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Multicloud computing bliss not yet a reality for all IT shops

Experts predict multicloud computing will be a top enterprise trend in 2017, but some cloud users question whether the touted benefits are worth the jump over significant IT management hurdles.

LAS VEGAS -- Some experts say multicloud computing, the use of multiple infrastructure-as-a-service providers, is the next major wave of enterprise cloud adoption. For many IT teams, however, the road to multicloud nirvana will be a bumpy one.

The multicloud trend bubbled to the surface of the enterprise market long before the Amazon Web Services (AWS) re:Invent conference here this week, said William Fellows, vice president at 451 Research. Not only do more enterprises use cloud services today than not, but the majority of them use more than one cloud provider, according to a recent 451 Research survey.

AWS, it seems, has warmed up to that reality.

"This week, [AWS] started talking about the fact that they have customers that are using other cloud services, too," Fellows said. While AWS typically remains the primary cloud provider in these cases, "they are certainly seeing 10%, 15% or 20% of some of their [customers'] capacity going to another cloud."

One reason enterprises look toward a multicloud model is risk mitigation; they want to hedge their bets with multiple providers, so if one provider suffers a breach or goes down, there is another on standby.

Another reason is cost. Certain services or instance types might be cheaper at one provider versus another, plus the use of multiple cloud vendors can serve as leverage during cloud contract negotiations.

Perhaps the biggest driver toward multicloud, however, is enterprise IT footprints are not homogenous. Many organizations run a mix of operating systems, including Windows and Linux, and have applications with specific resource demands. They want the flexibility to map those applications to the best possible cloud service or instance type -- even if it's outside the realm of their primary infrastructure-as-a-service provider.

What's more, the desire for this flexibility will likely increase as public cloud providers expand their infrastructure offerings beyond just core compute and storage, and into higher-end web services for big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence and more. At re:Invent this week alone, AWS rolled out a slew of new services targeting these markets.

"What the cloud isn't anymore is just a data center that you rent," said Jonathan Baker, senior systems engineer at Ellie Mae Inc., a provider of software-as-a-service applications for mortgage companies and an AWS customer, based in Pleasanton, Calif. "What Amazon and Azure and CenturyLink and Rackspace do is provide a layer of services -- and that's the real value of Amazon or any of these providers. For us, it's about picking the best services for [our needs]."

Climbing the multicloud mountain

That said, the cost, compliance and workload optimization benefits of a multicloud strategy can get complicated from an IT management perspective.

For starters, multicloud computing can lead to hassles around uptime planning and availability, since each public cloud provider has a unique set of availability zones and data center regions, said Kris Bliesner, CTO at 2nd Watch, a Seattle-based managed services provider and AWS partner.

In addition, some applications are better suited for a multicloud model than others. Legacy applications, or applications that rely on large sets of data, need significant refactoring to move from one cloud platform to another.

"When you're building for multicloud, at least for the enterprise, they are typically large apps with big data behind them -- terabytes, petabytes of data -- so they can be difficult to move," Bliesner said.

AWS users here this week agreed multicloud can be beneficial in the long term, but it introduces new management challenges. They said they need to see other cloud providers, such as Azure and Google, show greater feature parity to AWS before formally making the jump.

"Until it's a level playing field, it doesn't make a lot of sense, because it's a lot harder to support two clouds than it is to support one," said Anthony Johnson, cloud computing staff engineer, also at Ellie Mae. "It's hard to write a good app for one cloud; to write a good app for two clouds is even harder."

Other AWS users said they strive to consolidate the number of vendors they work with to simplify management and billing.

"You always want to minimize the number of accounts and vendor relationships you have, and the number of vendors you have to deal with for compliance, so I don't think there's really a big need," said the director of information security at a peer-to-peer lending company that uses AWS. "We never gave really serious thought to other providers."

Because of these challenges, multicloud adoption -- at least for now -- is most common with larger enterprises that have progressive and sophisticated cloud deployments, Fellows said. Moving forward, cloud brokers, system integrators and managed services providers, along with cloud management tools built for the cross-platform model, will help others take the leap.

"More automation and greater orchestration is where the game is right now," he said.

Other enterprises will take a slower, crawl-walk-run approach.

"[Multicloud] is part of the conversation," Bliesner said. "But I think [enterprises] want to get the first wave or two right before they bring on another vendor."

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