Silke Rossmann – Partner and Head of Practice
In October 2019, a project named Gaia-X was introduced to the public and has been widely discussed ever since. Gaia-X is an ambitious project driven by representatives from politics, business and science from France and Germany, together with other European partners, developing a concept for the next generation of a data infrastructure for Europe. In this piece, we aim to explain why a project like this came to life, what it is about, what the objectives are and what the status quo is. In a subsequent blog post, we will take a closer look at why this is important for US-based cloud providers and their communications programmes across Europe.
Why does Europe push for a European cloud infrastructure?
There is a variety of reasons why Europe is keen on pushing a project like this. Most importantly there is a need for more digital sovereignty and enhanced data privacy, closely connected to the desire to be less dependent from US-American cloud giants like Amazon, Microsoft and Google. GDPR, Safe Harbor, privacy shield – all of the regulatory developments in the past years show exactly that desire and push. At the same time, Europe is keen to progress cloud progress, push data-driven business concept and keep up with developments elsewhere. But there is not a single European player that can keep up with the US hyperscalers.
So, the big objective is creating a secure and connected data infrastructure that meets the highest standards of digital sovereignty, promotes innovation and allows scalability of European cloud providers. In this open and transparent digital ecosystem, data and services are to be made available via open–source applications and open standards and brought together and shared in a trustworthy manner so that Europe doesn’t have to rely on the large IT corporations from the USA and China. The applications based on Gaia-X should allow data to be exchanged securely between different industries and countries. In addition, cloud solutions that comply with European law will be made possible.
However, Gaia-X is not aiming to create a “hyperscaler” itself along the lines of Google, Amazon or Microsoft, its aim is rather to counter the cloud giants with a network of many smaller providers from Europe. The technical concept follows the principles of Security by Design and Privacy by Design to ensure the highest security requirements and the protection of privacy. Gaia-X gives users access to a broad, relevant and specialised portfolio of products and services from cloud providers, enabling them to use tailor-made solutions. In this context, Gaia-X offers full transparency through self-description and certified data protection as well as regulatory criteria of the products and services offered.
What are the advantages?
There are two main arguments that are being widely communicated: Firstly, the initiative wants to create an ecosystem via which companies should find it easier to develop data-driven products and business models, even beyond the boundaries of their own organization. Users should then benefit from greater choice and more transparency.
At the same time however, the initiative wants to give Europe more sovereignty: Companies should get full control over their data even if it is held by American providers – for example, through data protection rules and interoperability.
What’s the status quo?
22 companies and organisations such as SAP, BMW and Deutsche Telekom are currently establishing an international non-profit association (association internationale sans but lucratif, or AISBL for short) under Belgian law, the first GAIA-X AISBL, documents were signed in September. The purpose and aim of the association will be to consolidate and facilitate the work and cooperation within the Gaia-X community – consisting of companies and organisations actively involved in the development of Gaia-X. To this end, the Association will develop legal frameworks and ensure that the necessary services are made available.
In the development of Gaia-X, the initiators are not aiming for a comprehensive and all-encompassing solution right from the start. Project officials have emphasised that their intent is instead to start next year with a “minimum viable product: This is the starting point for prototypes, the testing of critical functionalities and further developments.
Budgets however seem to be small compared to the billions that the big players invest in their cloud offerings: 27 million euros have been reserved by the German government so far. In addition, there are funds earmarked in the German federal budget for the promotion of artificial intelligence. The French government is not providing any government funding for Gaia-X at all. The project owners have therefore emphasized that the project is not a purely state-driven project, but a cooperation between the EU Commission, European governments, companies and research institutions. Public funding is thus only part of the total investment that is to flow into Gaia-X.
In order to formally complete the founding process, an evaluation by the Belgian authorities is still required. In the meantime, the association will continue to prepare and establish its head office and important organisational structures in Brussels. As soon as the foundation is legally effective, further members will be admitted, especially from the other European member states. In principle, companies from all over the world can participate if they agree to the rules. In fact, several US providers are currently participating in the working groups, including AWS, Microsoft, Google and IBM.
A prototype implementation of the first Gaia-X services should take place by the beginning of 2021. Interested European partners are invited to further develop the project. In the meantime, representatives from many European nations are actively working on the concept. The exchange with the EU states and the EU Commission is being intensified.
Hopefully, this gives a brief picture of Gaia-X. What does this mean for the big hyperscalers and their operations in Europe? Will they need to change their approach? And what about the US cloud providers that are expanding and operating into Europe, how will they tackle communications within the European market? Read more about this in our next blog post around Gaia-X.
Photo credit (c) Markus Spiske, Unsplash.com