IBM says the single-vendor approach to cloud computing is dead

Cloud computing is becoming a central part of business operations, but the risk of vendor lock-in is real. Hybrid cloud could be a solution.

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Hybrid cloud and multi-cloud are the most popular IT architectures for cloud service delivery, according to IBM.

Image: NicoElNino, Getty Images / iStockphoto

As businesses enthusiastically invest in cloud computing to achieve their digital transformations, it is becoming evident that placing critical workloads into the hands of just a single cloud provider comes with its fair share of risk – and according to new research carried out by IBM, this is gradually giving rise to the dominance of hybrid cloud architectures. 

In a global survey spanning 7,200 executives across 28 industries and 47 countries, Big Blue found that only 3% of decision makers are using a single private or public cloud in 2021, down from 29% in 2019. In specific industries, such as electronics, manufacturing or telecommunications, the number even falls to 1%. 

On the other hand, the proportion of respondents claiming a mix of multiple private and public clouds rose from 44% to 59%. Going forward, this trend is helping to establish hybrid cloud and multi-cloud as the most popular IT architecture for cloud service delivery, according to IBM – while the one-vendor approach to cloud computing slowly disappears. 

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Cloud computing has seen an unprecedented explosion in popularity over the past few years, especially while the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to re-invent their practices in a world dominated by remote working, learning, playing and shopping. 

IBM's research shows that the health crisis has accelerated digital transformation at 59% of surveyed organizations, with cloud computing at the center of the infrastructure required to future-proof businesses. The technology served to achieve goals ranging from digitizing existing products and services to improving customer experience, through to reducing security risks. 

This broad range of uses is also reflected in numbers: in 2020, cloud computing revenues reached $219 billion, and analysts expect the industry to further grow to $791 billion by 2028. IBM says that it is by far the biggest investment in "emerging technologies" underway in large enterprises. 

But as companies start outsourcing key processes to the cloud, it is also becoming clear that the number of providers of cloud services is limited. Specifically, the market is divided between less than a handful of huge tech players, with the top five providers accounting for an 80% share. Amazon's AWS, for instance, owns 41% of the market, while Microsoft Azure represents nearly 20%. 

Large-scale hyperscalers come with significant benefits: because of their size, they have the capabilities to implement infrastructure that is specifically built to better protect workloads from failure, meaning better operational resiliency. 

But they also open the door to vendor lock-in, which businesses see as a risk. IBM's survey found that nearly 69% of respondents say that vendor lock-in is a significant obstacle to improving business performance in most parts of their cloud estate. 

For organizations that carry out particularly sensitive operations, the danger of outsourcing processes to a small number of external companies is even more acute. Banks, for example, are increasingly deploying cloud technology to run operations that are integral to the core running of their financial systems. This has led experts to warn against the reliance on a single cloud provider. 

Earlier this year, leaders from the Bank of England argued that the concentrated nature of the market means that cloud providers might start dictating their own terms, at the expense of the stability of the financial system. For example, they could refuse to be transparent by failing to open up their technologies to third-party scrutiny, meaning that it would be impossible to know if providers have baked in sufficient resiliency to carry out banking operations. 

To avoid this form of vendor lock-in, it is necessary to adopt a multi-cloud or hybrid cloud strategy. But while IBM's survey shows that organizations are now clearly switching to a variety of cloud providers, the process is not smooth enough yet. 

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Interoperability between cloud providers is effectively still a work in progress, which can impede the operations carried out across several vendors by a single business. Governance and compliance rules, for example, can vary from one provider to the next, as can security standards, meaning that complex cloud infrastructures can create flaws for cybercriminals to exploit. 

Case in point: in sectors like finance, 80% of respondents cited governance and compliance tools being able to run across multiple clouds as important to the success of a digital initiative. Another 80% of executives surveyed said that data security being embedded throughout the cloud architecture is key to a successful digital project. 

"Today's findings reiterate that security, governance and compliance tools must run across multiple clouds and be embedded throughout hybrid cloud architectures from the onset for digital transformations to be successful," said Howard Boville, the head of IBM Cloud Platform. 

As cloud adoption grows, the issue of interoperability is likely to become a key priority for decision makers. IBM's survey has already found that for the majority of respondents (79%), workloads being completely portable with no vendor lock-in is extremely important to reach their digital transformation goals.  

Common and open standards between cloud providers are, therefore, key to the success of a multi-cloud or hybrid cloud strategy, so that it becomes possible to connect systems regardless of the underlying technology.