Cloud computing in the real world: The challenges and opportunities of multicloud

Multicloud is here to stay. The next step is to make its more sophisticated incarnations easier to deploy and manage.
Written by Charles McLellan, Senior Editor

As organisations continue their digital transformation journeys, modernising business processes and optimising IT infrastructures, it's clear that cloud computing services, along with automation, orchestration and data analytics, will become increasingly important. 

These trends are well underway: for example, in F5's 2020 State of Application Services Report (February 2020), nearly a third of respondents reported that over half of their applications would be in the cloud by the end of 2020 -- a cloud migration process that has been accelerated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In its 2021 survey (March 2021), F5 noted that nearly half of respondents had accelerated their public cloud and SaaS deployments as workloads were redistributed away from on-premises data centres to support remote workforces.

SEE: Nextcloud Hub: User tips (free PDF) (TechRepublic    

But, as F5's 2020 report showed, enterprise application portfolios are typically a mixed bag, including four main architectures: three-tier web and mobile, client-server, microservices/cloud-native, and old-school mainframe/monolith. This means that the details of cloud migration will vary depending on an enterprise's particular mix of application types -- both external- and internal-facing. 

Drilling down, F5 found that most enterprises (76%) used some combination of traditional (3-tier/client-server/monolith) and modern (mobile/microservices) architectures, while 21% used only traditional and just 3% used only modern; 18% used all five architectures and 11% use just one. In the 2021 survey, the number of organisations managing five different application architectures jumped from 18% to 48%.

Images: F5 (2020)

App portfolio heterogeneity is the reason why, when F5's 2020 respondents were asked "How does your organisation decide which type of cloud is best for your application?", the top answer was on a 'case by case, per application' basis. It's also why three-quarters of F5's respondents reported that they had applications in two or more cloud providers, and why over a third said that refactoring legacy applications for modern environments is a priority for digital transformation. This mix of application architectures in a typical organisation's portfolio "highlights the fact that multicloud will be the norm for the long term," F5 said.

F5's 2021 survey noted a rise in the importance of edge computing, with containerised applications spanning multiple cloud and edge locations. "More than three-quarters (76%) of respondents are already using, or have plans to use, the edge to capture benefits related to application deployment, performance, and data availability," F5 said.

This article provides an overview of the issues surrounding multicloud environments. For more detail on the current state of play in this area, check out the remainder of this ZDNet/TechRepublic special report. 

Multicloud challenges

In an ideal world, application workloads -- whatever their heritage -- should be able to move seamlessly between, or be shared among, cloud service providers (CSPs), alighting wherever the optimal combination of performance, functionality, cost, security, compliance, availability, resilience, and so on, is to be found -- while avoiding the dreaded 'vendor lock-in'.

"Businesses taking a multicloud approach can cherry-pick the solutions that best meet their business needs as soon as they become available, rather than having to wait for one vendor to catch up," John Abel, technical director, office of the CTO, Google Cloud, told ZDNet in 2020. "Avoiding vendor lock in, increased agility, more efficient costs and the promise of each provider's best solutions are all too great to ignore."

That's certainly the view taken by many respondents to the surveys underpinning the State of Multicloud reports from application resource management company Turbonomic. In particular, respondents from organisations that see themselves as 'leaders' in terms of the ability to leverage new technologies to advance their business goals are the most positive about multicloud: 

Data: Turbonomic (2021) / Chart: ZDNet

The ideal may be seamless cloud-hopping, but there are plenty of real-world challenges involved in migrating applications to the cloud, and managing them in a multicloud environment. In F5's 2020 survey, the principal one, by some distance, was Maintaining security, policy and compliance:   

Data: F5 / Chart: ZDNet 

Flexera's 2020 State of the Cloud Report states that "Due to its complexity and dynamic nature, the multi-cloud environment brings many challenges, such as assessing the suitability of on-premises apps for migrating to the cloud". Specifically, Understanding app dependencies emerged as the top cloud migration challenge, followed by Assessing technical feasibility and Assessing on-prem vs cloud costs -- a top 3 that remained unchanged (with different percentages) in the 2021 survey:   

Data: Flexera / Chart: ZDNet

When it comes to overall cloud challenges, as opposed to migration, the top four in Flexera's 2020 survey were Security, Managing cloud spend and Lack of resources/expertise. Managing multi-cloud made the top challenges list, but some way further down. Again, the same broad picture emerged in the 2021 survey:   

Data: Flexera / Chart: ZDNet

In Turbonomic's 2021 State of Multicloud report, cultural and/or operational factors, and the complexity of managing hybrid/multicloud environments were the foremost challenges faced by organisations:   

Data: Turbonomic / Chart: ZDNet

"Bottom-line, cultural change is a prerequisite for managing the complexity of today's hybrid and multicloud environments. Teams must operate faster, dynamically adapting to shifting market trends to stay competitive. This new reality requires tighter collaboration between teams, as well as a maniacal focus on the customer experience and how it impacts the business," Turbonomic said in the 2020 report. In the 2021 survey, the inability to hire or train people with the necessary skill sets became less of an issue, dropping to 34% from 42% in 2020.

SEE: Digital transformation: The new rules for getting projects done

Google Cloud's John Abel also identified complexity as a key barrier when it comes to multicloud: "Perhaps the biggest cause for hesitation around multicloud adoption is the complexity of deploying more than one cloud platform, and it's particularly difficult to do without hindering productivity or innovation. To overcome this, open-source technologies such as Kubernetes can aid the orchestration of containers to limit disruption with each new implementation and enable development teams to efficiently move workloads around."

How many clouds, and which ones?

The use of multiple clouds is by far the most common pattern among enterprises, with 92% adopting this strategy in Flexera's 2021 State of the Cloud Report (82% hybrid cloud, 10% multiple public cloud). This continues a long-standing trend:  

Data: Flexera & RightScale (pre-2020) / Chart: ZDNet

Among the 82% of enterprises with hybrid cloud deployments in 2021, the most common combination is multiple public and private clouds (43%), followed by multiple public/one private (33%), one public/multiple private (13%), and one public/one private (11%). 

In 2021, Flexera reported that organisations, on average, were using 2.6 public and 2.7 private clouds, and were experimenting with a further 1.1 public and 2.2 private clouds. Here's how these numbers have varied in previous years: 

Data: Flexera & RightScale (pre-2020) / Chart: ZDNet

Cloud usage, particularly of public clouds, has steadily increased since 2016, while experimental deployments have fluctuated, generally at a lower level. 

Amazon Web Services (AWS) remains the leading public cloud in Flexera's 2021 survey. However, the rise of Microsoft Azure since 2016 is notable, leaving Google Cloud some distance behind in third place: 

Data: Flexera & RightScale (pre-2020) / Chart: ZDNet

Among private cloud providers, VMware vSphere is still (just) the leader, with Microsoft's Azure Stack showing a similar trajectory to its public cloud counterpart and consolidating second place in 2021. The rise of AWS Outpost, from 12% in 2019 to 28% in 2021, is another notable private cloud trend:   

Data: Flexera & RightScale (pre-2020) / Chart: ZDNet

In Turbonomic's 2021 State of Multicloud survey, Microsoft Azure was the leading public cloud (67%, up from 61% in 2020), followed by AWS (57%, up from 53% in 2020). The third most-used cloud type was 'Private cloud self-service and elasticity with containers and/or VMs, on-premises and/or hosted at an MSP' (34%, down from 38% in 2020). Respondents mostly used one (35%) or two (30%) clouds in 2020, with 30% using three or more:   

Data: Turbonomic / Chart: ZDNet

"As organizations (and cloud offerings) become more sophisticated with cloud services, we can expect this graph to shift right," said Turbonomic in 2020. No compelling evidence of that in 2021 -- maybe next year.

What about on-premises?

Although multicloud will become the norm, there's still a place for the on-premises data centre, at least in the near term, either as part of a hybrid cloud strategy or to host legacy applications that, for whatever reason, are not suitable for migration to the cloud. 

SEE: 10 tech predictions that could mean huge changes ahead

For example, in the 2020 edition of the Forrester/IBM report The Key To Enterprise Hybrid Multicloud Strategy, a survey of 350 global enterprise IT decision makers found that more than half of mission-critical workloads and 47% of data-intensive workloads will still be run either on-premises or in an internal private cloud in two years. 

The main reasons for using on-premises resources to host workloads focused on compliance, concerns about data in transit (cost, latency or security), and application/infrastructure performance: 

Data: Forrester & IBM / Chart: ZDNet

Key takeaways from the 2021 edition of the Forrester/IBM report were: On-premises infrastructure continues to be key for enterprise strategy; The push to public cloud has not stopped investments in on-premises infrastructure; Lack of infrastructure reinvestment leaves organizations vulnerable postpandemic, and; Firms seek a hybrid cloud strategy for today and tomorrow.

The demand for a hybrid cloud strategy has clearly been influenced by the pandemic, according to the 2021 Forrester/IBM report: "In uncertain times with rising demands and workloads, IT organizations require flexible, open IT, while maintaining secure delivery and high performance. A hybrid cloud strategy can offer firms better control of their sensitive data and where it resides during uncertain times".

Concerns about data are clear in Flexera's 2021 State of the Cloud report, which shows that non-sensitive data is far more likely to end up in the cloud than corporate financial or consumer data. Only a quarter (26%) of respondents were prepared to put all or most of their corporate financial data in the cloud, for example, compared to half (51%) who wanted this sensitive information to remain fully or mostly on-premises: 

Data: Flexera / Chart: ZDNet

This concern over sensitive data, and the desire to keep it safely on-premises, underpins moves like Google's 'hybrid AI' offerings, such as Speech-to-text On-Prem, which is available on its Anthos platform. "By bringing AI on-prem, customers can now run AI workloads near their data, all while keeping them safe," Google Cloud's John Abel told ZDNet. "Hybrid AI simplifies the development process by providing easy access to best-in-class AI technology on-prem."

Multicloud cost management

A key problem for organisations using multiple clouds is keeping a handle on costs. Cloud pricing is complex and fast-changing, and billing models vary between cloud platforms, yet cloud services can easily be accessed and provisioned -- often by business units acting independently of the IT department. This is a combination that can result in unexpected and uncontrolled costs. 

For example, in Flexera's 2021 State of the Cloud report, survey respondents estimated that 30% of their organisations' cloud spend is wasted, while Flexera puts the wastage figure at 35%, based on analyses of its customers' cloud spending. 

Image: Gartner

The major public cloud providers -- Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform -- all offer native tools to manage costs, and these will suit organisations that limit themselves to one public cloud platform. However, third-party tools could potentially do a better job of multicloud cost management.

Analyst firm Gartner recommends a hybrid approach: IT managers should use the cloud providers' native tools first, identify gaps in functionality, and then address these with third-party offerings. When it comes to third-party tools, Gartner suggests favouring vendors that offer "sophisticated analytics that ensure high-quality insights", and that IT pros should "plan for multicloud, and prioritize solutions with higher feature parity between platforms". 

In December 2019, Gartner compared five leading third-party cloud cost management vendors -- ApptioCloudCheckrFlexeraTurbonomic and VMware -- and generated the following summary, noting that "the cost optimization market still has many unexplored areas": 

Image: Gartner  

In its more recent How to Manage and Optimize Costs of Public Cloud IaaS and PaaS report (March 2020), Gartner says: "Third-party cost management tools provide functionality that can exceed what cloud providers natively implement. Furthermore, their support for multiple cloud platforms allows organizations to implement a multicloud management strategy". The analyst firm adds that the provider-independence of these tools will allow them to continue to receive investments going forward. 

Missing from the above analysis is the biggest component of cloud spending worldwide: software-as-a-service, or SaaS. In Gartner's most recent forecast, SaaS spending is expected to rise from $122.6 billion in 2021 to $145.4bn in 2022 (18.5% growth). However, IaaS and PaaS will grow faster over the same period, at 30.2% and 20.3% respectively. Total spending on public cloud services is expected to grow by 19.6% in 2021/22, from $332.3bn to $397.5bn:

Data: Gartner / Chart: ZDNet

Because it's particularly easy to deploy, SaaS is the most likely category of cloud spend to get out of hand. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools that allow organisations to discover, manage and optimise their SaaS subscriptions. Leading SaaS cost management tools include ZyloTorii and Augment. Among the broader-based vendors, Flexera offers SaaS Manager, while Apptio added SaaS cost management to its Cloudability offering in 2020.

Managing the multicloud

An organisation may report that it is using multiple clouds, but that doesn't necessarily mean its applications are moving freely between different cloud providers. That not only requires cloud-native applications built around containers and microservices, but also multicloud management tools, which are still evolving.

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For example, in Flexera's 2021 State of the Cloud survey, the most common multicloud implementation was Apps siloed on different clouds (49%), while Intelligent workload placement is well down the list (29%):

Data: Flexera / Chart: ZDNet

The use of containers is widespread, with 53% of organisations using Docker and 48% using Kubernetes (the Docker orchestration tool) in Flexera's 2021 survey, and container-as-a-service offerings such as AWS ECS/EKS (51%), Azure Container Service (43%) and Google Kubernetes Engine (31%) all well represented.

Flexera's 2021 respondents also reported multiple challenges related to container use, headed up by Lack of internal resources with expertise, Ensuring security and Migrating traditional apps to containers:   

Data: Flexera / Chart: ZDNet

In Turbonomic's 2021 State of Multicloud survey, 61% of all organisations expect containerisation to play a strategic role within 18 months, with 19% using it strategically today. For digital 'leaders', those numbers are higher -- 71% and 27% respectively.

Given that advanced multicloud architectures have yet to become widespread, and the challenges surrounding containers, it's not surprising that only a third of Flexera's 2021 respondents are using multicloud management tools: 

Data: Flexera / Chart: ZDNet

"Managing different cloud systems can certainly be a challenge, particularly if multicloud adoption develops in an ad hoc manner rather than being planned from the ground up," said Google Cloud's John Abel. "To manage processes and workflows across different cloud services, many organisations look to cloud orchestration software to host and coordinate cloud services from different providers."

This is a new battleground for the leading cloud providers such as Google (Anthos), IBM (Red Hat OpenShift) and Microsoft (Azure Arc), as well as third parties.

The pandemic effect

The COVID-19 pandemic has overshadowed all aspects of life over the past year, with IT, both strategic and operational, no exception. Flexera's 2021 survey duly showed that organisations' cloud plans and adoption did indeed shift as a result of the pandemic, with 90% reporting that cloud usage was higher than initially planned.

Image: Flexera

Flexera attributes this cloud uptick to several factors, including extra capacity for current cloud-based applications to meet increased demand due to growing online usage. The report also suggests that "some organizations may also find that public cloud providers offer a more reliable option for business continuity".

Survey stats


Author / sponsor

Survey period


F5 2021 State of Application Strategy Report 



~1544 'across a range of company sizes and industries' worldwide

Flexera 2021 State of the Cloud Report                     



750 'technical professionals from around the globe and across a broad cross-section of organizations' (637 enterprise, 113 SMB)

The Key To Enterprise Hybrid Multicloud Strategy 

Forrester / IBM

Oct/Nov 2020

384 'global decision-makers for IT infrastructure environments'

Turbonomic 2021 State of Multicloud 


Jan 2021

819 (36% in Infrastructure/Operations, 19% in Architecture)


There are many reasons why organisations make use of cloud services from multiple providers -- accessing the best functionality for particular purposes, hedging bets against outages, avoiding vendor lock-in, and more. However, the ease with which cloud-based infrastructure can be provisioned, and software subscriptions taken out, also means that multicloud deployments are likely to evolve semi-independently of the IT department, with potentially negative consequences.

Organisations face many challenges in the quest for free movement of application workloads across different clouds. Prominent among these are: the heterogeneity of enterprise application portfolios, with significant numbers of 'legacy' apps requiring significant refactoring to migrate to the cloud; security concerns; cost control; lack of resources and expertise; the need for cultural changes in IT teams; and management complexity.

Multicloud is undoubtedly here to stay. The next step is to make its more sophisticated incarnations easier to deploy and manage. To this end, Google Cloud's John Abel sees a key role for open-source APIs in enabling future multicloud developments: "2021 will see a continuation of an ever-evolving workplace, and businesses will need to remain agile, responsive, and able to adapt to survive...To enable multicloud deployments, build new environments and modernise old ones, the open-source community will dial up investment in container and serverless functions, creating a spike in global demand."

Read more on multicloud

Cloud deployments to rocket ahead in 2021 after dizzying growth during the pandemic (TechRepublic)

Oracle launches multi-cloud management platform

Multi-cloud still front of mind for VMware

MongoDB Multi-cloud Clusters: Is the message getting ahead of itself?

Google Cloud matures, aims to leverage Confidential Computing, multi-cloud analytics via BigQuery Omni

Is Anthos the edge Google needs in enterprise cloud?

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