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Gaia-X cloud: A safe haven for Europe's data?

Insa Wrede
November 5, 2021

Europe has just marked the second anniversary of Gaia-X. It's a cloud data project intended to help the continent achieve "digital sovereignty," but many companies remain skeptical or have simply never heard of it .

A picture of the Google server farm in Pryor, United States
Europe's cloud industry is seen as crucial in regaining control over the continent's dataImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Google

In the era of digitalization, companies, administrations and the public at large produce huge amounts of data. The permanent stream of bits and bytes is multiplying exponentially by the day as innovations such as artificial intelligence, autonomous driving and automation are coming online now and in the future.

At the same time, Big Data has become big business for those companies who are able to store and mine the huge data pools, and, ideally, share them with other companies for commercial gain. In this, many companies have come to rely on outside cloud service providers — a business that's been booming in recent years, with more data meanwhile being stored by firms externally rather than in-house. 

Apart from saving valuable storage capacity, businesses can also cut costs by renting rather than buying software applications and processing power, while data clouds guarantee access from seemingly anywhere in the world.

Cloud computing revenues / Infographic

Europe's independent cloud ecosystem

Gaia-X is a Franco-German project idea that was first presented to the public at a European Digital Summit in October 2019. About one year later, the Gaia-X Association (AISBL) was founded as an international nonprofit organization based in Belgium. Its aim is to foster the digital sovereignty of European cloud service users, and promote European values of transparency, openness, data protection and security.

German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier speaking at the Digital Summit 2019 in Dortmund, Germany
Germany's Peter Altmaier first floated the idea of Gaia-X saying it would be a key tool for allowing Europeans to "assert themselves in the world"Image: Imago Images/Cord

Senior French and German ministers have promised Europe will regain its "digital sovereignty" in the face of dominant American players like Amazon, Google and Microsoft. German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said during the AISBL founding ceremony the data infrastructure ecosystem would "drive innovation and create new data-based services and applications."

In the opinion of its founders, Gaia-X is not intended to create a competing product to existing offers by US providers. Instead its stated aim is to link different data infrastructures via open interfaces and standards in order to connect data and make them available to a broad audience.

"Gaia-X is based on existing data infrastructure systems, but acts as a software federation system that mainly orchestrates data exchanges within the ecosystem," said Andreas Weiss from eco, the largest internet industry association in Europe.

Among the project's German founding members are such big industry names as BMW, Airbus, Bosch, Deutsche Telekom, SAP and Siemens. On the French side, Amadeus, Atos,  Electricite de France (EDF), Orange and Scaleway were early members of Gaia-X.

Within less than a year after the AISBL nonprofit was founded in 2020, the alliance elected a new board, developed from about a dozen founding members into 320 member organizations, launched dozens of national hubs across Europe and started work for several committees to draw up technical and policy rules.

GAIA-X is EU's answer to cloud computing

Common standards are key

Presently, many European companies build individual interfaces for data exchange and interoperability solutions with each of their customers seperately — a tedious and costly process.

"Some companies seeking to exchange data still use e-mail, fax or other technologies that are no longer state of the art. Sometimes they have to sort out in advance how to exchange their data," said Rainer Sträter from cloud services provider IONOS. This might still work between two companies, he told DW, but it's impossible among several hundreds of firms, which, for instance, need to organize supply chains. Here, interoperability was essential and could only be achieved through standardized data, he added.

According to market analyst IDC and cloud company Seagate, the lack of standardized data exchanges in Europe means that only about one third of the data existing in companies would effectively be used to develop new products and business innovations.

The European Commission says data services will become a major driver of economic growth in the next decade, garnering data industry revenue worth about €829 billion ($957 billion) annually  by 2025 — three times as much as in 2020.

At the moment, however, it's mainly the cloud services of Amazon, Microsoft, and Google that are flourishing amid the boom, cementing their dominance over Europe, where they account for almost 70% of the market. Europe's biggest cloud player, Deutsche Telekom, accounts for only 2%.

Cloud services usage in Europe / Infographic

US services dominant, Gaia-X not well-known

The German Economy Ministry says on its website that cloud services providers outside Europe are able to "rapidly scale their infrastructure and dominate the market with their huge capital reserves." In times of growing international tensions and trade conflicts, the ministry warns, Europe must be able to "act more independently" with regard to its data.

But with its cloud agenda still only evolving, Europe will likely remain reliant on big US companies for a while, and exposed to the reach of Washington through extraterritorial laws like the US Cloud Act. The law allows Washington to requisition European data held by US companies.

Small wonder then that the primary concern of European companies is data security when it comes to using cloud services. According to the Cloud Monitor 2021 compiled by consultancy KPMG and the Bitkom industry association, 75% of the European companies not using cloud services named security issues as the main reason for their reluctance, while 67% are worried about unclear regulatory frameworks.

Apart from legitimate security concerns, Gaia-X also seems to have a public relations problem. Only about 6% of some 500 German companies polled by the Institute of the German Economy (IW) recently said they had heard of the European cloud project — a worryingly low number two years after it started.   

Dubious bedfellows

In order to move things forward, the Gaia-X alliance decided in April to accept global cloud players such as Microsoft, Huawei, Amazon, Google, Salesforce and Alibaba as full members. Palantir, a controversial California-based company with alleged links to the US military-industrial complex, was revealed to have been a Gaia-X member since day one.

Such developments have caused worries that the foreign data giants could influence the initiative to benefit them rather than Europe's own interests. But Boris Otto, the head of the Fraunhofer ISST institute and interim chief technology officer (CTO) at the Gaia-X Association, sought to play down the differences. "We don't want to isolate Europe, but seek to invite anyone who agrees to play by our rules," he said in a statement.

IONOS' Rainer Sträter shares this view, insisting that Gaia-X's vision is still alive. Once completed, he told DW, the open source project would allow Europeans to freely chose their cloud services providers in line with their own requirements. And those European companies that are already heavily relying on cloud services, would be able to switch between providers more easily because all Gaia-X participants would need to abide by the same standards of transparency and data security. This could also benefit smaller cloud services who are presently unable to compete with the heavyweights of the industry, he added.

A cloud-computing center of German company T-Systems.
Google runs partnerships with major European telecoms. Will deep commercial ties make data sovereignty impossible?Image: Thomas Ollendorf/dpa/Deutsche Telekom AG/picture alliance

Whether the Gaia-X alliance can really advance the cloud project to help protect European interests will become clearer in mid-November, when members meet for a two-day summit in Milan. They are planning to launch so-called labels for cloud companies active in Europe to market their security, privacy and sovereignty practices.

This article has been adapted from German.