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Multi-Tenancy in the Cloud

When advising customers on choosing a cloud computing environment, managed services providers (MSPs) should have a strong understanding of which implementations will best serve customer needs. One key distinction is between the single-tenant cloud and the multitenant cloud. In a single-tenant cloud, each customer runs their own instance of software, whereas in the multitenant cloud, an instance is shared between various customers. In this article, we’ll explore the differences between these two cloud architectures, their advantages and disadvantages, and how they can work for your customers.

What is a tenant in computing?

In order to comprehend single-tenancy and multitenancy issues in cloud computing, one must first understand the concept of tenancy. A tenant is essentially a customer who purchases cloud computing resources. This could be an individual user, a group of users, or an entire department or company. Just like a tenant in layman’s terms refers to a person or group who rents the use of an apartment or house, a tenant in computing rents the use of a cloud server. Essentially, the user of cloud infrastructure is not the owner, but simply a tenant who pays for access to it.

What is the single-tenant cloud?

In the single-tenant cloud, each customer has its own dedicated instance of a software application. This could be an email server, a database, a video or photo editor, or any number of other programs. When the application is running, it serves only one client and is not shared with others (though the client may encompass multiple users). A single-tenant deployment is also called “hosted services” or “managed services.”

Single-tenancy can be compared to a house rental. Though someone else owns the house, the renter has exclusive access to it and does not share any of the infrastructure (HVAC, plumbing, etc.) with other renters. A taxi service or UberX is another useful metaphor—the rider does not own the vehicle, but they get sole use and the car takes them exactly where they need to go.

The single-tenant architecture has considerable advantages. First and foremost is security. With each customer running their own software, there’s less risk of any party accessing data they shouldn’t see. A security breach of one client will not expose any others to risk. This makes single-tenancy especially well suited for industries handling sensitive data, such as finance and healthcare. For a similar reason, single-tenancy also brings greater reliability. One tenant’s heavy usage of the software will not slow down the performance for other tenants, as their instances are entirely different.

The other major strength of single-tenancy is that it provides greater control to cloud customers. Cloud users can customize their software as a service (SaaS) applications to precisely meet their needs. Customers retain the ability to update or upgrade software on their own schedule. Systems are simpler to backup and restore because each customer relies on a distinct implementation. Finally, the single-tenant cloud facilitates simpler migration down the line. If a customer eventually decides to move to a self-hosted environment, it’s easier to migrate from a single-tenant architecture than a multitenant architecture.

Nevertheless, single-tenancy has certain drawbacks. The main factor is high cost. Cloud hosts charge more for single-tenant architectures because they use greater hardware resources and are less efficient. System resources can sit idle when a customer is not using their share. Single-tenancy takes extra time to implement and configure, and it requires expertise on the part of the cloud customer to manage updates and maintenance. For these reasons, the multitenant cloud architecture has become the more commonly utilized option.

What is the multitenant cloud?

Multitenancy in the cloud means that different customers share the same instance of cloud software applications. As a program runs, it will be used simultaneously by a number of tenants rather than one tenant. Of course, their specific data is still kept separate—each customer’s data is invisible to the others, following the principle of “data isolation.” While clients may have different access privileges, the software itself is shared.

If a single-tenant solution is akin to a house rental, a multitenant solution is like an apartment building. Each renter has their own space and cannot access others’ apartments, yet they share common resources including hallways, lobbies, water, trash disposal, and HVAC.

The strengths of multitenant network architecture have made it the dominant choice in cloud computing. Most importantly, multitenancy is more cost effective. Economies of scale mean that multitenant architecture uses fewer system resources. Hardware idleness is reduced; one tenant may run a program while others are inactive. With a single application instance serving multiple clients, cloud providers can save money by purchasing fewer software licenses.

Furthermore, multitenancy is simpler for the cloud customer. The host takes care of software updates and upgrades, and initial setup is easier since the architecture is already live. The multitenant cloud is therefore a popular choice for small companies and startups without a dedicated IT staff.

Despite its popularity, multitenancy is not the right solution for every customer. Despite data isolation, shared software still means an increased chance of private data falling into the wrong hands. A security breach of one client could subject the others to risk. Without exclusive access to their own software, one tenant may experience a slowdown when another is taxing the system with heavy use.

Multitenant users also give up control of their software, meaning they have fewer options for customization. If a cloud provider upgrades to a new and untested software version, it could cause complications for the customer’s workflow. Conversely, the customer may wish to perform a software update, but it is ultimately the cloud company that can make the choice to do so. Backup and restoration also become more complicated. For these reasons, single-tenancy retains an important role in the cloud.

Interested in learning more about cloud tenants and computing? Explore our product suite to see how you can monitor your cloud environments.

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