When you hear the word “timeshare,” what comes to mind? The so-called regular world uses the term “timeshare” when referring to a vacation house or condo that some huckster in a cheap suit tries to sell you time slots for. This pitch often involves potential customers attending some ridiculous seminar, collecting a cheap gift for their time and trouble, and listening to why it’s a good idea to throw money at a beach house in Florida.

Fortunately, that’s not the kind of timeshare we’re talking about here. No one is going to try selling you reserved space in a bungalow on the beach. Timeshare, in the IT world, is a synonym for multitenancy, a standard cloud computing characteristic. In fact, if you currently use a cloud service, you’re probably benefitting from multitenancy at this very moment!

Let’s look at multitenancy, what it is, its ups and downs, why it matters, and how it’s applied.        

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What Is Multitenancy?

Multitenancy is a form of cloud architecture where multiple clients of a single cloud vendor share the same computing resources. Each client is known as a tenant. This form of sharing applies to sharing software resources as well as shared hosting on servers.

Multitenancy allows multiple instances of the given application to operate in a shared environment. Thus, a single instance of software runs on a server and accommodates numerous tenants. Tenants integrate physically, but they’re separated logically. With this configuration, a software application residing in a multi-tenant architecture will share dedicated instances of configurations, data, user management, among other properties.

Tenants have some measure of customization for the shared resource, like controlling which users can access the resources or how the application looks and feels. They cannot, however, customize the code.

Here’s a typical example. Consider your local bank. Many customers deposit their cash in the bank, but each has their private account, where their assets can’t be touched by other clients, although everyone’s keeping their funds in the same bank. Fellow bank customers don’t communicate with each other, can’t access each other’s resources, and aren’t even aware of each other’s existence — one bank, many customers.

That’s the public cloud model — one infrastructure, many servers, with each server having exclusive use and access to their respective data and other cloud-based resources.

Multitenancy comes in three degrees:

  • Low: IaaS and PaaS are multi-tenant; SaaS is single-tenant.
  • Middle: IaaS and PaaS are multi-tenant; small SaaS clusters are multi-tenant.
  • High: IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS are fully multi-tenant.

Single-Tenant vs. Multi-Tenant

A single tenant architecture is, unsurprisingly, the opposite of multi-tenant architecture. The name “single tenant” is a dead giveaway as to its nature. Single tenancy means the software and supporting infrastructure serves one customer alone. Each customer has their separate, independent database or software instance, and no one shares.

The single tenant model comes with its own advantages. A single tenancy offers a more secure environment for starters, since each tenant's resources are entirely separate from other tenants' resources and information. Additionally, the customer has full customization and functionality control. Finally, single tenant customers enjoy greater reliability because resources are always available and abundant.

However, there are drawbacks to a single tenancy. No resource sharing also means no cost-sharing, so a single tenancy is typically more expensive. Also, single tenants have no one to share regular maintenance and setup duties with, so there’s more work involved.

So, single tenancy offers greater privacy and resource availability than multitenancy. However, the latter drains less of the customer’s time, resources, and money.

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Benefits of Multitenancy Architecture

We briefly touched upon some multitenancy benefits, but let’s get into more detail.

  • It’s cost-effective. Much in the same way that sharing a ride with other people is cheaper for you, it’s less expensive sharing cloud resources. Customers end up paying only for what they need, nothing more. Labor and staff, on-boarding new tenants, maintenance and development, and updates — all of these get handled by the cloud host, with only a fraction of the costs passed on and shared among the tenants.
  • It’s easily scalable. Building off of the advantage of cost-effectiveness, this advantage means customers can add or remove resources as needed. This flexibility is perfect for organizations that are growing fast but unpredictably.
  • It’s secure and offers more privacy. While it’s true that a single tenancy is more secure, multitenancy is nevertheless still good at threat detection and keeping tenants’ resources separate from each other.
  • It’s a better use of resources. On the host’s side, multitenancy makes better use of infrastructure. It makes more sense to open server access to many customers instead of limiting it to a single client.
  • It’s maintenance-free for the customer. Not only don’t customers have to pay monitoring and administration costs, but they also don’t have to put in the work, either. The host handles tasks such as updates and upgrades, maintenance, and other related tasks. Consider the model like renting an apartment — the landlord handles repairs, the tenant handles paying the rent.

Key Risks of Multitenancy

Of course, no cloud hosting model is perfect or without risks. Here are some drawbacks to multitenancy.

  • It’s a security risk. If you choose to use a multitenancy model, there’s a chance, however slight, that your data might become exposed to third parties. This breach could happen either accidentally, like by a system malfunction or software bug that exposes the data, or deliberately, courtesy of a hacker exploiting a weakness in the architecture. This risk increases or decreases relative to the level of security measures the host provides.
  • There are possible response time issues. Apartment dwellers face the risk of noisy neighbors ruining their peace and quiet. In a cloud hosting environment, customers consuming excessive CPU cycles are the noisy virtual neighbor. This CPU drain slows down processing time for everyone.
  • The host calls the shots regarding downtime. Just like apartment buildings have no say when the superintendent decides to repaint the building or work on the plumbing, cloud clients don’t dictate scheduled downtime.
  • It’s more complex. As far as the host is concerned, multitenancy is more complicated than a single tenancy.
  • Apps may be less flexible. Shared applications tend to be less flexible than apps provided in other tenant architectures.

So do the advantages outweigh the drawbacks? That comes down to the individual customer and their level of risk tolerance.

Importance of Multitenancy

Multitenancy is an important concept because it helps us gain the maximum benefit from the public cloud environment. The cloud environment, in turn, has everyone’s data, customers, suppliers, partners, and worldwide resources. So, multitenancy offers quality and consistent cloud access to everyone at an affordable price. It’s a great way to level the playing field so that a small business can better compete against a monolithic mega-corporation.

When the cloud host introduces new functionalities, features, and innovations, a larger audience benefits from those improvements. In many cases, it’s the needs of just a few customers on a multi-tenant site that spur on the development of new features. Still, eventually, everyone in the architecture ends up the better for it. Single tenancy models don’t work this way, as any improvements serve only one client.

Multitenancy Applications

Multitenancy applications let hosts serve many customers or clients with one application introduction. Every customer’s data is separate from the others. Remember, customers are called “tenants.”

These are the characteristics of multitenancy applications.

  • View: Tenants can characterize their application stylings, such as user interfaces (UI).
  • Users and groups: Tenants can change and customize their own principles to facilitate data access control.
  • Data set composition: Tenants can characterize a chosen database schema for the application. This schema includes renaming database fields, removing/adding database tables, and more.
  • Business rules: Tenants can frame their own business rules and application rationale.

Most cloud-based applications are multi-tenant. Here are some popular multitenancy application examples:

  • ADP
  • Carbonite
  • Docker
  • Freshbooks
  • HubSpot
  • Kubernetes
  • Microsoft Office 365
  • Netflix
  • Salesforce
  • WordPress
  • Zendesk
  • Zoho
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