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Alternative cloud: Why do we need different approaches?

(Image credit: Shutterstock / Blackboard)

Of all the effects COVID-19 has had on the global economy, the growth of the cloud computing market was certainly an unexpected one. Gartner released research in July forecasting the cloud computing market to grow by 6.3 percent in 2020, with the biggest spend going to cloud applications, cloud infrastructure services and cloud application services. IDC has found that cloud budgets reached $14.1 billion during Q2 2020, surpassing the amount spent on traditional IT for the first time.

The reason for this unexpected growth is that in a world with social distancing and the need to shelter-in-place, enterprises must rely more heavily on virtual infrastructure to deliver services to customers, and less so on physical, brick-and-mortar infrastructure. By extension, COVID-19 has meant that previous approaches to IT are either no longer able to deliver results quick enough, or even possible to manage given the difficulty around getting hardware through supply chains and into the hands of socially distanced IT professionals. Instead, cloud computing offers faster deployment and simpler scaling.

The challenge instead is picking the right approach to cloud. Not all clouds are created equal, and there are now alternatives to the big hyperscale clouds. Picking the right approach around the cloud means asking the right questions at the start.

About the author

Blair Lyon is VP Cloud Experience at Linode

Defining alternative cloud

The word “alternative” has an interesting history - areas like ‘alternative comedy’ and ‘alternative rock’ saw big changes over the course of a few years, when those that were the outsiders quickly became household names and took the places of those that they were rebelling against. You could say cloud computing took a similar route - from upstarts challenging the status quo, to disruptors rewriting the rules of how IT is delivered and consumed. Today, it looks like cloud computing providers have finally arrived as the default delivery model for modern IT.

In 2020, those former upstarts are goliaths. These hyperscale providers dominate in market share. However, the cloud sector itself has many other options. Rather than looking solely at the companies that have swallowed up the mainstream, there are plenty of other providers that can offer similar services or alternative options that can better suit your needs. Let’s start by defining what alternative cloud really means.

To start with, it’s worth knowing what cloud should provide. Cloud computing services should cover the basics, which means compute, object storage, block storage, and network services like load balancing. Alongside this, those services should also have the necessary management and infrastructure, including DNS and provisioning via APIs. Alternative cloud providers offer these as standard services. Alongside a solid selection of core services, alternative cloud services should be available globally, with data center availability in your location(s) to support you in meeting compliance requirements.

What marks out alternative cloud from the hyperscalers is that these cloud providers provide simple pricing that’s easier to understand and deliver more support for the services they offer. Rather than offering hundreds of services, alternative cloud providers will focus on providing core services with more accessible support.

Alternative clouds, plural

Multi-cloud describes how companies can use cloud services from different providers to meet their goals - according to Flexera’s State of the Cloud Report for 2020, around 93 percent of organisations are implementing this approach as part of their IT strategies. This is one area where companies are looking for more help as they combine different cloud services together.

Under the banner of multi-cloud, there are multiple, different implementation approaches that companies can take. For example, you can use different cloud providers for different aspects of your IT, picking and choosing the right provider based on price, service and availability. This multi-sourcing approach can give you the best mix of different technologies and services that you need.

Alongside this, you can run the same application or implementation across multiple cloud services. This exploits different cloud providers for their geographic availability or location to ensure application performance and availability is consistent for all customers. Alongside reducing latency, this can provide a route for companies that want to avoid being locked into a specific cloud provider over time. Lastly, companies can adopt a hybrid cloud approach and work with a cloud provider alongside their internal systems to provide additional capacity when it is needed.

For SME organizations, multi-cloud will involve getting the right services that they need at the right time and the right price. For example, you might choose one cloud provider for compute and storage, but go with another to provide backups of your data. This approach shows how you can optimise your approach around cost, while still keeping things simple and avoiding lock-in over time.

Keeping control over cloud spending

Whatever the size of your organisation, controlling the cost of your cloud implementation should be at the top of your list. It’s all too easy to expect a certain level of spend when you move to the cloud, but get bill shock when your actual invoices start coming in. To avoid this, there are two best practices to take.

The first is to understand how the service is priced and what you are paying for. Some cloud services have a high number of variables that dictate how much you are charged - while they may be based on consumption, there can be multiple variables that determine how much is used. These can include transfer fees for data, costs for using more than your allotted volume of resources, additional storage spends, and others.

With all these variables, it’s difficult to predict what your spend will be each month on the service. You can try and forecast your use levels and get an accurate estimate in place, but this will - of course - only be an estimate. If you can, look for services where billing is either based on simple metrics or (preferably) is a fixed cost per month. This can help you avoid spikes in cost over time.

The second is to look for simple services. Einstein’s quote, “Everything must be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler,” is a useful guide here. While large enterprises may need complex functionality from a cloud provider for some use cases, most small and mid-size businesses will need standard storage or compute functions. You should not need years of expertise in a specific cloud provider’s entire stack to stand up a basic web application, for example. Focus on price predictability and support experience that will deliver what you need regardless of how much - or how little - you spend.

Looking ahead for cloud

Whatever situation you are in, cloud computing will be involved in your approach in some form. However, that does not mean that you have to be tied to the big cloud providers. Instead, you can consider alternatives that help you retain control. By asking the right questions, you can determine whether alternative cloud providers are right for you.