Hybrid cloud environments can deliver an array of benefits, but in many enterprises, they’re becoming increasingly complex and difficult to manage. To cope, adopters typically turn to some type of management software. What soon becomes apparent, however, is that hybrid cloud management tools can be as complex and confounding as the environments they’re designed to support.

A hybrid cloud typically includes a mix of computing, storage and other services. The environment is formed by a combination of on-premises infrastructure resources, private cloud services, and one or more public cloud offerings, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure, as well as orchestration among the various platforms.

Any organization contemplating a hybrid cloud deployment should begin building a transition framework at the earliest possible stage. “The biggest decision is what data and which applications should be on-premises due to the sensitivity of data, and what goes into the cloud,” says Umesh Padval, a partner at venture capital firm Thomvest Ventures.

Numerous other issues also need to be sorted out at the start, including the ultimate destination of lower priority, yet still critical, data and applications. Will they be kept on premises forever or migrated at some point into the cloud? With applications and data scattered, security is another major concern. Operational factors and costs also need to be addressed at the very beginning. “Your email application may run great in your data center, but may operate differently in the cloud,” Padval notes.

Hybrid cloud tools immature yet evolving

A complex hybrid cloud requires constant oversight as well as a way to intuitively and effectively manage an array of operations, including network performance, workload management, security and cost control. Not surprisingly, given the large number of management tasks needed to run an efficient and reliable hybrid cloud environment, adopters can select from a rapidly growing array of management tools.

“There’s a dizzying array of options from vendors, and it can be difficult to sort through them all,” says R. Leigh Henning, principal network architect for data center operator Markley Group. “Vendors don’t always do the best job at making their differentiators clear, and a lot of time and effort is wasted as a result of this confusion. Companies are getting bogged down in an opaque field of choices.”

The current hybrid cloud management market is both immature and evolving, declares Paul Miller, vice president of hybrid cloud at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Vendors are still getting a handle on the types of management tools their customers need. “Offerings are limited and may not be supported across all public, on-premises and edges,” Miller adds.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to hybrid cloud management is that the technology adds new, complex and frequently discordant layers to operations management. “Many solutions have compatibility restrictions on the components they can manage, locking your management platform into a vendor or group of vendors, which may or may not align with your current or future system architecture,” warns George Burns III, senior consultant of cloud operations for IT professional services firm SPR.

A lack of standardized APIs, which in turn results in a shortage of standardized management tools, presents another adoption challenge. “The lack of standardized tools increases operational complexity through the creation of multiple incongruent tools; this leads to vendor lock-in and, in some cases, gross inefficiencies in terms of resource utilization,” explains Vipin Jain, CTO of Pensando, a software-defined services platform developer. “To make it worse, these kinds of problems are typically ‘solved’ by adding another layer of software, which further increases complexity, reduces debuggability, and results in suboptimal use of features and resources.”

Meanwhile, using standardized open-source tools can be an effective starting point to safeguard against compatibility issues. “Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) tools, such as Kubernetes and Prometheus, are good examples,” Jain says. “Open-source tools from HashiCorp, such as Vault, Vagrant, Packer, and Terraform, [provide] a good normalization layer for multi-cloud and hybrid cloud deployments, but they are by no means sufficient,” he notes. Ideally, the leading public cloud vendors would all agree on a standardized set of APIs that the rest of the industry could then follow. “Standardization can be a moving target, but it’s critical from an efficiency and customer satisfaction perspective,” Jain says.

Developers writing API configurations, as well as developers using API configurations, form a symbiotic relationship that should be mutually maintained, Burns advises. “Hardware vendors need to be open about changes and enhancements coming to their products and how that will affect their APIs,” he explains. “Equally, management platform developers need to be mindful of changes to hardware platform APIs, [and] regularly participate in testing releases and provide adequate feedback to the vendor about results and functionality.”

Prioritize management requirements; expect gaps

Even when everything works right, there are often gaps remaining between intended and actual management functionality. “In an ideal world, developers would have the perfect lab environments that would allow them to successfully test each product implementation, allowing functionality to be seamless across upgrades,” Burns observes. “Unfortunately, we can’t expect everything to function perfectly and cannot forgo [on-site] testing.”

When selecting a hybrid cloud management platform, it’s important to not only be aware of its documented limitations, but also to know that nothing is certain until it’s tested in its user’s own hybrid cloud environment, Burns advises. “Gaps will exist, but it’s ultimately your responsibility to fully identify and verify those gaps in your own environment,” he says.

Further muddling the situation is the fact that many management tool packages are designed to supply multiple functions, which can make product selection difficult and confusing. “To simplify, customers need to consider which features are most important to them based on their use cases and can show a quick return on investment, mapping to their specific cloud journey,” Miller explains.

Real-world experience with hybrid cloud management

Despite management challenges, most hybrid cloud adopters find a way to get their environment to function effectively, reliably and securely.

Gavin Burris, senior project leader, research computing, at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, appreciates the flexibility a hybrid cloud provides. “We have a small cluster … that’s generally available to all the faculty and PhD students,” he notes. The school’s hybrid environment supports a fair share prioritization scheme, which ensures that all users have access to the resources they need to support their work. “When they need more, they’re able to request their own dedicated job queue that’s run in the cloud,” he says.

Burris, who uses Univa management products, says that having a management tool that allows fast and easy changes is perfect for individuals who like to maintain firm control over their hybrid environment. “I like to do things with scripting and automation, so to be able to go in and write my own rules and policies and build my own cluster with these management tools is really what I’m looking for,” he explains.

James McGibney, senior director of cybersecurity and compliance at Rosendin Electric, an electrical contractor headquartered in San Jose, Calif., relies on a hybrid cloud to support a variety of essential operations. “Approximately two years ago we embarked on our journey from an on-premises disaster recovery, quality assurance and production environment to a cloud migration encompassing hundreds of terabytes of data,” he says. McGibney relies on a management console provided by AWS and VMWare. The tool meets his current needs, but like many hybrid cloud administrators, he’s keeping a close eye on industry developments. “We’re currently investigating [other] options, just to see what’ out there,” he says. Yet he doesn’t expect to make any changes in the short term. “We’re happy with the tools currently provided by AWS and VMware.”

Sharpen network skills for hybrid cloud

Selecting a hybrid cloud management platform is not as simple as purchasing software and spinning up some VMs to run it. “During implementation, ensure that you have selected the proper product owners and engineers, and then determine what, if any, additional education or credentials they will need to effectively deploy and maintain the platform,” Burns suggests. “Fully define your architecture, ensure buy-in from your staff, work with them to identify education gaps and create a solid operational plan for going forward.”

Most hybrid cloud management tasks focus on configuration and access control operations, which tend to be both complex and challenging to implement. “At the same time, the beauty of the cloud is its ability to automate,” says Mike Lamberg vice president and CISO at ION Group and its Openlink unit, which provides risk management, operations and finance software. Yet deploying a high level of automation also requires new skills and developers who can expertly handle the demands of virtual software-defined infrastructures as well as traditional environments. “We can’t assume that because teams can build applications in physical data centers that these skills will translate as they move to the cloud; new skills are required for success,” Lamberg notes.

Hybrid cloud management requires a new team mindset. “IT networking staff literally need to unlearn what they know about physical networks and connectivity and recognize that the moving of packets and data is now handled by a forwarding software configuration, not by physical routers or switches,” Lamberg says. “You can’t take what you did in building and supporting physical data centers and just apply it to the cloud—it simply doesn’t work.”

In the big picture, transitioning to a hybrid cloud environment can solve many problems, yet it can also create some new obstacles if not properly implemented and managed. “Don’t rush into any decision without considering all the points of impact that you can identify,” Burns advises. “Make sure that you understand the breadth of a hybrid infrastructure and how it will be used to address business needs.”