Gaia-X: The last chance saloon for Europe’s visionary cloud project
Beset by technical and political problems, is Gaia-X finally ready to secure European data sovereignty – or is it a “byzantine” project that's doomed to fail?
Conceived as Europe's strategy to protect its data sovereignty, Gaia-X has been plagued with technical and political issues that show no sign of being resolved.
At its launch in 2020, German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said Gaia-X would enable Europeans to "assert ourselves in the world”. Many months on, however, one source told Politico, Gaia-X was a “mess”. Specifically, the project was weighed down by bureaucratically slow decision making and in-fighting between members, who were unclear of the overall goals and how these could be delivered, practically.
Many point to a fundamental misunderstanding of what Gaia-X is and what it'd set out to do, as the reason it's stalled. Gaia-X isn’t a new EU-wide cloud service provider, for instance. Rather, it aims to connect many cloud services with standard communications protocols and deliver strong data sovereignty for all members. The ultimate aim is to redress a longstanding geographical imbalance in favour of US-based service providers and data aggregators.
The indirect influence of US industry players, however, has swelled. Although the Gaia-X board largely comprises European-based companies, organisations such as CISPE and Bitkom also represent the interests of firms like Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Many, therefore, question whether Gaia-X can remain a genuine force for positive European data sovereignty. Recent news that European giants, including Deutsche Telekom and Orange, are forging closer ties with Google also calls into question whether Gaia-X has lost relevance, given board members are moving forward with their own commercial partnerships.
Stemming the breakaway
There may already be an exodus in the works. French cloud and web hosting firm, Scaleway, left Gaia-X in a highly public fashion in November 2021, during its second annual summit.
Alongside NextCloud, and a host of other European software development companies, the firm also helped to establish the European Cloud Industrial Alliance (EUCLIDIA), a body representing SMBs in the cloud industry. Explaining its departure, Scaleway said while Gaia-X’s aims were “initially laudable”, they were being side-tracked and slowed down by a “polarisation paradox” that serves to reinforce the status quo of an unbalanced playing field.
The sand under Gaia-X appears to be constantly shifting. Without solid ground the project can be built on, it’s difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel. Even with the best intentions, the lack of progress, as exemplified by the disillusionment of the likes of its former members, is telling.
It can be easy to assume the cloud industry comprises only the biggest companies. The reality is, though, it’s a broad ecosystem of several thousand service providers delivering similar services, alongside countless unique services and products. In essence, Gaia-X aims to connect this broader group of cloud service providers.
“We have to foster the Digital Single Market in all its dimensions where innovation can thrive and data flow freely,” said former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin in a joint letter, last year. “We need to effectively safeguard competition and market access in a data-driven world. Critical infrastructures and technologies need to become resilient and secure. It is time for the digitisation of governments to build trust and foster digital innovation”
Was Gaia-X fundamentally flawed from the outset, though? “When it comes to matters of execution and building something market-ready, that provides a viable competitive alternative to the existing market offerings (whether that be hyperscalers or what existing European firms already provided), it just hasn’t got off the ground,” says Paul McKay, principal analyst at Forrester.
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“One of its core difficulties – which there was never really a good answer to – is how was it ever going to replicate or compete with the marketplace and ecosystems of developers, applications and services providers that have grown to implement the hyperscalers cloud ecosystem? This, in some ways, is one of the key differentiators of the hyperscalers beyond just the basic infrastructure as a service (IaaS) they provide.”
Not all organisations are cynical about the future of the project, though, and some are building Gaia-X compatibility as a priority. Atos, for example, recently announced its Lighthouse project Structura-X complements industry-specific initiatives for the automotive sector (Catena-X), agriculture (AgriGaia) and finance (EuroDat). The launch of Structura-X in February, Gaia-X claims, offers scale for new cross-sector and cross-nation cloud collaboration, with the aim of fostering a federated European cloud and edge infrastructure. It aims to realise the first example of federated infrastructures that’ll form the foundation of the wider project’s ambitions.
Too many cooks?
Does Gaia-X’s own ambitions, however, handicap its progress? Given the way things have panned out since it was first conceived, senior director analyst at Gartner, Tiny Haynes, tells IT Pro there’s little chance of the project reaching its initial stated goals.
"The EU should have brought this initiative out five years ago, before the widespread adoption of the hyperscalers,” he says. “There were very different priorities with the founding members, making it difficult for them to all agree on a common course of action. They also took far too long to bring out a common technical framework and certification – so it's hard to see how this can be revived. If the European Commission mandates this sovereign, interoperable platform, there might be a chance, but it will only be attractive to government organisations.”
Because of the delays in the development of Gaia-X, too, the rest of the world has moved on to create new legislation that’ll directly impact data sovereignty. Many point to the US CLOUD Act, which could reinforce the barriers between North America and the EU so far as the data landscape is concerned.
The regulatory landscape, including GDPR and the US CLOUD Act, is key, according to associate research director at IDC’s European Cloud Practice, Rahiel Nasir. “The European Data Protection Board announced their investigation across the EEA (European Economic Area) into public sector cloud usage, and Digital Operational Resilience Act ('DORA') which aims to streamline risk management processes across financial institutions, and this stuff just keeps coming,” he says.
“Our research suggests that affected companies are not as aware of Gaia-X as the EU would like them to be, but when they are asked about digital sovereignty, that is something that concerns them. Gaia-X must connect these questions and deliver tangible services that support digital sovereignty.”
The development of Gaia-X continues, but few industry observers see a pathway for tangible progress towards not only achieving its initially stated goals but even forming a coherent roadmap to get there.
“Gaia-X has been smothered by classic European bureaucracy and meetings about meetings,” concludes McKay. “The governance structure is positively byzantine and has led to too many voices trying to stick their oar in, leading to a complete lack of ability to settle on an agreed view on what the Foundation is trying to deliver. This is why more than two years into the journey, we still have nothing more than warm words, position papers and bare-bones prototypes.”
There’s little doubting the Gaia-X project's positive intentions in shifting data sovereignty away from the dominant US giants and towards Europe. Wrestling back this control, however, is proving to be easier said than done. The project's complexity and varying stakeholder priorities, combined with a constantly shifting regulatory environment, don’t bode well for its future – even in the short term.
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