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Signs it may be time to adopt a hybrid cloud strategy

The cloud is gaining traction, but the public cloud raises security concerns. Learn why a hybrid cloud strategy can offer businesses more benefits.

If you're like most data storage professionals, you're likely faced with the prospect of phasing cloud storage into your traditional storage environment. Many companies are reluctant to move into public cloud storage for obvious reasons -- loss of control, oversight, security and concerns about how the cloud impacts compliance requirements, to name just a few. But the public cloud also offers compelling economics and elastic computing opportunities that have some businesses wanting to seize the potential benefits.

A sign that it may be time to adopt a hybrid cloud strategy is when business folks start contracting directly with public cloud providers for shadow IT services. Some of the reasons public clouds are attractive to business folks, assuming it's not simply the friction of having to work with an underfunded internal IT group, include:

  • Economic elasticity. Cloud services are available under a number of on-demand agreements. All of those shift the IT budget from periodic large Capex investments to smoother Opex payments. It's possible that over time it may be more expensive from a TCO perspective to use large amounts of public cloud services, but the ability to continually adjust the volume of services needed while paying for essentially only what you use makes a lot of sense in the face of unpredictable business environments.
  • Agility and quickness. Massive amounts of resources can be spun up in minutes when needed, as opposed to the days, weeks or months required for IT to procure, stage and deliver new infrastructure. At the same time, these resources can be shifted, almost on-demand, as needs change.
  • Broad functionality. Today's public clouds offer any range or level of cloud outsourcing desired, including low-level infrastructure, container-like development platforms, fully functional applications and complete subscription business services.
The sensible cloud storage strategy is a hybrid approach in which IT retains control of cloud consumption and integrates it with on-premises resources as appropriate.

But there's another side to the story. When business essentially goes outside the IT department to contract with public cloud services, problems can arise. That's when issues of governance and control surface, including lack of compliance oversight, loss of data management control and potential security risks. Security is an obvious consideration, but perhaps a bigger lurking issue is the lack of business resiliency -- business units can become fully reliant on provided services without having any kind of backup or recovery plan in place. And many companies have discovered creeping cloud costs; what seems cheap for an hour might become pretty expensive over a year.

Cloud storage use cases

Due to the above-mentioned issues, we don't see too many data center applications running in the cloud for most traditional businesses. When it comes to leveraging public cloud storage, three main use cases exist:

  1. Storing primary data for global cloud-based applications. These are applications that might live on the Web and are likely distributed, mobile or social in nature.
  2. Leveraging object-based cloud storage as an off-site archive.
  3. Using object and deep, cold cloud storage as a backup target, with an option to restore into the cloud if necessary (disaster recovery as a service).

In some ways, these use cases imply some level of integration and interoperability with internal IT in a hybrid fashion. For example, cloud storage may serve as a colder, automated tier behind an on-premises active archive solution.

The promise of a hybrid cloud strategy

The sensible cloud storage strategy is a hybrid approach in which IT retains control of cloud consumption and integrates it with on-premises resources as appropriate. It's possible for larger organizations to consider setting up a fully internal private cloud. While this may provide a global enterprise with an optimal set of benefits while reducing perceived risks, it does require some tradeoffs, including the loss of a truly elastic Opex, overall agility, and the economies of scale and efficiency that multi-tenant service providers enjoy.

The goal of a hybrid cloud strategy can be summarized as aiming for the rewards of a public cloud while mitigating the risks with private storage and end-to-end data management. Hybrid storage offerings can be a mix of on-premises storage, private cloud storage, virtual private storage, colocated private storage and public storage. There is no one right answer for all organizations, but there are some common schemes:

  • Private cloud object storage used as an archive or secondary tier behind on-premises traditional storage.
  • On-premises storage (Tier 1 or 2) backed up to public storage, usually leveraging gateways.
  • Colocated private storage (Tier 1 or 2) supporting public cloud computing applications.

End-to-end management of these naturally mixed hybrid storage schemes is the key to success, and there are two ways to approach it. Storage professionals can use the same storage solution in every location. Many of today's virtual storage appliances can run the same storage OS both on-premises and in cloud locations, leveraging a single storage system's management solutions. Or you can ensure that all storage components provide consistent storage access and management APIs. Then the actual storage arrays can be optimally implemented as needed, as long as the remote APIs enable heterogeneous management.

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How did your organization implement its hybrid cloud strategy?
Mike, thanks for these insightful analyses of hybrid cloud options and considerations. Here are a few observations from our work with enterprises - any feedback is welcome.
- Security is receding as a concern. The CIA actually cited the wide distribution of cloud data as a major reason for choosing AWS. With assets so spread out, "bad guys" would not be able to collate meaningful data sets.
- As you point out, the public cloud can be very cost effective for handling "spikey" workloads and peak application-usage times. This often is a good way to test the waters with AWS, Azure, etc.
- Mobility is king. Enterprises need to be sure they can move on and off premise as needed. AWS is recognizing this need, for example with its support of Docker application containers and work with data integration partners. Enterprises should confirm they'll avoid lock-in before jumping onto the public cloud.
- Kevin Petrie, Attunity. www.attunity.com
Hi Kevin,

Great comments - Yes, data mobility and migration are key! I'm familiar with Attunity's CloudBeam that helps move data rapidly and securely into and out of clouds. Cloud architects should definitely check it out.

I do believe security should always be a top concern. As a former intelligence and security officer, I'm sure the CIA is very careful as to what data sets they cloud-host and how they access and move data around. Distributed, encrypted cloud storage might present less physical vulnerability for large data sets than consolidated on-premise storage, but a hybrid architecture can present a more complex attack "surface" to thoroughly protect.

But I would also add that the large public cloud service provider data centers, admin and operations that we've looked at are more secure than some (many?) corporate IT shops. Cloud storage can be far more secure, more protected, and more available than an on-premise storage implementation. With secure and performant data migration, reliable cloud gateways and emerging DRaaS offerings, we think cloud storage is just getting going.

Hybrid Cloud still has a ways to go in order for the hype/promise to meet the realities of the current market:
Hi Brian,

Glad this article caught your interest. The conversation around hybrid cloud is certainly not over by any means -- our journey to the hybrid cloud has been a long one, full of vendor hype and FUD at times. It has taken years longer than we all originally hoped for hybrid capable solutions to become a practical reality. But today, even though there are plenty of emerging developments, I wouldn't label this whole area of IT technical innovation as immature (essentially warning people off of it). Given what we just heard and saw just last week at VMworld 2015, this is going to be the year that much of IT just becomes hybrid enabled (and as a prediction maybe we all stop calling it out special as “hybrid”).

There are a myriad of effective, practical ways to take advantage of hybrid cloud benefits today (inc. several mentioned in the article) including mature cloud gateways, approaches leveraging colos for private storage/public compute, proven data streaming/workflow solutions and container “ships”. Hybrid architectures are clearly here for vSphere owners given VMware’s recent unified cloud announcements. And now there are serious hybridizing solutions from vendors like Velostrata (making on-prem storage directly available to tier 1 cloud computing), Ravello (practical hybrid cloud agility), Hotlink (manage all cloud/hybrid ops from vCenter), and Panzura (with both cloud gateway and hybrid computing/storage solution).

We think it would be a mistake for most IT organizations to stay sitting on the hybrid cloud sidelines since so much actual value can be had today with incremental effort. What’s harder we think is setting up and effectively operating a full isolated private cloud for all but the larger organizations, although both new vendors like ZeroStack (modular cloud building appliances) and mature ones like VMware (with EVO SDDC) are aiming to change that position too.