Judging from search engine traffic — and from the calls I receive — there’s some confusion out there about hybrid cloud and multicloud. More than once, I’ve heard the story of a technology manager’s boss returning from a conference a year or two ago raving about hybrid cloud, only now to insist that the organization needs to pursue a multicloud strategy.

This rapid change in focus, combined with continued confusion over the terms themselves, is enough to make an IT professional’s head spin.

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In truth, hybrid cloud and multicloud (and even some combination of them) are completely viable models, with various organizations relying on each to achieve significant business benefits. But before IT and business leaders can decide which approach makes the most sense for them, they need to step back and ask themselves what outcomes they are trying to achieve.

Understanding Your Cloud Options

For all the talk about various cloud models, confusion remains about the very definition of “cloud.” For an environment to truly qualify as “cloud computing,” it needs to feature on-demand resources, be scalable and elastic, utilize shared resources and allow for pay-per-use billing.

In a hybrid cloud environment, an organization integrates private cloud infrastructure with public cloud resources. A multicloud environment, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily include any on-premises component. Rather, an organization pursuing a multicloud strategy will leverage resources from multiple cloud providers, such as Azure, AWS and Google Cloud Platform. It’s possible — but not necessary — to combine both approaches. For instance, an organization that bursts some of its private cloud workloads into one cloud platform and some into another is using a multicloud strategy in a hybrid cloud environment.

What Influences Cloud Strategy

Typically, organizations adopt a hybrid cloud model to find a balance between competing priorities such as scalability, cost and security. A company may want to keep some data in-house due to security regulations, for instance; or, it may be more economical to rely on on-premises infrastructure for day-to-day demands, while bursting into the public cloud during peak periods.

The growth of multicloud reflects the reality that different public cloud environments sometimes present different opportunities in terms of cost, flexibility or specific features. While many organizations once declared themselves all in on a single public cloud environment, business and IT leaders are beginning to realize that this mindset limits their options.

For instance, I work with one university that houses most of its public cloud workloads with one provider but recently turned to another for research computing — simply because the vendor offers the best prices for short bursts of high-performance computing. As a result, the school has shrunk its timeline for some research projects from nine months down to three and a half months.

Different organizations will see different benefits from different models. A manufacturer may need highly redundant on-premises infrastructure, making a hybrid cloud model a good fit. But for an e-commerce company, it may make more sense to have all of its infrastructure distributed among various public clouds.

The Role of Business Goals

For nearly all organizations, a hybrid cloud or multicloud environment is a tool to use, not a business objective. Each organization has its own objectives, and it’s the IT department’s job to support these goals. Before asking which cloud approach makes sense, organizations should ask themselves these questions:

  • Do we have a current inventory of all our applications?
  • What is the lifecycle status of all our underlying infrastructure?
  • Is the organization comfortable with an operational finance model for IT?
  • What business problems are we trying to solve, and how can IT help?

Ultimately, the goal of both hybrid cloud and multicloud is to get the best of multiple worlds, in a way that works for the organization and drives the business toward its goals. Once an organization tackles more granular questions about its objectives and investments, the larger question of “hybrid cloud or multicloud?” may answer itself.