It’s rare to hear the word “cloud” in a business scenario without terms like “elasticity”, “scalability” and “flexibility” following shortly thereafter. So you can bet that it caught our attention when someone sent us a report about “the crowded cloud.”

Was it a desperate fear-mongering vendor or a warped want-to-be science fiction filmmaker with a plot about Internet of Things devices that multiply and emit by the picosecond, aiming to jam the compute power of the entire galaxy?

Nope. Instead authors  Denis Pombriant of Beagle Research Group and Esteban Kolsky of ThinkJar took a serious look at how many disparate cloud applications early cloud adopters were using and how that might impact the enterprise.

The Consumerization of the Enterprise Cloud

If that’s too obtuse, here’s a scenario: suppose that within the same company, sales uses Salesforce, the VP of marketing brings in Marketo, human resources uses Oracle HCM for Cloud, BI brings in SAP Cloud for Analytics and everybody uses Google for Work.

It seems absurd example, except when you consider that the researchers found that 85 percent of the enterprises they surveyed used more than one cloud application, with the majority using more than four.

This raises a set of issues that aren’t necessarily anticipated early on, particularly when it comes to data synchronization, operating multiple databases, numbers of applications and enabling technologies in use, data quality and more. Could Cloud be creating a new set of problems?

Here’s How it Starts

It’s certainly easy for any end user to cruise the web and find a cloud application that promises to solve his problem. Pick a user name and a password, upload, enter or point to some data, and you’re in business, you don’t need any help from IT, right? It’s all in the Cloud, right?

Whose cloud? Amazon? Azure? Does Salesforce have a Cloud? Does it have many clouds? How many clouds are there?

 Kolsky was willing to indulge our somewhat ridiculous questions.

Cloud 101

“There is only one cloud, well — there should be anyways,” said Kolsky, explaining that when people talk about multiple clouds they are really talking about different providers, at different levels of the cloud. “Some of them, like Amazon and the AWS offerings, tend to the lower level – the infrastructure part,” he explained, adding that “cloud vendors” tend to the platform portion and that organizations and developer organizations tend to the software or SaaS layer.

So when it comes to the “crowded cloud” Kolsky and coauthor Pombriant were referring to the fact that there are many interconnected providers – all vying to be “the one” for the organization.

“This results in a very crowded cloud with multiple competing interests, said Kolsky. “It is up to the organization, as it is the duty of the belle of the ball, to choose the best suitors (yes, there are multiple that provide them services) for each layer and build their own, unique cloud infrastructure. “

Who Controls Your Cloud?

Dare you. The next time you’re in the lunchroom at a company event, ask your non-IT peers (aka Line of Business users) who owns and controls the cloud they spend their time working in. How many of the will say IT how many will name a vendor?

Kolsky insists that IT should be the answer.

Learning Opportunities

“IT should have all the control – at least in the implementation of the one cloud for the organization,” he said. In reality, though, IT, usually tends to the architecture and they serve as advisors to the stakeholders, according to Kolsky. But that’s not enough, it seems.

“The power of IT is to control the access that each provider, at each layer, will have to their own cloud architecture,” he said. “By interfacing their cloud architecture with the public cloud they make it easily available to any provider — as long as the stakeholders need them and they work in the manner provide by IT. Is that enough power?”

Vendors: Brothers in the Cloud?

One of the big myths of the cloud is that everything and anything goes. Pick the Cloud app that’s best for the job and let the guy down the hall pick his own. Everything works well together in the heavens, right?

Not so much, according to Kolsky.

“While we are living, in an era where vendors play nicely together on paper that does not truly happen (yet) well enough in cloud,” he explained, pointing out that that’s the biggest problem that the research unveiled.

“Different providers for each layer of the cloud are more intent in shutting each other out than in working together better. If they don’t compete – sure, they will use cloud integration capabilities – which are far more interesting than any other capabilities for integration from years past  to work together – but if they are competing… well, that’s a big issue,” said Kolsky.

“Replacing a vendor with another in cloud architecture is far easier than in traditional environments … and thus, competition is more intense and “vendor lock-in” is more sought after. This is early days – it will get better…” he said.

At the end of the day both Kolsky and the paper he authored with Pombriant makes one thing very clear, IT needs to guide the journey to the cloud.

When that’s done, synergies can be won, data can be trusted and new possibilities can be created. If not, you’ll make a bed you might not want to sleep in.

You can download the full report here.