Multi-Cloud vs. Hybrid Cloud: Understanding the Differences

It’s common today to hear the terms “multi-cloud” and “hybrid cloud” used almost interchangeably. However, this doesn’t mean the terms are actually interchangeable. Multi-cloud and hybrid cloud are distinct types of cloud architectures, despite sharing some key similarities.

What is multi-cloud?

Multi-cloud is the use of two or more clouds simultaneously. For example, an organization that uses services from AWS and Azure at the same time has a multi-cloud architecture. Or, the organization may use multiple private clouds at the same time, or a private cloud and a public cloud.

The main benefit of a multi-cloud architecture is that organizations can pick and choose from a wider selection of cloud services than they could if they used just one cloud. By extension, they may be able to strike a better balance between cloud service cost and features.

Multi-cloud architectures can also be used to enhance workload resilience because the failure of one cloud within a multi-cloud architecture doesn’t necessarily mean that your entire workload becomes unavailable. However, to achieve resilience via multi-cloud, you need to configure your workloads in such a way that they are spread across multiple clouds in a redundant fashion – as opposed to running part of a workload in one cloud and another part in a different cloud, in which case the entire workload may be disrupted if even just one of your clouds fails.

What is a hybrid cloud?

A hybrid cloud is a type of cloud architecture that integrates private infrastructure with services or resources hosted in a public cloud. For example, if you use a hybrid cloud service like Google Anthos or Azure Arc to deploy workloads across infrastructure that partly consists of on-premises servers and partly consists of servers hosted in a public cloud, you have a hybrid cloud.

The services in a hybrid cloud are homogenous, which means the same types of services run in both the public and private portions of a hybrid cloud. This approach allows the entire cloud environment to be managed using a central control plane.

Hybrid clouds have become popular because they make it easy to take advantage of public cloud resources while mitigating some of the cost, privacy and security challenges associated with the public cloud. By making it possible to keep some parts of a workload on private infrastructure, hybrid clouds may allow organizations to save money (because the private infrastructure may cost less, especially if you already own the servers), as well as to gain a level of isolation for data or applications from public cloud environments.

Similarities and differences between multi-cloud and hybrid cloud

The main similarity that multi-cloud and hybrid cloud architectures share is that they both involve extending cloud environments beyond a single public cloud.

However, they do this in different ways, and therein lies the major distinction between multi-cloud and hybrid cloud:

  • In a hybrid cloud, you combine resources from one public cloud with on-premises or collocated infrastructure.
  • In multi-cloud, you use two or more clouds at the same time. At least one of those clouds could be a private cloud, but not necessarily. Thus, private infrastructure is not an essential ingredient for multi-cloud.

Using multi-cloud and hybrid cloud together

Multi-cloud and hybrid cloud are not mutually exclusive types of architectures. Indeed, the fact that some organizations use multiple clouds while also leveraging hybrid cloud is probably part of the reason why the terms are sometimes conflated.

You could, for example, set up a hybrid cloud environment in AWS using AWS Outposts, which makes it possible to deploy some AWS cloud services on private servers. At the same time, you could deploy other workloads on Azure or Google Cloud, which would result in a multi-cloud architecture.

Such an approach would give you the best of both worlds: You’d be able to pick and choose from the cloud services offered by multiple public cloud providers, and you’d be able to spread your workloads across multiple public clouds in order to increase resilience. But you’d also be able to run some workloads (or parts of some workloads) on private infrastructure.

How to choose

Deciding which type of cloud strategy – multi-cloud, hybrid cloud or both – is right for you depends on your needs. If you are finding that the public cloud services from one cloud provider don’t provide all the features you need, or you want the assurance of being able to mirror workloads across multiple cloud platforms, multi-cloud is the best solution.

In contrast, hybrid cloud is the right choice if you want to be able to “air-gap” applications or data from the public cloud, while still leveraging public cloud resources and management tools.

From a financial perspective, multi-cloud architectures may be beneficial because they allow you to pay as you go for cloud services and infrastructure. With a hybrid cloud, you have to pay upfront for the private infrastructure that supports your hybrid cloud. On the other hand, you may save money in the long run if you own part of your infrastructure via a hybrid cloud architecture.