Understanding Anthos: Google’s multicloud bid to define the next 20 years of enterprise IT

The unveiling of Google Cloud’s Anthos multicloud management tool dominated many discussions at the firm’s annual developer conference in San Francisco, amid claims that it could change the face of enterprise IT for decades

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A noticeable difference in how Google positions its public cloud proposition – compared with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft, for example – is its ongoing acknowledgment that sourcing cloud services from more than one provider is a strategy of interest to many enterprises.

Multicloud as a concept is not something AWS ever seems to pay much lip service to, while Microsoft’s stance on the subject does appear to have softened lately.

Google, however, has made no secret of the fact that take-up of its technology within the enterprise space has been aided in recent years by CIOs wanting to diversify their pool of cloud infrastructure suppliers for reasons of cost, resiliency and functionality.

Indeed, the company has previously, and publicly, spoken about how its cloud technologies are being used within enterprises that are also betting big on the Amazon cloud. Examples include financial services giant HSBC, online automotive marketplace Auto Trader and grocery delivery brand Ocado.

For some enterprises, though, the promise of multicloud has not always lived up to the hype because very few IT suppliers built their platforms with interoperability in mind, making the act of managing applications across multiple, disparate environments problematic, to say the least.

In response, Google has brought to market a multicloud-enabling platform called Anthos, which it claims can help enterprises containerise their applications so they can run in the Amazon and Microsoft public clouds, as well as traditional on-premise datacentre environments, with minimal modifications.

The application should run in the same way across all these environments, said Urs Hölzle, senior vice-president for technical infrastructure at Google Cloud, and should ensure Anthos delivers a consistent experience for users, regardless of where they decided to run their workloads.

“The problem we’re solving is one that virtually every large company has today,” said Hölzle at a pre-Google Cloud Next press conference. “It is that moving to the cloud is scary, because everything changes at once and nothing is really the same as on-premise, but also nothing is the same across clouds.

“I don’t think I can stress enough how big a change Anthos is across the industry. This is the way to make these three clouds and on-premise environments look the same.”

Evolution of Anthos

While the name Anthos is new, an early incarnation of it made its debut at Google Cloud Next in 2018, under the guise of the Google Cloud Services Platform (CSP), but there was no mention of its support for multicloud deployments at that time.

Even so, the emergence of CSP was warmly welcomed by the analyst community, who considered it to be an important step, not only in Google’s ongoing push to court the enterprise market, but also in the solidification of its hybrid cloud strategy.

But the company’s ambitions for Anthos are bigger than filling in the hybrid cloud gap within Google Cloud’s wider portfolio of off-premise services, said Hölzle during a small media roundtable at Google Cloud Next.

The way he sees it, the platform could end up playing a pivotal, foundational role within enterprise IT environments for the next 20 years at least, in the same way that Linux remains an enduring part of the infrastructure stack.  

“Once a platform is high quality and open and gets traction, it actually stays around for a long time,” said Hölzle. “So Linux will last another 20 years because, unless [the underlying] hardware deeply changes, it’s a good solution and continues to be a good solution. If Anthos is high quality and broadly adopted, it will last for 20 years.

“This is a natural successor to Linux. If you pick Linux as your operating system, you can pick any hardware below and any software above because pretty much any software runs on this.”

What makes this possible is the fact that Google has built Anthos on open source technologies, which has also proved to be a key contributory factor in Linux’s staying power all these years, he said.

On this point, the open source container orchestration engine Kubernetes is of critical importance to how both Anthos and CSP work, given that both platforms are underpinned by the Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE).

This is a managed environment that allows enterprises to run containerised applications in on-premise and cloud environments without needing to create their own Kubernetes clusters first.

“Anthos is just as open as Linux,” said Hölzle. “It runs anywhere … that can manage containers and you can choose what runs underneath and then on top of that. It becomes as no-brainer a choice as Linux because you’re not excluding any possibilities.”

Anthos in the enterprise

For enterprise users, Anthos has the potential to eradicate a number of the compatibility barriers organisations encounter when trying to run the same applications and workloads in different environments, and, in turn, speed up their digital transformation efforts.

That is according to Andrew Moore, who joined Google Cloud in September 2018 to head up its artificial intelligence (AI) division.

“When you’re doing a real AI enterprise deployment for someone, it is often the machine learning that gets all the glamour,” he said. “But for it to work robustly, it has to integrate with a lot of other database systems, it has to be on reliable hardware, and there have to be regionalised failovers to other datacentres and things like that.

“As someone who has been obsessed with AI all my life, this makes my life much easier because I won’t have to say, ‘We can’t build for you as you need to build on this other cloud’. I can concentrate on the algorithms, the machine leaning and optimisation with the knowledge that these other things are not going to be integration nightmares any more.”

Whether or not Hölzle’s 20-year prediction about Anthos comes true will depend on how enterprises warm to the technology, and how useful – in the long term – a technology that supports multicloud deployments ends up being.

For example, there is a school of thought that multicloud is seen by some enterprises as a means of assessing which provider they should ultimately go all-in on, and could therefore end up being a relatively short-lived trend.

As it stands, though, the release of Anthos marks Google out as the first of the big three cloud providers to directly court enterprises with multicloud plans, which is not insignificant, said Nicholas McQuire, vice-president of enterprise research at analyst house CCS Insights.

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“Enterprises continue to question whether to fully embrace a single public cloud, which workloads are best to ‘lift and shift’ from a cost, security and compliance perspective, or how to avoid supplier lock-in, which is one of their biggest concerns when moving to the cloud,” McQuire told Computer Weekly.

“Demand for multicloud and hybrid cloud services, as well as open source technologies such as Kubernetes containers, has increased over the past 12 months. With over half of enterprises now using more than one public cloud provider, according to our estimates, multicloud and hybrid cloud technologies are gaining popularity.

“With the launch of Anthos and, in particular, its support of open source such as Kubernetes, Google is now taking a much more attentive and realistic strategy in meeting customers where they are on their cloud migrations,” he said.

As previously noted, the Google Cloud team has regularly and publicly acknowledged over the past few years that some enterprises want to source services from more than one public cloud provider.

With that in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that it is first out of the gate with a platform that enables enterprises to embrace multicloud deployments. However, Eddie Cullen, practice principal architect at digital transformation consultancy SPR, predicts that it will not be long before AWS and Microsoft follow suit.

“Google seems to have created Anthos in the name of ‘collaboration’, but I don’t think it will make this notoriously competitive and cut-throat industry any laxer,” he told Computer Weekly.

“Similar to what happened after Google released Kubernetes, we can expect other cloud providers like Amazon and Microsoft to create a similar managed service offering. Google’s Anthos is likely to push more cloud platforms to develop new ideas and processes in order to remain competitive.”

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