Altocumulus – How corporate IT is entering the multi-cloud | Business
CORPORATE COMPUTING is supposed to solve problems, but often creates new ones, which have to be mended with more IT. These fixes create yet more problems and so on. The newest layer of IT geology is the “multi-cloud”. On March 10th VMware became the latest big software-maker to unveil its contribution.
The computing cloud is old hat. Most companies use at least one business service provided over the internet, be it raw number-crunching or web-based applications. In all, businesses spent nearly $230bn globally in 2019 on the cloud, according to Gartner, a research firm, and could splurge as much as $355bn in 2022. The lion’s share goes to three market leaders: Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud.
Yet individual firms tend to use more than one cloud provider. Plenty employ dozens of them. They fear shackling themselves to just one—or, in the words of Pat Gelsinger, VMware’s chief executive, “they don’t just want to have a new IBM mainframe called AWS”. And they have diverse needs, related to specific digital tasks, necessary redundancy or compliance with data-localisation requirements. All this means that—in keeping with another eternal IT constant—their technological infrastructure is fragmented.
Enter the multi-cloud. The basic idea is to create an overarching, unified platform—a cloud of clouds, if you will. One approach is the “hybrid cloud”, which combines a customer’s own computers with the ones operated by, say, AWS. Another is to connect applications hosted by different cloud providers.
The third, which VMware promises, is the multi-cloud holy grail: to allow companies to shift computing workloads easily from one provider to another, depending on things like price, reliability and distance to the customer. This task has been made considerably easier by Kubernetes, an increasingly popular piece of open-source software that packages computing tasks in standard digital containers and allows firms to manage these, as if they were the commander of a container vessel (kubernetes is Greek for “helmsman”).
VMware’s offerings look particularly ambitious. It already helps companies run their local computer systems but now wants to be the main pilot to assist them in navigating their dispersed clouds. With a similar goal in mind, last July IBM acquired Red Hat, whose software resembles VMware’s. The big three cloud providers are also getting into the game, albeit more gingerly for the time being. Google’s multi-cloud technology is called Anthos. Amazon and Microsoft have launched, respectively, AWS Outposts and Azure Stack, which let firms build local clouds that are then connected to the firms’ bigger remote one. Both companies also have agreements with VMware, which enable the firm’s customers to run its software on AWS and Azure.
These deals point to another iron rule of IT: always try to turn your rivals’ competitive advantage into a commodity. If VMware and IBM are trying to create an über-cloud, it is to turn the big three into mere peddlers of cheap computing power.
This strategy is not guaranteed to work, warns Mark Moerdler of Bernstein, a research firm. The number of companies that really need to move their workloads around seamlessly is small, he argues. And the multi-cloud’s universality comes at the expense of specificity. It is, for instance, unable to accommodate the entire suite of features, some of them proprietary, offered by each of the big providers. Many customers would hesitate to forsake such benefits.
That leaves one last, related question. Is the perennial IT promise of “write once, run everywhere” realistic? It was supposed to work for Java, a programming language, and the software written in it was predicated on this idea. It proved tricky in real life. “There has always been this dream, on the West Coast in particular, that we should live in a Utopia where all the vendors are interchangeable,” quips Lydia Leong of Gartner. The multi-cloud may be here to stay. But do not expect it to cover the entire computing sky any time soon.■
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Altocumulus”