What is multi-cloud integration? Benefits and challenges

The majority of organizations today — nearly 90% — are already working in multi-cloud environments. Even so, many businesses experience challenges when it comes to integrating data sources and applications within a multi-cloud infrastructure. Without a dedicated plan of action and an approach to resolving the challenges that come with connecting different cloud-based data streams, organizations may discover that they’ve fallen short of success on their data initiatives.

In this article, we’ll explain the advantages of multi-cloud integration, outline common integration problems, and detail a plan of action for integration across multiple cloud systems.

Definition of multi-cloud

A multi-cloud strategy involves using more than one cloud vendor to host an organization’s data, applications, or infrastructure. While there are smaller players in the space, most organizations rely on one or more of the three largest cloud service providers: Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform.

For many organizations, adopting a multi-cloud environment can be a deliberate strategy to avoid vendor lock-in. For others, it can be a side consequence of poor cloud and IT governance, which results in shadow IT and data landing in multiple cloud providers.

A best-practice multi-cloud approach blends services from different cloud providers to solve the problems of data management, data storage, and cloud computing. For example, a company may have a processing engine in Microsoft Azure that pulls from a data center hosted on AWS.

Private cloud vs. public cloud

The terms “private cloud” and “public cloud” pop up a lot when people discuss multi-cloud integration. But what do they really mean?

Very simply, public cloud refers to a cloud environment that can be accessed by other people. For example, SaaS products are usually hosted by public cloud providers. These vendors generally also provide managed services, such as ongoing maintenance and system redundancy. While there would certainly be security protocols in place to protect sensitive user information, the application itself can be accessed and used outside of the company that built it.

Multi-tenancy — that is, setting up an application in such a way that it can serve multiple users (or “tenants”) — is one of the prime characteristics of public cloud. The public cloud provider’s compute, storage, and network resources can be shared across multiple clients. This improves cost efficiency, but can introduce data security or protection challenges, particularly in terms of making sure that only legitimate owners and authorized users have access to sensitive data.

Private cloud, on the other hand, refers to a cloud environment that can only be accessed internally — in effect, creating an on-premises experience in the cloud. Private cloud is widely used by financial and healthcare organizations who want the convenience and processing power of cloud infrastructure, but aren’t willing to sacrifice the level of security and control they had with on-prem solutions.

Multi-cloud and hybrid cloud

Another term that comes up frequently in discussions of multi-cloud solutions is “hybrid cloud.” They are similar in that they rely on a blend of different data environments for storage and computing. However, where multi-cloud orchestration relies exclusively on multiple cloud providers, hybrid cloud orchestration uses a combination of different cloud and on-premises systems.

Some organizations find themselves operating in a hybrid cloud infrastructure by default, simply because they are tethered to legacy systems that they have not yet been able to upgrade to the cloud. Others, particularly in highly regulated industries such as financial services and healthcare, find that the security and control they get from on-prem systems makes up for the loss of some of the functionality that can only be accessed from cloud-native environments.

As with anything involved with cloud adoption, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works for everyone. Organizations need to examine their own needs and find the balance of different vendors and technologies that will provide them with flexibility, business continuity, and the ability to optimize operations.

What are the benefits of multi-cloud integration?

By implementing a cloud data ecosystem with a blend of cloud providers, organizations experience a number of benefits over those who rely on a single cloud system. Here are a few of the benefits they can expect to see:

1. Avoiding vendor lock-In

By relying on just one cloud provider, companies might encounter situations in which their data and metadata are shaped by that provider’s proprietary systems and protocols. Consequently, all organizational data is shaped by third-party systems and protocols, making it both expensive and difficult to use a different provider in the future. Multi-cloud integration helps avoid these costly situations while keeping cloud providers honest.

2. Increased productivity and efficiency

By using the top resources from multiple cloud providers, organizations can significantly improve their productivity and efficiency. For example, by using the deep machine learning capabilities from Microsoft Azure with an OLTP system primed for rapid transactions in AWS, businesses could gain the best insights on the quickest transactional system.

3. Improved flexibility

Multi-cloud integration is ideal for the flexibility required to effectively complete different tasks. For example, organizations might want to use one cloud provider for centralized analytics of all of their data, another for automation of standard processes, and a third for edge deployments in the internet of things (IoT). Using different applications for each of these use cases enables organizations to do lightweight transformations and analytics filtering before moving data into their central location.

4. Dynamic pricing

Organizations who use multi-cloud integration have the benefit of switching between cloud applications with different pricing models, thus taking advantage of dynamic prices by simply moving their workloads. In this case, it can be cost-effective to have nodes in multiple clouds and integrate data with daily operations when necessary.

5. Better disaster recovery

It’s rarely a good idea to keep all of your cloud resources in a single host. If any issues occur — say an outage or some other form of downtime — productivity stops altogether. Multi-cloud deployments usually include failovers between cloud providers for this reason. If there’s downtime with one provider, organizations can quickly shift their resources to another for high availability.

The challenges of multi-cloud integration

As the above examples prove, using multiple systems for cloud storage and computing is critical for any organization looking to get an edge on the competition. However, without appropriate multi-cloud integration, each cloud system acts as a silo, preventing organizations from gaining holistic value from their data. This is the exact opposite of cloud computing’s purpose.

To maximize the value of a multi-cloud environment, it’s important to mitigate common challenges that often arise with multi-cloud integration, including:

  • Architectural complexity: Migrating solutions to the cloud or multiple cloud environments requires substantial changes to an organization’s existing architecture — especially when they’ve historically only had on-premises infrastructure. Organizations often need to redesign their applications in order to run them in the new cloud environment.
  • On-prem integration structure maintenance: When businesses deploy multi-cloud integration, it’s often difficult to preserve the integration structure of on-prem data and supporting systems. However, organizations must balance the needs of multi-cloud integration with traditional on-prem integrations in order to maintain existing connections between data and apps.
  • Agility: Multi-cloud integrations require a degree of agility that’s not as necessary when relying on a single cloud system or on-prem deployments. Having nodes in different cloud applications, for example, requires the ability to quickly shift between these nodes at different points in time, potentially adding latency to the complexity of integrations.
  • Data protection: Regulations such as GDPR hold organizations responsible for governance policies and practices for personally identifiable information (PII). Data processors, including cloud providers, must comply with the controller instructions, which is in substance a contractual agreement such as standard contractual clauses or binding corporate rules. Using multi-cloud options increases the number of those data processors, as well as the intricacy and risk of multi-cloud integrations.
  • Containers and microservices: Containers and microservices are useful in cloud deployments for developing and running applications. As effective as containers and microservices are, they are both additional approaches that may need to be redesigned to fit into any new cloud integration.

Multi-cloud security

Security could very well be the most important issue surrounding multi-cloud integrations. Dynamically provisioning resources between different cloud providers, for example, can expose organizations to all sorts of risks if they don’t have sufficient security measures in place. Although there are a variety of ways to address multi-cloud security, several of them — such as VPNs — can actually broaden the attack surface, making it essential to have a comprehensive security plan.

Multi-cloud architecture

In the past, businesses had to rely on point solutions and APIs to integrate between specific applications or platforms. These solutions were often brittle, difficult to scale, and time-consuming — particularly when adding new data sources or apps.

Organizations can simplify operations and increase the efficiency of the entire technical ecosystem by consolidating integration into a single multi-cloud architecture. Best practices for doing so include the following:

A comprehensive integration platform

Organizations have many options for implementing a single integration layer into their multi-cloud architectures. These platforms typically depend on application programming interfaces and protocol standards such as XML, JSON, and HTML to help different cloud resources talk to each other.

In addition, these platforms are useful for integrating data from on-prem systems, providing a single point of access and control over an organization’s entire IT resources, and enabling systems, applications, and data sources to operate with one another for a number of use cases.

Bimodal integration planning

There are several specific integration concerns organizations must account for with multi-cloud architecture, including monitoring, administration, security, load balancing, and management of resources in a single integration platform. It’s best to account for these factors with a bimodal approach.

The first mode should focus on the core concepts of reusability, trust, and regulatory compliance. Ideally, there should be specific roles in the workflow responsible for these tasks, such as an integration specialist and administrator. The second mode should have dedicated roles for deployment speed, flexibility, and risk management.

Transformation tools

It’s essential for multi-cloud integration platforms to have tools for transforming and conforming data to a single source’s data model. These tools address the differences in data models and schema of various data sources. Without them, it’s impossible to truly integrate data.

It’s a good idea for organizations to architect these tools so they have a uniform view of the various data touchpoints. Common transformation tools rely on ETL or ELT processes.

Controls and permissions

A single integration platform provides a central access point for data governance and security requirements. Organizations can set up permissions or controls to determine exactly who is able to access what data from this single integration layer. With this approach, organizations can protect PII according to compliance or enterprise standards.

Management consoles

The best integration platforms for multi-cloud architecture have a single management console for controlling and monitoring the different workflows of the multiple sources involved. These tools are critical to helping data stewards or administrators understand how data is being integrated and used. Management consoles are also useful for the oversight necessary to implement data governance and security standards.

Multi-cloud management platform

As a comprehensive suite of data integration and data integrity applications, Talend provides fast, reliable data integration with industry-leading data quality and data governance capabilities. With over 900 connectors for integrating data from some of the most widely used cloud providers and sources available today, Talend streamlines the integration process.

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