A little over a year ago, research firm Gartner reported that hybrid cloud deployments were rare, but that nearly 75 percent of large enterprises were expected to have them by 2015.
2014 seems to have proven it right. Firstly, cloud budgets are growing -- 69 percent of respondents in a Dimensional Research study (embedded PDF) sponsored by Equinix expect a larger budget in 2015 for cloud services, and 91 percent of respondents said they'll deploy a cloud of some form in the next 12 months, with 85 percent planning to deploy more than one.
It also seems like the initial hype cycle is over, too, with C-level execs understanding the business case rather than simply being terrified that they're missing out on the next big thing. A report from managed services provider Avanade said that 73 percent agree that adopting a hybrid cloud solution will give them an edge over competitors, with 75 percent agreeing that a hybrid cloud strategy should be one of their main priorities next year.
But even though hybrid cloud computing is mature, it still has a lot of untapped potential.
"[So far] no more than 20 percent of large enterprises have implemented hybrid cloud computing beyond simple integration of applications or services. This declines to 10-15 percent for midsize enterprises," Gartner said in its research.
A common use of hybrid cloud, according to Gartner, is business continuity and disaster recovery.
"Built-in redundancy, controlled security, better flexibility," Mark Shirman, CEO of software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider RiverMeadow, said. "Everything that makes the hybrid cloud attractive to businesses makes it the best cloud option for disaster recovery.'
"If you were to identify the one true benefit of hybrid cloud, it comes down to one point: Choice," said Erez Yarkoni, Telstra executive director of Cloud.
Hybrid gives organisations the ability to choose which cloud model suits various parts of their business and the freedom to choose amongst multiple providers, putting what Yarkoni calls an unprecedented level of control with the customer.
"Cloud providers need to recognise the way forward will be collaboration, not competition," he said. "The organisation that works with multiple vendors to produce a customer-centric solution is the one that will be most successful in the cloud market in 2015."
To Mitch Coopet, co-founder and head of product at backup and enterprise file sync/share provider Code42, hybrid's rise is all about the best of both worlds between the consumerisation of IT and enterprise security.
"People are still largely dabbling with public cloud deployments," he said, "but given the increasing focus on privacy and security [from recent] high-profile hacks, it's no wonder private clouds are on the rise."
The idea that we expect to work on both personal and company data from any device we own or use is old news. But Lindsay Brown, Asia-Pacific SaaS division regional director of Citrix, added that security requirements aren't always in lockstep. Often, the cloud deployments that have to enable it are left to catch up, giving enterprise users no choice but to use different kinds.
"The cloud era assumes we're mobile rather than fixed, personal rather than corporate, wireless rather than wired, and cloud rather than contained," Brown said. "So our traditional ideas of computing are becoming obsolete."
However, it's a matter of necessity in more ways than just user or customer choice. HighQ, a cloud services company focusing on legal and financial services, has seen a jump in demand for a hybrid cloud offering from its customers, said CFO Amit Patel.
"From my conversations with clients and prospects, it's actually being driven more by specific concerns over hosting data in US domiciled clouds because of data sovereignty and the Patriot Act, as opposed to more general concerns about security," he said.
Emil Sayegh, CEO of Codero Hosting, said there is also the uncomfortable truth that the big public cloud providers don't want you to realise.
"The current incarnation of public cloud infrastructure won't be able to handle the workloads and volumes of data generated by next-generation IT."
One change that could well reveal the shortcomings of today's public cloud offerings is the Internet of Things, which will see anywhere from 20 billion to 60 billion devices connect networks over the next five years. It's something that Sayegh said will need rapid, on-demand access to bare metal performance, unencumbered by the layers of virtualisation that cloud systems generally use.
Another factor driving users to a hybrid approach might also be the lack of contract flexibility they're seeing from the big operators -- especially in a market where you might have to redeploy data quickly and don't want to be locked in.
"Many tools in the cloud management platform market stop at the migration step or lock customers into runtime overhead or even to specific clouds," said David Cope, VP of Corporate Development and CMO of Cliqr, a company that uses applications profiles to decouple applications from different vendors' cloud infrastructure.
"Enterprises need the freedom to choose clouds and even change those choices over time, not just for the immediate future, but over the long term."
It's a level of flexibility that, according to Jose Duarte, CEO of business software provider Unit4, has been underestimated by the early cloud solution providers.
"None of them offer it, which limits their market," he said.
Ushering in the hybrid cloud
Despite its seemingly impending popularity, adopting hybrid cloud services isn't going to be a walk in the park. For instance, there are myriad disparate cloud vendors, and if you have data with multiple providers, you'll be dealing with a host of issues that get in the way of interoperability.
Any plugins, filters, or adapters you deploy to bridge the gaps between cloud systems that don't interact will just impose the increasing layers of complexity and are a potential hazard.
Even if you do manage to program or buy a solution to do it at all, Eldad Farkash, co-founder and CTO of BI and analytics service Sisense, said customers had better hope they've read the fine print thoroughly when they signed up.
"Be careful about the vendors you choose to make sure they provide the stack so you can use it within [another environment]," he said. "Otherwise, you might find yourself in a situation where the software you rely on is only available in one cloud, and licensing fees prevent its use in another."
Even if you can manage all that and your data interacts smoothly across hybrid cloud builds, security is still key -- 53 percent of respondents saw it as a barrier to going hybrid, Gartner found.
Lindsay Brown of Citrix agrees, saying that decision makers interviewed for the Citrix Mobility Survey (PDF) confirmed that security is the number one challenge when it comes to mobile.
"As cloud computing isn't just a product to be unboxed and installed, services need to be provided that allow for tailored approaches where hybrid cloud isn't just accessible, but delivered with the services, security, control, and agility users demand," Brown added.
Rise of a new industry
The large-scale adoption of hybrid services is also going to mean the rapid expansion of a field of cloud and software "brokers" when it gets too specialised or fiddly for the internal resources of most organisations.
"There's going to be a lot of innovation around moving data between physically isolated and cloud stacks," said Sisense's Eldad Farkash.
Virtualisation practice manager Kent Christensen of datacentre provider Datalink told ZDNet that conversations with customers have included frustration that public or private clouds alone don't meet needs.
"VMware sells VMware cloud, AWS sells AWS, et cetera; there's limited interoperability between clouds," Christensen said. "Delivering IT services to all departments ... with greater speed and agility is the latest demand."
It will make close understanding of your needs by your cloud provider even more critical, and as data from the Equinix survey confirmed, 83 percent of respondents said direct connections to cloud providers are strongly valued.
One way to ensure unencumbered movement between providers -- whether because of interoperability or in case you want to shop around one day -- is to adopt a vendor-neutral stance.
Many applications with "vanilla" installations can run on virtual servers with common operating systems and block storage environments. If you don't have a complicated, proprietary, or legacy application, you might find it easier than you think to operate across environments with a little forethought.
"Customers that come with significant baggage from the virtualisation world are the ones most likely to have [unusual] requirements," said Sebastian Stadil, CEO of cloud management platform Scalr. "It's quite rare to be in a situation where an entirely superior solution isn't available, but sometimes it's harder to educate than to just put up with it."
Stadil uses the analogy of Java in the early days of the web, where programmers agreed to use the constraints of the toolbox in return for assurance that their applications ran everywhere. "Using an abstraction layer is historically the best way to create portability," he said.
Making use of such a methodology is UK-based financial services company Pensions Hosting Company, which, due to high-availability business requirements, runs copies of the business in multiple clouds from different providers.
Having to span multiple providers with APIs that were mostly incompatible, Pensions Hosting Company used Scalr to take care of the differences between environments, and now the copies are hosted with Rackspace UK, Google Ireland, and AWS Ireland.
"The primary reason for adding more datacentres is redundancy, and not just for availability reasons, but commercial ones," said Mike Selby, Pensions Hosting Company director. "We want to be able to simply turn off our use of a cloud if anything comes up that concerns us or our customers."
Still, there are systems and products around that are tailored more to you as the user than the environments offered by big players.
"Traditionally, cloud management platforms take an older worldview of the landscape -- from the infrastructure up," said Cliqr's Cope, a company that uses applications profiles to decouple applications from different vendors' cloud infrastructure.
But even if you have compatibility issues that seem to lock the data in one environment away from another, Koos du Preez, CTO at business applications provider K2, has one word for you: Recycle.
"Repurpose functionality from previous iterations," he said. "Apps and dashboards are all disposable, but the real asset is the information behind them."
According to du Preez, using hybrid cloud environments will mean managing security and processes across multiple environments.
"Systems like SharePoint have both on-premise and cloud-based versions, so they often have different features available in each," he said. "This means whoever is building applications needs to understand what those differences are. If they do, recycling content can make it easier to work across environments."
Another way around compatibility issues is to design your environments from the ground up to work together, such as those created by managed services provider Mindcore. Mindcore connects a private cloud that it hosts for customers directly to their office storage systems, creating what company president Matt Rosenthal described as a "singular" environment that's transparent and seamless to the end user.
"In reality, they have some data and applications in the office and others in the cloud, but there's really no way to tell the difference as an end user," he said. "Generally, public cloud providers are more focused on the volume business of selling the resources needed to create a cloud environment, not actually doing the integration."
There's a lot of talk around about the "public versus private cloud" debate being over. Both are mature and increasing in ease of use, security, and interoperability. The new questions to ask yourself is which aspects of both will you use in the coming year, and are you ready for it?