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Clouds are on the horizon. No, not just outside your window, but in every corner of your business. Your business likely needs more than one cloud-based service provider. So in a multi-cloud world, where do you turn for your 30,000-foot view?

It's the next chapter in a story that we've seen rapidly unfolding over the past few years, and for good reason. Cloud solutions offer clear advantages when it comes to cost, scalability and reliability. For small- and medium-sized enterprises, it's meant hassle-free access to the newest and best cloud-based tools or freeing up precious time and IT resources previously spent on maintaining a room full of servers.

And increasingly, businesses aren't content to settle down with just one cloud-based service provider. In a TechRepublic survey from this past June, two-thirds of respondents said their companies currently use or plan to use services from multiple cloud-based providers, with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure leading the way as the most popular choices. Google Cloud and Oracle Cloud were in the middle of the pack, with IBM Cloud, Alibaba Cloud, Tencent Cloud and Fijitsu Cloud Services capturing smaller portions of the market.

That's right -- the future is multi-cloud. And in many ways, it's already arrived, ushering in new IT strategies, new ways of doing business and fierce competition among cloud providers.

Growth, and Competition, in the Forecast

These forces are reshaping the playing field: Research firm Gartner predicts "exponential" growth in the worldwide public-cloud services market, which they expected would surge by 17.5 percent in 2019 to a size of $214 billion and reach $332 billion in just three years. Growth has largely been driven by cloud infrastructure services, Gartner also reported, and more than a third of companies see cloud investments as a top-three investment priority.

But multi-cloud goes far beyond infrastructure. It also encompasses the many cloud-based tools an organization needs to do business, meaning if your company already uses various cloud-based services for accounting, CRM, marketing automation, analytics, etc., then congratulations! You're already playing in the multi-cloud sandbox. (Hint: Your next stop should be locking down a solution that unifies all this data from disparate places to give you one authoritative, big-picture overview.)

This landscape is sparking fierce competition, with industry leader AWS facing sharper challenges in the marketplace. Take, for example, Microsoft's recent launch of Azure Synapse Analytics, a giant leap forward from its Azure SQL Data Warehouse that has already sparked excitement for its ability to unify data warehousing with big-data analytics, and because of its integrated-partner ecosystem (including data warehouses).

And that's not the only win for Microsoft's Azure cloud lately. In October, the software giant snagged a massive and highly competitive $10 billion defense contract over AWS. Another recent shocker came from Salesforce, which announced in November that it would be using Microsoft Azure to power its marketing cloud, even as it has existing deals with Google Cloud and AWS, making it a prime example of enterprise multi-cloud strategy.