To become technologically sovereign, Europe must speed up its cloud initiative Gaia-X. But precisely because of this haste, the necessary support is in danger of dissapearing.
Specialists agree on one thing: the economy is digitizing and there are countless examples of this. From supermarkets that use software to calculate the best price for its products at lightning speed, to banks that now call themselves tech companies.
And we're still just at the beginning. In almost every sector, companies are using more and more data to optimize their products. Thanks to sensors connected to the internet, factories can predict which part will break down and when. And thanks to automated data sharing, supply chains can be better aligned. In the medical world, enormous computer power is regularly required to make DNA profiles, for example. Each sector has its own innovation that is about to explode.
Much of the digitization takes place physically in the "public cloud"; large rows of servers in a data center that sometimes store temporary data for company x and at other times perform complex calculations for organization y. Thanks to this cloud, companies and other organizations are flexible. They can scale up quickly when needed and can continuously use the latest technology. Thanks to the cloud, a credit card is all you need to start using artificial intelligence.
Europe is missing out on a billion dollar market
But here's the thing: 'the cloud' is American. Market analyst Canalys estimates Microsoft, Amazon and Google control more than half of the global cloud market. Followed by the Chinese Alibaba and other American tech giants such as Oracle and IBM. Europe hardly plays a role and that is a problem, according to the European Commission. The continent is losing out on a fast-growing market of more than $ 100 billion a year in sales.
In addition, Europe also lacks influence on the way in which a cloud should function. In practice, for example, organizations often have little influence on where their data is stored, how the backup processes work and when data is deleted again. Sometimes there are European laws, such as the European privacy law GDPR, but in practice they are not always followed.
For example, the European Court recently ruled that Privacy Shield, a law that regulates the transport of data from the EU to the US, is invalid because data in the US is insufficiently protected. Lawyers have been pondering for months now about what companies should do with this ruling. According to many specialists the solution is Gaia-X.
To restore sovereignty to Europe, the member states France and Germany came up with this alternative, last year. Gaia-X is not a European competitor for Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure, but a list of standards. Companies that purchase Gaia-X services can therefore be sure that they can exchange data with others in a secure manner, and can also easily switch to another cloud provider.
The idea is that Gaia-X will become 'federal' and 'interoperable', explains Andreas Weiss, director of the German partnership EuroCloud. A company can therefore purchase part of the services from one company and a part of the services from another company, while the whole works well together. For example, if Google Cloud is going to participate permanently with Gaia-X, that other company could also be Google. The difference is that switching to another provider later is easier.
And that requires all kinds of different agreements and uniform descriptions. About exactly how data should be stored, for example. And about agreements on how to encrypt data and under what circumstances applications should be able to run. Because if, for example, a company switches its stock system from one cloud company to another, the programs must continue to work and that will not happen if the settings are wrong.
There will probably be several variants of Gaia-X. For example one for financial institutions and another for the medical sector. After all, every sector has its own wishes. But then we also have to make agreements about how the different sectors can communicate with each other again. And the agreements are not static either. Just as we are going from 4G to 5G with the mobile network, Gaia-X will also be in constant development.
Difficulties in cooperating
Setting it up is extremely complicated and the practice remains unruly. Even before the project is well underway, it struggles with a combination of lack of involvement on the one hand and a strong lobby on the other. Many European countries first check whether things are really going to be something and do not actively participate. With that Gaia-X runs the risk of dying a silent death.
France, in particular, is also trying to use its position to push its own standards. There is also disagreement about the role that American and Chinese tech giants, such as Google, Amazon and the Chinese Huawei, wrote the German newspaper Handelsblatt last week. These parties are now participating.
The unrest can be discerned subtly in formal publications. The European Commission and the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate, for example, refer to Gaia-X as 'one of the options' for a European cloud network. Even thought there is currently no alternative to Gaia-X.
The trick is to listen carefully to everyone's interests, but at the same time to make a serious rush with the project. At the moment only about 30% of companies have their business-critical applications running in the cloud. Before they really make the switch, Gaia-X should be in the air, is the opinion of many specialists.
Last week it was announced that the Netherlands will join Finland, Germany, France and Italy, to become a regional 'Gaia-X hub', but there is still a lot to do. One specialist put it like this: "I think you have to compare it with the formation of the pan-European aircraft manufacturer Airbus at the time. Everybody was skeptical about that at the time, but look where it is now."