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Gaia-X: Inside the bid to create an open, next-gen data infrastructure for European enterprises

The Gaia-X project is billed as a push to create an open, cross-continent, next-generation data infrastructure “by Europe and for Europe”, but why is it needed?

One thing that periodically triggers European governments and industrialists is the continent’s failure to produce a major tech firm to challenge the giant US corporates. 

There are European successes in some areas: Skype and Spotify, for example, but not when it comes to the provision of major infrastructure.

When it comes to naming the hardware, software and cloud service providers that dominate the IT landscape, the names that invariably spring to mind are US-based firms (with Alibaba butting in on the cloud side).

It has not been for want of trying. In the 1970s, vast sums of money were thrown at the likes of ICL, Bull, Olivetti and Philips by their respective national governments in an attempt to produce a national champion to take on the might of US tech giants such as IBM, but they all failed.

Even so, that has not dimmed Europe’s dreams of punching above its own technological weight, which has given rise in the past year to the Gaia-X project.

Set up by representatives from the fields of politics, business and science, its aim is to create a cross-continent data infrastructure based on open standards, created “by Europe, for Europe”.

Its founders are currently in the throes of hosting their first virtual conference to set out what they hope to achieve with Gaia-X, while shedding some light on the roadmap for the project.

A European alternative to the US tech giants

On the face of it, it would appear the project is geared towards creating a European challenger to the new nimble overlords of the digital economy, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google, Salesforce and so on.

Interestingly, though, the first day of the conference has seen AWS named as a contributor to the project, with the public cloud giant claiming to have been an “active supporter” of the initiative since its inception.

“We joined Gaia-X to help our European customers and partners accelerate cloud-driven innovation in Europe,” said Max Peterson, vice-president of international sales for the worldwide public sector at AWS.

“We support the development of an open and competitive digital ecosystem for Europe’s industries, governments, and citizens. It’s important that our customers have the freedom to build services quickly, securely, and efficiently using world-leading technology. This will best help prepare them to compete at home, across Europe and globally.”

This serving to highlight another aim of the project, which is to give European firms a leg-up when it comes to scaling up their businesses to trade with the wider world.

From a technology competitiveness standpoint, Europe has made efforts to do battle with the US tech giants in the past.  In 2008, the French government (with support from Germany) launched Quaero, a European search engine to compete with Google. After spending nearly 100m Euros of French tax payers’ money on the venture, the government pulled the plug.

The Gaia-X project, originally initiated at the tail-end of last year, has attracted some heavyweight support already. French AWS challenger OVHCloud, BMW, Deutsche Telekom, Atos, Siemens, Bosch, SAP Orange and EDF are among the project’s list of supporters.

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The initiative has also garnered plenty of government-level support from France and Germany, as well as seven other European countries.

The aims of the project are pretty clear: the widespread use of open systems, a common repository and uniform standards across Europe. Presenting the EU executive’s paper, A European strategy for data, Commission President von der Leyen said that within the EU’s industrial data stocks “lies an enormous amount of precious ideas, potential innovation, and untapped potential we have to unleash”.

The key driver is going to be how it uses data. There’s going to be a drive towards a unified approach to data, with common rules for how data can be monetised.

Data sovereignty is key to the project. The introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018 has had a major impact on the market and been allied to the realisation of the financial importance of data. And those are assets that European governments are keen not to see in the hands of European competitors.

Hence the need for the Gaia-X project to guarantee some levels of data sovereignty. The thinking is that all users will decide for themselves where their personal data is stored, who can use it and for what purpose.

Most importantly, data can be transferred between companies (because of a common set of standardisation rules) and can be linked with other data, processed, evaluated, and monetised. The Gaia-X founder think that this will enable a new generation of innovative services to be launched.

Of course, there’s the cloud of past European failures hanging over initiatives like this but, according to Amanda Brock, CEO of open standards group Open UK, there are some notable differences this time around. “There are big differences between the world back then and the world we’re in now,” she said. “We’re seeing how Margrethe Vestager [the EU competition commissioner] is now getting to grips with competition.”

Data at the heart of business models

But it’s not just about strengthening competition rules: there are other factors at play, too. “We’re seeing a greater understanding about data and how it can be used. This is a big change: data is now at the heart of business models and not just technological ones.”

In such an atmosphere it is clear to see that a common approach to the monetisation of data is going to bring dividends in the long run.

There’s still a lot to be sorted out before Gaia-X becomes a reality. There’s a desire to get more countries on board, there’s the question of what to do about the UK and, most importantly of all, what to do about US countries operating in Europe.

This is a thorny problem: a big part of the rationale for the formation of Gaia-X is to provide some clout against US. The feeling at the moment is that any US companies who want to get involved would do so through their European subsidiaries and toe the Gaia-X line.

This may be easier said than done. Vestager’s action against Amazon last week showed that she’s not letting up in her intention to put the US giants on the spot.

This week’s conference should provide a guide as to how the participants see the way forward. Gaia-X must not be seen as another variation of the Franco-German axis, and there’s certainly a need to get some other big nations on board.

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