Cloud burst: How the EU’s Gaia-X project went awry
For all the difficulties it has met along the way, Europe’s cloud infrastructure project Gaia-X had impressive enough origins.
Not many tech startups, after all, get launched in the European Parliament, by the EU’s president.
“We will build a European cloud as part of NextGenerationEU – based on Gaia-X,” intoned Ursula von der Leyen in September 2020.
It’s now become bloated and behind schedule, the worst, most cautionary example of the potential hazards of doing things by committee in Brussels.
But months before von der Leyen’s speech, in June, Germany’s economics affairs minister Peter Altmaier – a trusted advisor to Angela Merkel who has been described as the most powerful man in Berlin – said Gaia-X would let Europe assert itself in the world.
Bruno Le Maire, France’s minister for the economy and finance, who combines politics with a life as a prize-winning writer, appeared beside him and summoned the memory of France and Germany laying the foundation of the EU, with the European Coal and Steel Community.
Eleven German and 11 French companies were together laying “the foundations for a true European data infrastructure,” he said, “based on the principles of openness, interoperability, transparency and trust.”
These 22 quickly grew to over 320. Committees were hived off to write policies and rules. These are things Brussels is good at.
And part of the reason behind all this rhetoric and initial enthusiasm is the sobering fact that Europe is not a particularly big cloud player, even in its own backyard.
Deutsche Telekom is the largest European cloud provider in the European market, with a 2% market share.
By contrast, Amazon, Microsoft and Google make up 69% of Europe’s market, a proportion which also appears to be only trending upwards.
This is because, in a game of scale where size matters, Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure have plunged over €14 billion (US$15.7 billion) in just four quarters into European capital spending and the upgrade and expansion of their regional networks of data centers.
Meanwhile, Europe also lags the US in how many businesses even use the cloud.
In the EU, 21% of companies make broad use of cloud services. In North America, the equivalent figure is 33%, says market intelligence group IDC.
So if you’re in Gaia-X’s shoes, this shows EU companies are worrying about problems like data control, which a more homegrown alternative could maybe address.
I know a Gaia
But recently, the project has apparently given up even trying to meet its deadlines.
Updated policy rules were scheduled to come out in September. They still haven’t.
Its CEO, Francesco Bonfiglio, admits his organization is struggling to deal with its workload and new massive scale.
But what’s also stalling things is philosophical.
Is Gaia-X meant to be a project about data sovereignty, to keep EU citizens’ data in the EU?
And, if so, how is this consistent with the recent partnerships between US cloud providers and European telcos – including, for that matter, board members of the Gaia-X project?
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