Europe’s moonshot at digital policy: How Gaia-X will transform a continent’s cloud play

Come 2021, Europe’s efforts to safeguard the data of its nearly 450 million citizens will get a new boost from an intercontinental drive for transparency and trust. João Marques Lima reports.

Gaia-X, as the project has been named, was initiated by Europe for Europe and originally announced 10 months ago. And it has finally been officially launched this June.

The project is also coordinated with the European Union commission and includes representatives from seven European countries, with the German Ministry for Economy joined by the French Ministry for Economy taking the lead in the works.

German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier says that the aim of the project is “nothing less than a European moonshot in digital policy”.

His counterpart, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire adds: “We are not China, we are not the United States, we are European countries with our own values and with our own economic interest that we want to defend.”

As Europe, and indeed the world, endures the Covid-19 pandemic, the health emergency has also sounded the digital economy alarm in Brussels.

“With the Covid crisis, companies massively shifted to teleworking. This makes the need for a secure and European cloud solution all the more urgent,” Le Maire says.

“The crisis also showed that the giant tech companies are the winners… the European digital space has to be protected.”

With that out of the way, what exactly is Gaia-X? Most will associate the word Gaia with things such as the Gaia hypothesis concerning the stability of Earth’s natural systems, or Gaia, the personification of the Earth and one of the Greek primordial deities, or even Gaia, the small northern Portuguese town. There are at least a couple dozen more “things” named Gaia from arts and entertainment all the way to science and technology.

But now Europe is bringing another Gaia to the list: Gaia-X. The best way to look at it is through its manifesto, Gaia-X: A Federated Data Infrastructure for Europe, where it reads: “Europe makes extensive investments in digital technologies and innovative business models. We must ensure that those who drive innovations forward are also those who benefit in economic terms. This will help to secure value creation and employment in Europe.

“An open digital ecosystem is needed to enable European companies and business models to compete globally. This ecosystem should allow both the digital sovereignty of cloud services users and the scalability of European cloud providers.

“Within the Gaia-X project, we are developing the foundations for a federated, open data infrastructure based on European values. Project Gaia-X connects centralised and decentralised infrastructures in order to turn them into a homogeneous, user-friendly system. The resulting federated form of data infrastructure strengthens the ability to both access and share data securely and confidently.”

Essentially, the project aims to provide the next generation of data infrastructure and facilitate the sharing of data between service providers and data processors in Europe in an environment of trust, thus offering a safe repository for EU companies.

Cedric Prevost, head of trusted cloud for Orange Business Services, explains: “The objective of Gaia-X is to set up a high-performance, competitive, secure, trustworthy and transparent data ecosystem for Europe, where data can be made available and consumed in a secure manner, allowing for even the most sensitive data to be processed.”

Orange is one of the 11 French businesses taking part in the project, alongside another 11 German firms, which includes Amadeus, Bosch, BMW, Deutsche Telekom, OVHcloud, and Siemens.

In terms of the challenges that led to the GAIA-X announcement, Prevost says that citizens and enterprises are living in a digital world where the notions of territory and borders have been blurred, since many supply chains are now global and most of the companies already rely on multi-cloud services.

However, while a few European providers like Orange can deliver better digital services for customers, Europe has a fragmented market and its digital sovereignty is a work in progress.

“With the Gaia-X project, we are trying to turn this fragmentation into a strength by working together and by leveraging the core values of Europe, like data protection and openness,” he adds.

“By creating a European data space with data sovereignty and transparency at its core, we can build a solid ground for trust in Europe, and trust is the key to drive digital transformation in the region and to boost our competitiveness.”

However, since the project was announced, many were quick to say that Gaia-X is the EU’s counterattack on big cloud names such as Google, Microsoft or AWS.

To which Prevost is quick to explain that the goal is not to compete against cloud giants or hyperscalers, but instead it is to deliver a new model, something different leveraging Europe’s own values.

“It will start building on existing solutions – on all existing solutions that can bring growth to Europe,” he says. “Hyperscalers from other continents will be able to register to the program and they are welcome, should they wish to – as long as they are willing to play by European rules, which among others means to comply and respect its sovereignty attributes.

“For us, it is very important that non-European providers are also included in the project as when we look at today’s biggest digital projects, so much innovation comes from all over the world and from outside of Europe, so their contribution is very valuable.”

The Gaia-X project might also see a surge in new, more regionalised initiatives in Europe, as Alain Fiocco, CTO of OVHcloud, explains: “Taking the example of the French-German Gaia-X project, it would not be surprising that in 2020, private as well as public organisations were to favour their regional ecosystem face to the American-Chinese duopoly.

“We should see the development of new collaborative projects allowing the implementation of more local alternatives, made possible by a collective awareness by European vendors of their ability to provide a relevant cloud offering,” he adds.


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The telco play

From a telco perspective, Orange’s vision around data sovereignty sits around the idea that, to begin with, digital sovereignty is far too often limited to where data and data centres are located.

“This definition is too narrow, especially when we look at businesses with global ambitions and the difference in the level of data sensitivity from one company to the other,” Prevost says. “Cloud services need to be trusted and their contractual terms as well as the applicable regulations need to be transparent – we earn the trust of our customers, and for that we need to provide guarantees way beyond data centre locations.

“We also need to demonstrate how we design and implement our services, who operates them and under which legislations, as well as how we secure them and keep them secure all year long. We also need to think about resources, the levels of expertise, business continuity, and the sustainable capacity that will be needed to support transformations in the long term.”

He continues to say that by having a trusted and controlled repository of existing services and providers available, businesses can easily and reliably find a solution that fits their specific needs.

“Through a criteria-based search, which can be fully automated, customers will be able to choose the best services and solution available that best match their risk analysis.”

But as a founding member, what exactly is Orange’s role in the project? First of all, founding members will set up the governance for the Gaia-X ecosystem in the first months of its existence.

Prevost elaborates: “Therefore, with the other founding members and with the feedback from the Gaia-x community, we will consolidate and define the initial frameworks of Gaia-X, validate the technical standards and ensure all the necessary central and federated services are developed and made available in due time.

“With Orange, acting both as an operator and a digital services provider, we are bringing expertise in connectivity, cloud and cybersecurity, but also in normalisation and interoperability, as well as innovation with our group’s R&D. We also bring to the table our business and decision and unbelievable machine assets for AI and big data services.”