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Survey lifts covers on Cloud Promiscuity: good thing, bad thing, or who cares?

272683954_3e2b654df4_zFigures from RightScale‘s latest State of the Cloud Report (free registration required) suggest “a strong interest in multi-cloud strategies” amongst respondents. The rationale for hybrid cloud (mixing a public cloud service like Amazon’s with something running in your own data centre, colocation site or hosting facility) is reasonably well understood, but why might companies choose to use more than one public cloud and/or more than one private cloud?

Surveys. Along with the loathsome infographic, they have become the default tool of the lazy PR person. I get loads of them, pretty much every day. And, almost without fail, they are a shocking waste of everyone’s time. Three out of the four people we gave some money to said our product was best. I don’t care. And I’m definitely not going to write about it. Every now and then, though, one that’s worth a little attention comes along. RightScale’s latest State of the Cloud, released last week, is one of those.

The sample is relatively small (just 625) and, as Network World‘s Brandon Butler emphasises, they

came from a community to [sic] people that had somehow, some way interacted with RightSacle [sic] in the past — they had registered on the company’s website, dropped a business card in a bowl at a trade show, or are a customer (although RightScale says only 30% of respondents were customers). The firm’s VP of Marketing Kim Weins says respondents to RightScale’s survey admittedly have some ‘affinity’ to cloud computing.

RightScale’s analysis of respondent demographics bears this out, with over half (51%) describing themselves as being from ‘Tech Software, Services, Hardware’ businesses. The broader community of cloud-consumers in manufacturing, financial services, media and the rest is far less well represented.

Survey Demographics

Survey Demographics. Image © RightScale 2013

The survey digs into a number of areas (see the Related articles, below), but it was the discussion of ‘multi-cloud’ that particularly caught my attention.

Enterprise Cloud Strategy pie chart

Image © RightScale 2013

According to the survey, 77% of respondents from enterprises with 1,000+ employees (see Disclaimer for an important proviso) had some sort of multi-cloud policy. The majority of those (47%) are pursuing some form of on- and off-premise hybrid strategy, whilst 15% are employing multiple private clouds and 15% are employing multiple public clouds. Amongst enterprises with 1,000+ employees that are already using a public cloud solution, the numbers are even higher; 88% are pursuing a multi-cloud policy, with 53% opting for a hybrid approach, 22% for multiple public clouds, and 13% for multiple private clouds. In both cases, it is unclear whether respondents could describe themselves as using multiple public and multiple private clouds.

A hybrid approach, in which some computing is done on-premise (or in a long-term and highly managed co-location or hosting arrangement) and some is done in the public cloud makes an awful lot of sense. Some data may be deemed too expensive or too sensitive to routinely move in and out of the cloud. Some workloads are steady, routine, and highly optimised to run most cost-effectively in a supported, SLA-wrapped and tightly managed dedicated facility. Other workloads demonstrate dramatic peaks and troughs in usage, or require irregular access to resources which are too expensive to maintain — frequently idle — in-house. Even in the most regulated, paranoid or old-fashioned organisations, there are plenty of workloads for which a hybrid solution is ideal.

More interesting than the simple use of a hybrid solution is the suggestion that companies are using more than one public cloud, more than one private cloud, and perhaps more than one of both. There is, perhaps, a clear opportunity here for cloud management solutions (such as RightScale’s, of course), but to really understand the nature of the opportunity we need to understand far more about why the trend we’re seeing is occurring. There’s insufficient data in RightScale’s published results to be sure, but possible explanations include, one, some, or all of the following.

Eggs and Baskets

It’s a conscious decision. Public clouds suffer outages. Private cloud providers get acquired, go bust, or change direction. To continue delivering core services to key customers, the modern enterprise is forced to spread its services across different solutions providers. The gradually increasing credibility of enterprise cloud solutions from HP, IBM, Microsoft and others may diminish this perceived requirement.

The Search for Features

It may be deliberate, but is more likely to be an accidental byproduct of something else. Different public and private cloud providers excel in different areas. They provide support for different virtual machine instances, their apis are better at some actions than others, they offer services in different jurisdictions, and with varying levels of support. The modern enterprise, in meeting a wide range of business requirements, will inevitably find itself selecting different clouds for different reasons. This is likely to continue for some time to come, despite the growing feature completeness of competing offerings.

The Departmental Power Grab

It may be deliberate, but is more likely to be an accidental byproduct of something else. The organisation has no centralised policy regarding the cloud. Different departments and divisions are pursuing their own formal strategies. Their differing requirements lead, almost inevitably, to the selection of different solutions. As the CIO attempts to reassert control, there may be scope for solutions providing a sensible view across these competing services. Alternatively, there may be an explicit move to consolidate, creating opportunities for those able to assist in migrating services from one provider to another.

Shadow IT

It may be deliberate, but is more likely to be an accidental byproduct of something else. The different solutions are being selected by individuals and small teams. They may be selecting those they’ve previously used elsewhere, or they may be employing a wide range of criteria from the frivolous to the robust. Differing requirements and perspectives lead to a wide range of overlapping services being selected. If the CIO attempts to reassert control, there may be scope for solutions providing a sensible view across these competing services. Alternatively, there may be an explicit move to consolidate, creating opportunities for those able to assist in migrating services from one provider to another.

 Play Time

It may be deliberate, but is more likely to be an accidental byproduct of something else. Developers are casting the net wide, experimenting and exploring. The organisation may be littered with accounts for different cloud services that someone tried, explored for a while, and then moved away from. There may well be a large number of intranet-type applications that were built during the exploration phase, deployed to a cohort of internal users, and then simply left running.


It’s unlikely to have been a conscious business decision. No one knew someone else had signed up for that other cloud. The person who did it left last year, and we’re really not sure if there are some nasty dependencies in our upcoming product…

What do you think? Why are we seeing people using more than one public cloud, or more than one private cloud? Is it a trend that’s likely to continue? Is it an opportunity, or a cause for concern?

I suspect that the vast majority of ‘multi-public’ and ‘multi-private’ responses are not the result of a conscious and explicit decision to use more than one cloud. Instead, they’re simply a byproduct of the industry’s current state of evolution. One cloud, today, is better for some things, and its competitor is better for others. Mainstream enterprise adopters need both those capabilities, and therefore end up having to use two clouds.

Potential adopters of multi-cloud, though, would benefit from a more considered exploration of the issues. There are good reasons to learn and use more than one cloud, but there is significant scope for increased complexity in following such a path. Cloud management providers like Enstratius and RightScale may diminish some of that complexity, but it doesn’t go away altogether.

Multi-cloud should be a conscious decision.

Disclaimer: It is important to note that the RightScale survey does not identify the number of responses upon which analysis is being performed. The total number of survey respondents was 625, but subsequent discussion in their report appears to be based upon subsets of the whole. Figures on enterprise cloud usage, for example, are drawn from “organisations with a hybrid cloud strategy” (p.6). There is no information on the proportion of respondents classed as ‘enterprise,’ nor the proportion of those that may have a cloud strategy. The information that 29% currently run apps in a hybrid cloud may point to 29% of 625, or 29% of 3. Similarly, discussion (p.7) of multi-cloud implementation is based upon enterprise respondents with more than 1,000 employees! Unhelpfully, the descriptive text uses “all respondents,” “all enterprise respondents,” “respondents” and “enterprises” interchangeably. It would be useful if RightScale could provide explicit sample sizes next to each of their graphs.

Image of feet in a bed by Flickr user Nany Mata.

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Paul Miller works at the interface between the worlds of Cloud Computing and the Semantic Web, providing the insights that enable you to exploit the next wave as we approach the World Wide Database.

He blogs at www.cloudofdata.com.

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