinning up some cloud instances for a time-limited project and turning them off when no longer required may be relatively inexpensive compared with provisioning extra capacity in an on-premise data centre. Long-term storage, however, can often be cheaper in a private cloud than in a public cloud, so businesses will need to dip into both depending on the circumstances. Local laws may also restrict what kinds of information might be stored in a third-party service, too, meaning organistions often appreciate the flexibility that hybrid cloud configurations offer.

Hybrid cloud used to be quite a niche model, with some industry watchers claiming it was just a step on the way to the full public cloud. Increasingly, however, it's becoming mainstream: A recent survey from RightScale estimated that the number of enterprises with a hybrid cloud strategy grew to 58% in 2019, up from 51% in 2018.

Pros

The hybrid cloud gives companies the reassurance that sensitive information, such as intellectual property or customer data, can still be stored and maintained within their own data centres. For organisations with lots of "cold" data - information that's accessed infrequently - it may also be cheaper to use a hybrid approach than full public cloud.

Cons

Hybrid approaches can be more technically difficult to manage, requiring IT departments to dedicate plenty of time and effort to configuration, planning, deployment and maintenance of two different platforms. On top of that, there's the arduous task of adapting in-house systems to work effectively with third-party ones. Security is also an issue with hybrid infrastructure, causing more major incidents than cloud-hosted applications or on-premise workloads. According to a 451 Research report, 51.8% of companies see hybrid cloud storage as less secure.

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Multi-cloud

Multi-cloud differs from hybrid cloud in that it uses multiple public cloud environments rather than a mixture of public and private. For example, an application in a multi-cloud environment may run all compute and networking activities in AWS while using database services from Microsoft's Azure.

It's a complex way of operating, but one that's rapidly on the rise within the business world. According to an IBM survey, 85% of organisations are now using a multi-cloud business model, with 76% of those opting for multiple hybrid clouds - just to confuse things further. It doesn't stop there: IBM also predicts that the number of companies using a multi-cloud strategy will increase to 98% by 2021.

Pros

Without being tied to one provider, companies can operate and innovate at speed. If tied to one host, you may find that, although it's great for some things, it might not have the best of everything, which could limit your ambitions.

This also reduces the risk of vendor lock-in, as companies won't necessarily become dependent on one provider's technology.

Cons

The obvious problem with a multi-cloud environment is the 'multi' part, as the more you use the more complicated it gets. This could lead to mismanagement and result in increased costs and disrupt your business, not to mention, the more clouds you use, the more you'll need to secure.

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