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Don’t boil the ocean to create your cloud

Many of my client inquiries deal with the seemingly overwhelming complexity of maturing cloud adoption — especially with the current wave of pandemic-driven late adopters, who are frequently facing business directives to move fast but see only an immense tidal wave of insurmountably complex tasks.

A lot of my advice is focused on starting small — or at least tackling reasonably-scoped projects. The following is specifically applicable to IaaS / IaaS+PaaS:

Build a cloud center of excellence. You can start a CCOE with just a single person designated as a cloud architect. Standing up a CCOE is probably going to take you a year of incremental work, during which cloud adoption, especially pilot projects, can move along. You might have to go back and retroactively apply governance and good practices to some projects. That’s usually okay.

Start with one cloud. Don’t go multicloud from the start. Do one. Get good at it (or at least get a reasonable way into a successful implementation). Then add another. If there’s immediate business demand (with solid business-case justifications) for more than one, get an MSP to deal with the additional clouds.

Don’t build a complex governance and ops structure based on theory. Don’t delay adoption while you work out everything you think you’ll need to govern and manage it. If you’ve never used cloud before, the reality may be quite different than you have in your head. Run a sequence of increasingly complex pilot projects to gain practical experience while you do preparatory work in the background. Take the lessons learned and apply them to that work.

Don’t build massive RFPs to choose a provider. Almost all organizations are better off considering their strategic priorities and then matching a cloud provider to those priorities. (If priorities are bifurcated between running the legacy and building new digital capabilities, this might encourage two strategic providers, which is fine and commonplace.) Massive RFPs are a lot of work and are rarely optimal. (Government folks might have no choice, unfortunately.)

Don’t try to evaluate every service.  Hyperscale cloud providers have dozens upon dozens of services. You won’t use all of them. Don’t bother to evaluate all of them. If you think you might use a service in the future, and you want to compare that service across providers… well, by the time you get around to implementing it, all of the providers will have radically updated that service, so any work you do now will be functionally useless. Look just at the services that you are certain you will use immediately and in the very near (no more than one year) future. Validate a subset of services for use, and add new validations as needed later on.

Focus on thoughtful workload placement. Decide who your approved and preferred providers are, and build a workload placement policy. Look for “good technical fit” and not necessarily ideal technical fit; integration affinities and similar factors are more important. The time to do a detailed comparison of an individual service’s technical capabilities is when deciding workload placement, not during the RFP phase.

Accept the limits of cloud portability. Cloud providers don’t and will probably never offer commoditized services. Even when infrastructure resources seem superficially similar, there are still meaningful differences, and the management capabilities wrapped around those resources are highly differentiated. You’re buying into ecosystems that have the long-term stickiness of middleware and management software. Don’t waste time on single-pane-of-glass no-lock-in fantasies, no matter how glossily pretty the vendor marketing material is. And no, containers aren’t magic in this regard.

Links are to Gartner research and are paywalled.

The multicloud gelatinous cube

Pondering the care and feeding of your multicloud gelatinous cube. (Which engulfs everything in its path, and digests everything organic.)

Most organizations end up multicloud, rather than intending to be multicloud in a deliberate and structured way. So typical tales go like this: The org started doing digital business-related new applications on AWS and now AWS has become the center of gravity for all new cloud-native apps and cloud-related skills. Then the org decided to migrate “boring” LOB Windows-based COTS to the cloud for cost-savings, and lifted-and-shifted them onto Azure (thereby not actually saving money, but that’s a post for another day). Now the org has a data science team that thinks that GCP is unbearably sexy. And there’s a floating island out there of Oracle business applications where OCI is being contemplated. And don’t forget about the division in China, that hosts on Alibaba Cloud…

Multicloud is inevitable in almost all organizations. Cloud IaaS+PaaS spans such a wide swathe of IT functions that it’s impractical and unrealistic to assume that the organization will be single-vendor over the long term. Just like the enterprise tends to have at least three of everything (if not ten of everything), the enterprise is similarly not going to resist the temptation of being multicloud, even if it’s complex and challenging to manage, and significantly increases management costs. It is a rare organization that both has diverse business needs, and can exercise the discipline to use a single provider.

Despite recognizing the giant ooze that we see squelching our way, along with our unavoidable doom, there are things we can do to prepare, govern, and ensure that we retain some of our sanity.

For starters, we can actively choose our multicloud strategy and stance. We can classify providers into tiers, decide what providers are approved for use and under what circumstances, and decide what providers are preferred and/or strategic.

We can then determine the level of support that the organization is going to have for each tier — decide, for instance, that we’ll provide full governance and operations for our primary strategic provider, a lighter-weight approach that leans on an MSP to support our secondary strategic provider, and less support (or no support beyond basic risk management) for other providers.

After that, we can build an explicit workload placement policy that has an algorithm that guides application owners/architects in deciding where particular applications live, based on integration affinities, good technical fit, etc.

Note that cost-based provider selection and cost-based long-term workload placement are both terrible ideas. This is a constant fight between cloud architects and procurement managers. It is rooted in the erroneous idea that IaaS is a commodity, and that provider pricing advantages are long-term rather than short-lived. Using cost-based placement often leads to higher long-term TCO, not to mention a grand mess with data gravity and thus data management, and fragile application integrations.

See my new research note, “Comparing Cloud Workload Placement Strategies” (Gartner paywall) for a guide to multicloud IaaS / IaaS+PaaS strategies (including when you should pursue a single-cloud approach). In a few weeks, you’ll see the follow-up doc “Designing a Cloud Workload Placement Policy” publish, which provides a guide to writing such policies, with an analysis of different placement factors and their priorities.

Building multicloud expertise

Building cloud expertise is hard. Building multicloud expertise is even harder. By “multicloud” in this context, I mean “adopting, within your organization, multiple cloud providers that do something similar” (such as adopting both AWS and Azure).

Integrated IaaS+PaaS providers are complex and differentiated entities, in both technical and business aspects. Add in their respective ecosystems — and the way that “multicloud” vendors, managed service providers (MSPs) etc. often deliver subtly (or obviously) different capabilities on different cloud providers — and you can basically end up with a multicloud katamari that picks up whatever capabilities it randomly rolls over. You can’t treat them like commodities (a topic I cover extensively in my research note on Managing Vendor Lock-In in Cloud IaaS).

For this reason, cloud-successful organizations that build a Cloud Center of Excellence (CCOE), or even just try to wrap their arms around some degree of formalized cloud operations and governance, almost always start by implementing a single cloud provider but plan for a multicloud future.  

Successfully multicloud organizations have cloud architects that deeply educate themselves on a single provider, and their cloud team initially builds tools and processes around a single provider — but the cloud architects and engineers also develop some basic understanding of at least one additional provider in order to be able to make more informed decisions. Some basic groundwork is laid for a multicloud future, often in the form of frameworks, but the actual initial implementation is single-cloud.

Governance and support for a second strategic cloud provider is added at a later date, and might  not necessarily be at the same level of depth as the primary strategic provider. Scenario-specific (use-case-specific or tactical) providers are handled on a case-by-case basis; the level of governance and support for such a provider may be quite limited, or may not be supported through central IT at all.

Individual cloud engineers may continue to have single-cloud rather than multicloud skills, especially because being highly expert in multiple cloud providers tend to boost market-rate salaries to levels that many enterprises and mid-market businesses consider untenable. (Forget using training-cost payback as a way to retain people; good cloud engineers can easily get a signing bonus more than large enough to deal with that.)

In other words: while more than 80% of organizations are multicloud, very few of them consider their multiple providers to be co-equal.

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