The world of enterprise IT has become a veritable alphabet soup: SMAC, IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, XaaS, AWS, VCE, BYOC. Even SoMoCloBad (seriously, Google it). Amidst the clutter, more and more CIOs are becoming convinced that “the cloud” and all its trappings can deliver the agility and scalability seen today as necessary for competing in our digitally transformed marketplace. But for many organizations, actually leveraging the cloud in existing environments remains at best uncertain, and at worst terrifying.

Where will our data live? Will it belong to us? What if we can’t get to it when we need it? What if someone else gets to it? What about all of this on-premise gear we just purchased? Does it really make sense to give a potential competitor the keys to our environment?

For IT decision-makers, the first step in simplifying the cloud is to stop thinking about cloud technologies as an all-or-nothing proposition. In fact, decision-makers should avoid altogether the blanket term “the cloud” when discussing their organizations’ options, as it misleadingly implies a transformation of the way information technology is delivered en masse, which is not realistic or advisable at any enterprise. A “transition to the cloud” instead should be considered in the context of the three basic species of cloud deployments we see today: public, private, and hybrid.

The term “the cloud” refers most commonly to the public cloud: a pool of compute, storage, and memory resources, owned by someone else, that is broken into distinct blocks and rented out to any person or entity that needs those resources for a defined period of time. In this context, the “transition to the cloud” implies taking all of the information assets on your servers here, on-premise, and moving them over there, to someone else’s. But what if these information assets include sensitive customer financial information, or mission-critical business capabilities that you can’t afford to lose simply because your ISP is having connectivity issues? “The cloud,” in this case, becomes a non-starter.

Consider the other end of the spectrum. In order to protect customer information and ensure that you have “five nine” access to your mission critical applications, you have invested in a huge pool of the latest compute, storage and memory resources, on-premise. These resources service the entire organization, and are therefore considered a private cloud. But what happens if the load on certain applications is sensitive to seasonal variations, leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars in computing resources to sit unused for months at a time? Or what if a competitor decides to deploy a killer new customer application, and you don’t have the time or the resources to upgrade your on-premise infrastructure to keep up? Private cloud suddenly seems impractical and restrictive.

Enter: the hybrid cloud. In late 2013, Gartner identified hybrid cloud as one of its “top 10 strategic technology trends for 2014.” Organizations employing a hybrid cloud environment have invested in on-premise infrastructure dedicated to protecting sensitive information and delivering mission-critical services to the company, but also use technologies that securely bridge this environment with scalable, low-cost public cloud resources. In times of high customer volume, or when a competitor suddenly introduces new capabilities, the environment can instantly call upon external resources to meet the demand. The company pays for the extra resources only while it uses them.

Similarly, rather than burning on-premise resources to run non-mission critical applications such as an internal social network or an integrated calendaring solution, hybrid cloud shops push these applications into the public cloud, thereby freeing up resources that would otherwise be spent maintaining the infrastructure needed to support these applications. Hybrid cloud enables organizations to have their cloud and control it, too, providing a much sought-after stepping stone for those who know they need to go public cloud, but who have invested too much money and house much too sensitive data to give up their private cloud environments.

In a post late last year, Capgemini Senior Consultant Ryan Zielonka advised organizations to “find ways to carve out parts of [their] company where [they] can place a lot of small bets…without compromising the fundamentals of [their] revenue streams.” A hybrid cloud model enables organizations to make small bets on the public cloud, enjoying the benefit of on-demand access to virtually infinite computing resources only in cases where the value to the organization outweighs the risk. If IT decision-makers continue to think of “the cloud” as an all-in engagement, they may never dip their toes in the water; but an understanding of the cloud in its various forms reveals an opportunity to begin leveraging the power of the public cloud right now, with relatively low risk. These early steps can then be used to develop a tested model for transitioning other pieces of one’s environment into the public cloud as time, technology, and resources permit.