Multitenant or Single? That is the Question


Multitenant or Single? That is the Question

By TMCnet Special Guest
Matt Wallach, Veeva Systems
  |  May 17, 2013

In the famous Shakespeare soliloquy, Hamlet challenges: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” IT teams are likewise pondering – “private cloud or public cloud?”

But that is not the right question.

Deep in the recesses of corporate server rooms everywhere, administrators debate the merits of public cloud computing solutions versus private or even hybrid cloud computing solutions. Security, control, and access – these are all issues being tossed into the dispute. But public versus private is ultimately the wrong query. Rather, IT should be asking ‘multitenant or single tenant?’ That is the question.

Whether users access software through a private cloud or through the corporate server network on-premise, it’s still traditional, single-tenant client/server software (with traditional client/server limitations). It’s simply not true cloud software – at least not in terms of the highly coveted benefits (scalability, flexibility, cost-efficiency) associated with cloud technologies. Cloud computing benefits are only realized when the software is built on a multitenant platform.

Consider Microsoft’s (News - Alert) SharePoint solution – a business collaboration software application often packaged as a “private” cloud solution. It’s actually not cloud at all. SharePoint is simply a single tenant application that is hosted “privately” by Microsoft or one of their many partners. That’s not cloud computing; it’s just cleverly worded hype that allows SharePoint to cry wolf…er, rather, cloud.  

Now let’s turn to Oracle (News - Alert). In 2011, the company was named the No. 1 “cloud washer,” a term that refers to companies whose cloud products are mostly old technology with the word cloud tacked on to the name. InformationWeek’s Charles Babcock called Oracle’s Exalogic Elastic Cloud “an old-fashioned appliance that’s been renamed ‘a cloud in a box.’” Oracle was also one of the first to hype a “hybrid” cloud – again, wily marketing to conceal the fact that their software is not multitenant and therefore not true cloud.

When people say “private cloud” (also called internal or corporate cloud), they are really just using a marketing term for a proprietary computing architecture that provides hosted services across multiple software applications for a single company. Advances in virtualization and distributed computing have allowed corporate network and datacenter administrators to effectively become service providers that meet the needs of their “customers” within the corporation. Companies that use the “private cloud” moniker are trying to appeal to customers that need or think they need more control over their data, but this is deceiving. Whether public or private, a system is always only as secure as its host. And, because there are limits to a private cloud, companies do not get all of lauded benefits of cloud computing that the so-called public cloud with its massive economies of scale delivers. Simply put, it’s not cloud computing. It’s just moving the zip code of the servers.

On the other hand, when people use the term “public cloud,” it refers to service provider that makes resources such as applications and storage available to the general public via the Internet. Think eBay, Amazon, Gmail, Dropbox (News - Alert), and Yahoo! Mail. These massive engines offer world-class security mechanisms because they must and they can – along with world-class performance across the board.

Indeed, it’s no wonder that cloud confusion is growing. There are now many different definitions of cloud computing, splintering the technology into sub-categories like public and private cloud. But this is just muddying the water…purposefully so. These are just terms technology providers used to disguise their software’s cloudlessness and refocus attention on differing shades of network openness (i.e., is my data stored inside or outside of my corporate firewall?).

There is only one characteristic that enables companies to reach full cloud potential: multitenancy.

What is Multitenancy?

Multitenancy is the architectural model that allows vendors to serve all their customers from a single, shared instance of the application. In other words, only one version of an application is deployed to all customers who share a single, common infrastructure and code base that is centrally maintained. No one customer has access to another’s data and each can configure their own instance of the application to meet their specific needs via metadata-driven configuration.

In contrast to hosted single-tenant applications that are often described as private cloud offerings, multitenant applications all share the same physical instance and version of an application. Individual deployments of the application occupy virtual partitions rather than separate physical stacks of hardware and software. These partitions store the metadata that defines each organization’s business rules, fields used, custom objects, and interfaces to other systems. In addition to an application’s metadata, these virtual partitions can also store custom code, ensuring that any potential problems with that particular code will not affect other customers, and preventing bad code associated with one object from affecting any other aspects of an individual customer’s application. This approach makes it possible for administrators to customize and change an application as often as needed using simple point-and-click tools. And the host can update all customers’ systems at once, in minutes.

Multitenancy is the magic that makes cloud computing truly special, a disruptive technology. This is how true cloud computing software providers can offer products that are better, faster and cheaper than the traditional alternatives. It’s also why cloud software is higher quality – if there is a bug identified, it can be fixed once and deployed instantly to all customers before most of them have even experienced it. A cloud built on a multitenant architecture enables the vendor to manage applications for many companies and users to share. This is the key – many to many vs. single to many.

Multitenant or single? That is the only question that matters. Only software with a multitenant architecture can be rightfully called cloud, and it’s this characteristic that makes today’s cloud software providers more efficient, more customer focused and more innovative. The fact that a cloud is public or private is not a factor in the quality of the software at all – it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. Call it private cloud. Call it hybrid cloud. Call it anything but multitenant and you aren’t talking about the cloud. As Shakespeare would say, “a rose by any other name wouldn’t smell as sweet.”

Matt Wallach is chief strategy officer and co-founder of Veeva Systems.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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