(Confused by the title of this post? Read this brief anecdote.)
The myth of cloud repatriation refuses to die, and a good chunk of the problem is that users (and poll respondents) use “repatriation” is a wild array of ways, but non-cloud vendors want you to believe that “repatriation” means enterprises packing up all their stuff in the cloud and moving it back into their internal data centers — which occurs so infrequently that it’s like a sasquatch sighting.
A non-comprehensive list of the ways that clients use the term “repatriation” that have little to nothing to do with what non-cloud vendors (or “hybrid”) would like you to believe:
Outsourcing takeback. The origin of the term comes from orgs that are coming back from traditional IT outsourcing. However, we also hear cloud architects say they are “repatriating” when they gradually take back management of cloud workloads from a cloud MSP; the workloads stay in the cloud, though.
Migration pause. Some migrations to IaaS/IaaS+PaaS do not go well. This is often the result of choosing a low-quality MSP for migration assistance, or rethinking the wisdom of a lift-and-shift. Orgs will pause, switch MSPs and/or switch migration approaches (usually to lift-and-optimize), and then resume. Some workloads might be temporarily returned on-premise while this occurs.
SaaS portfolio rationalization. Sprawling adoption of SaaS, at the individual, team, department or business-unit level, can result in one or more SaaS applications being replaced with other, official, corporate SaaS (for instance, replacing individual use of Dropbox with an org-wide Google Drive implementation as part of G-Suite). Sometimes, the org might choose to build on-premises functionality instead (for instance, replacing ad-hoc SaaS analytics with an on-prem data warehouse and enterprise BI solution). This is overwhelmingly the most common form of “cloud repatriation”.
Development in the cloud, production on premises. While the dev/prod split of environments is much less common than it used to be, some organizations still develop in cloud IaaS and then run the app in an on-prem data center in production. Orgs like this will sometimes say they “repatriate” the apps for production.
The Oops. Sometimes organizations attempt to put an application in the cloud and it Just Doesn’t Go Well. Sometimes the workload isn’t a good match for cloud services in general. Sometimes the workload is just a bad match for the particular provider chosen. Sometimes they make a bad integrator choice, or their internal cloud skills are inadequate to the task. Whatever it is, people might hit the “abort” button and either rethink and retry in the cloud, or give up and put it on premises (either until they can put together a better plan, or for the long term).
Of course, there are the sasquatch sightings, too, like the Dropbox migration from AWS (also see the five-year followup), but those stories rarely represent enterprise-comparable use cases. If you’re one of the largest purchasers of storage on the planet, and you want custom hardware, absolutely, DIY makes sense. (And Dropbox continues to do some things on AWS.)
Customers also engage in broader strategic application portfolio rationalizations that sometimes result in groups of applications being shifted around, based on changing needs. While the broader movement is towards the cloud, applications do sometimes come back on-premises, often to align to data gravity considerations for application and data integration.
None of these things are in any way equivalent to the notion that there’s a broad or even common movement of workloads from the cloud back on-premises, though, especially for those customers who have migrated entire data centers or the vast majority of their IT estate to the cloud.
(Updated with research: In my note for Gartner clients, “Moving Beyond the Myth of Repatriation: How to Handle Cloud Projects Failures”, I provide detailed guidance on why cloud projects fail, how to reduce the risks of such projects, and how — or if — to rescue troubled cloud projects.)