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What to make of AWS' multi-cloud strategy, or lack thereof

AWS eventually caved when it came to hybrid cloud. Some experts and partners say the same will happen with its multi-cloud strategy.

Whether AWS accepts it or not, enterprises are increasingly adopting a multi-cloud model.

To its credit, AWS has made inroads with hybrid cloud capabilities that span its public cloud and private infrastructure, but these features don't support other platforms. Multi-cloud offers AWS an opportunity but also a clear risk. It could cement AWS' market-leader status, but it might also make it easier to migrate off its most lucrative services. Here, we'll explore the AWS multi-cloud strategy and whether the provider could ultimately get left behind.

Why enterprises are adopting multi-cloud

Multi-cloud is being widely adopted by organizations. Most enterprises, 84% in fact, now operate a multi-cloud strategy and are using an average of five different clouds, according to a 2019 survey by Flexera, a provider of IT management tools.

Multi-cloud has a few clear benefits. It's important for organizations that provide global services and need to use multiple providers to ensure a local presence in certain geographic areas. It also makes it easier to use preferred services and tools from different providers, such as Azure Active Directory and Azure databases, AI and analytics tools from Google Cloud and managed services from AWS. Microsoft and Google have, for their part, acknowledged the demand for multi-cloud, as Azure Arc and Google Anthos can work with non-native equipment and technologies.

A multi-cloud cloud strategy could protect against vendor lock-in risks and dramatic price increases. Multi-cloud adopters may have been burned by a vendor in the past, most likely Oracle, and want leverage over their current provider, said Justin Brodley, vice president of cloud operations at Ellie Mae and host of The Cloud Pod.

These adopters want an advantage over their current provider. By making their cloud workloads portable between platforms, they hope to extract improved discounts or get access to promotional dollars.

The rise of multi-cloud chart

Why AWS is delaying multi-cloud

Most of the experts featured here believe an AWS multi-cloud strategy is inevitable. But as the current market leader, AWS naturally wants to push customers toward a single public cloud and single stack support, said Patrick Harr, CEO at Panzura, a cloud file company and AWS partner.

"AWS is not necessarily opposed to multi-cloud," Harr said. AWS just believes its platform can fulfill all of its customers' needs. But this approach may not be tenable in the long run, Harr said. AWS has already shifted its strategy on hybrid cloud, and multi-cloud is not far behind.

Another reason AWS is not diving into multi-cloud headfirst is because it can't profit on licensing in the way Microsoft does. Instead, it has to rely on its majority hold on the market, said Brian Bullock, cloud infrastructure consultant at Sparkhound, a digital transformation consultancy. AWS makes money on cloud use, so directing users away from its cloud with a multi-cloud offering would mean less revenue. "Spending more time innovating and improving their cloud offerings is the best way to stay ahead of the game," he said.

Is AWS' multi-cloud strategy sustainable?

AWS' resistance to support multi-cloud doesn't match the current IT landscape, where customers increasingly want and need multiple providers for regulatory, privacy or compliance reasons, Brodley said. This limits the reach and power of the AWS cloud managed services and tools.

Although AWS has a Kubernetes offering, it continues to promote Amazon Elastic Container Service as its preferred managed container service because it's easier to use and integrates better with other AWS offerings. However, Kubernetes is the dominant container orchestrator and other vendors have put it at the center of their container strategy. AWS would be wise to do the same.

This is not a sustainable long-term approach for AWS, because ultimately, it's not the way that enterprises like to build infrastructure without lock-in. "AWS has been an innovation machine in recent years, but the competitive edge they built is becoming stale," Harr said.

AWS has been an innovation machine in recent years, but the competitive edge they built is becoming stale.
Patrick HarrCEO at Panzura

However, AWS may just be watching its competitors to identify the best approach. "They weren't the first to the market with a multi-cloud manager, so it may be wise for them to take their time and make sure they do it right," said Tim Colby, senior systems engineer at Kelser Corporation, an IT consulting firm in Connecticut that supports enterprises and SMBs. "They have the benefit of seeing how Azure Arc plays out, before they commit to a position."

While the delay of an AWS multi-cloud strategy may grow the business in the short term, it could affect its brand. "Amazon's stubborn resistance to their customers' desire for multi-cloud and hybrid cloud impacts the perception of AWS. That kind of damage to their brand will have long-term negative impacts," said Peter Guagenti, CMO of MemSQL, a database tools provider.

Hybrid cloud as a multi-cloud adoption model

If you want an indication about when or how AWS will shift its multi-cloud strategy, look no further than how the infrastructure provider changed its tune on hybrid cloud. AWS made massive and immediate inroads in the hybrid cloud market with its VMware Cloud on AWS partnership, and disrupted the market further with its announcement of AWS Outposts, which enables companies to deploy and manage on-premises data center infrastructure as a direct extension of its AWS public cloud environment, said Grant Kirkwood, CTO at Unitas Global, a Los Angeles-based hybrid cloud provider that works with AWS.

"AWS has a unique position to offer a mixed cloud solution within a single AWS cloud strategy," Kirkwood said.

AWS' partnerships with SAP and VMware are already opening the doors for multi-cloud, said Kaushik Joshi, who leads Equinix's strategic alliance with AWS. Companies can use these partnered services to use AWS without having to rearchitect or refactor their existing applications. "Their investment commitments and their deep product integration with many legacy ISV vendors are a good testament to their commitment toward respecting customers' choice and preference," Joshi said.

AWS is also starting to open access to third-party cloud management services. For instance, AWS CloudFormation and AWS Config support third-party resources. "This means customers can now use this tooling across multiple clouds, and this demonstrates the pivot that AWS has already made," said Chris Hertz, CRO of DivvyCloud, a cloud configuration management platform.

Additionally, AWS told partners that they can use "multi-cloud" in messaging after re:Invent 2019 -- a change from earlier policies that prohibited the use of the term as part of any shared efforts with AWS. "Expect them to go full steam ahead on knocking down multi-cloud barriers for customers," Hertz said.

Because many companies are still comfortable with the AWS single stack approach, its delayed multi-cloud adoption should have little impact with these organizations, Harr said. But there is a conflict between what AWS is doing today -- basic integrations and marketing updates -- and the functionality sophisticated users expect.

The lack of multi-cloud strategy will have a more significant impact on larger enterprises that increasingly look for multi-cloud-compatible tools driven by acquisitions, privacy laws or other performance needs, Brodley said. These businesses want portable, agnostic tools to use compute where it is needed most.

"While AWS may have dropped the word 'multi-cloud' from its dictionary, their users have not," Kirkwood said. Sophisticated users who understand the nuances of multi-cloud will continue to deploy multi-cloud strategies to take advantage of the unique capabilities that each cloud platform offers, he said. Others will turn to managed service providers to successfully deploy and manage multi-cloud. AWS can either rejoin the fray or get left behind.

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