How many clouds are there?

When should you take advantage of a multi-cloud system, and when should you harden the single-cloud system you already use?

multi cloud
Credit: Mike Wilson

How many clouds are there?

If you're reading this, there is a good chance, like me, you are the most technical person in your family. No matter how hard I try not to work at family events, it doesn't usually take long for somebody to come up and drag me into some tech issue. Usually it has to do with recovering a lost file or getting a suborn virus off an old laptop, but every once in a while my family stumps me. 

Recently, I was asked how many clouds there are. I was ready to shout out some answer when my brain really started to churn. I was trying to decide what counted as a cloud. The cloud is generally considered anything that delivers services over the internet. Quickly I gave up on counting major services that are provided over the internet, and my thought process changed to "How many clouds will there be?"; "How many should there be?"; "If one cloud provider runs on another generic cloud provider does that count for one or two clouds?"

At this point it was becoming clear that I wasn't going to produce an answer any time soon and the inquirer now was more concerned about refilling their drink than waiting around for my answer, so I was off the hook for the moment. I believe that cloud computing allows businesses to consume computer resources as a utility, so thoughts of "how many clouds should there be?" continued to nag at me throughout the day. In the U.S., utilities are rock solid relative to many other goods and services we consume. Almost every place I have lived never concerned themselves about gas, electricity, water, etc. Utilities are assumed to be reliable. Conversely, every business I have worked in has had backup generators, backup internet, backup almost everything.  When money is on the line having a backup is prudent and smart.

So, as more and more services move to the cloud, clients are starting to ask and be concerned about having a backup cloud provider for their systems. Given the logic above, this makes total sense. An extra level of protection makes sense when money is on the line. Here is the rub. When people refer to the cloud they aren't really talking about data centers; they are taking about services like Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, Google app engine. These utilities, while generically the same, are very different once you get into the details. You have to design differently for each cloud provider so having a backup isn't that easy.

And, even though these serveries are highly reliable and highly scalable there are still issues from time to time. When cloud providers fail, they tend to fail hard. Even short outages read like a suspense novel. For instance, this Google outage in 2016

It isn't trivial to code across clouds because that means by design you are not taking advantage of individual unique and powerful cloud features. Businesses should consider the following when contemplating a multi-cloud system:

  • Complexity will usually reduce reliability, and multi-cloud systems are more complex
  • Multi-cloud systems will most likely not be able to take advantage of individual cloud providers features
  • Multi-cloud systems are more expensive
  • Multi-cloud systems will require more skills

So, if the average downtime or risk indicator for your provider is too large, then considering a multi-cloud is worth looking into, otherwise spend your time and money load-balancing and hardening within a single cloud system.

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