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Growing pains: Where next for Gaia-X?

With one of its founding members preparing to exit the project because of concerns over the growing influence of non-European entities on its operations, questions are being asked about Gaia-X’s future

More than two years have passed since the Gaia-X project went public with its intention to give European enterprises access to a secure, federated, interoperable, sovereign data infrastructure where they could run their cloud workloads securely.

The initiative started out as a Franco-German undertaking with 22 founding members, and its membership has since ballooned, with 310 cloud firms, trade associations and research institutions now making up its community.

One of its original founding members was French cloud company Scaleway, which confirmed earlier this month that it is exiting the project out of concern over the direction the initiative is taking and the lack of progress being made towards delivering on its original goal.

“The objectives of the [Gaia-X] association, initially laudable, are being side-tracked and slowed down by a polarisation paradox, which is reinforcing the status quo, and that is an unbalanced playing field,” said Scaleway CEO Yann Lechelle in a statement.

In a follow-up statement to Computer Weekly, Lechelle elaborated on the reasons why the company is not planning to continue its membership of Gaia-X, which is due for renewal at the end of this year.

The statement hints at emerging divisions within the project, seemingly brought about by the decision to welcome US cloud giants, including Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google and Microsoft, as well as several Chinese tech firms, into the Gaia-X fold.

Computer Weekly understands this development took some existing members of the Gaia-X community by surprise, because they were under the impression that the project was designed to provide European enterprises with an alternative infrastructure for workloads they did not want to host in the clouds of the US tech giants

Lechelle said the growing influence and financial hold these non-European entities have on the way Gaia-X operates means the original aims of the project are now unlikely to be realised.

“There are a variety of reasons for this, but chief among them is the fact that the association is largely influenced and financed by major US, and now Chinese, businesses from board level right down to the technical working groups,” said Lechelle.

“While we defended a strictly European governance, the influence is largely indirect and tactical, bypassing the initial nature of the governing body and by-laws.

“As a result, Gaia-X is in danger of just becoming yet another Brussels-based tech association that claims to represent the interests of all, when in reality it is prioritising the needs of the major players, who want to consolidate their market share rather than foster openness and a level playing field.”

Computer Weekly contacted Gaia-X for a response to Lechelle’s comments, and its CEO, Francesco Bonfiglio, supplied a statement that reiterated the organisation’s commitment to ensuring its community is run in an open, inclusive and transparent way.

“It will not discriminate among its members or their granted support,” said Bonfiglio. “Our rules are open, inclusive and transparent and already aligned with EU competition law. We work with small, medium and large corporations and we will apply the same principles of transparency, objectivity and non-discrimination.

“Today, we are counting 310 members that abide and guarantee inclusiveness within the data space ecosystem that indeed crosses borders and will not be confined within European borders. We live in a global community, where our decisions will affect many generations to come, which is our ultimate interest.”

Computer Weekly understands Scaleway is not the only Gaia-X member with misgivings about the direction the project is taking, but it remains to be seen whether other parties might follow its lead and exit the initiative too.

Clearing up the confusion

Rene Buest, a senior director analyst within Gartner’s technology and services provider organisation, said there has always been a degree of confusion among participants and market onlookers about what Gaia-X is intended to do.

“In the beginning, it was really positioned as a cloud offering against the hyperscale cloud providers, but it was never intended to be that,” Buest told Computer Weekly.

“It’s not about building a competitive offering against the American or Chinese providers, but what they want to do is pull together all the strings [from a data and infrastructure ecosystem perspective] so that Europe can benefit from what exists already in the market.”

And that will require input from non-European parties, he added. “The main issue we have when it comes to cloud and digital technologies is that we – Europe – don’t have anything. All the good technology, unfortunately, comes from the United States or the Asia Pacific region.”

In Buest’s view, Scaleway’s departure is unlikely to hurt the project, and is essentially just a sign that Gaia-X is experiencing a few growing pains as the number of parties involved in the venture continues to swell.

“This is the main problem these projects have where X amount of organisations are involved in something that is also being organised by government agencies,” he said. “It is a very complex [setup] and is one of the biggest pain points they have.”

Given that there are more than 300 members of Gaia-X at the moment, ensuring everyone is pleased with the project’s direction is a huge task, as each party will have its own motivations and ambitions for what they want to get out of it.

On top of this, there is often a propensity for open source-championing communities to shed and gain members over time, as new parties find themselves enthused and aligned with what these groups are trying to achieve. At the same time, others grapple with the reality that what they are involved with is not quite what they imagined when they signed up.

Amanda Brock, CEO of open source not-for-profit pressure group OpenUK, said it is almost inevitable, given the size and scale of Gaia-X, that companies will leave the initiative, which is all part and parcel of how communities such as this operate and evolve over time.

“With 300-plus members, if we are realistic, there will inevitably be a level of drop-out,” she told Computer Weekly. “I don’t see anything to be surprised about in the announcements this week. At the same time as we see this natural evolution, we see a true doubling-down on open from Europe.”

OpenUK joined Gaia-X a year ago, positioning its involvement as a means of ensuring UK-based companies that want to tap into the Gaia-X data infrastructure to deliver or access services can do so without hindrance, post-Brexit.

In a statement at the time announcing its involvement with Gaia-X, OpenUK said: “For the UK, as a third country after leaving the EU, both understanding Gaia-X and participating in the project will be potentially important for technology and cloud companies that want to do business with their counterparts in Europe.”

Read more about Gaia-X

Fast forward 12 months, and Brock said OpenUK’s engagement with Gaia-X remains “as strong as ever”, with the organisation all set to roll out an initiative in 2022 designed to reinforce its commitment to the project. 

“The Gaia-X members represent the state of the art for Europe in terms of digital sovereignty and they act as the backbone for Europe’s federated data model,” she said.

“The UK will engage with this more fully over time, and with that in mind, we are working with a group across the UK to shape a potential Gaia-X Hub for the UK to launch in 2022.”

But other Gaia-X members are not quite so sanguine about what the future holds for the initiative, including French platform-as-a-service (PaaS) provider Clever Cloud, which specialises in helping enterprises migrate their web services off-premise. 

A spokesperson for the organisation said it is “undeniable” that Gaia-X is now behind schedule, and it has concerns that the project’s aim to create a “European data ecosystem” has now morphed into a goal to create “a data ecosystem in Europe”, which is a very different proposition from what it initially set out to do.

“Gaia-X is about building European sovereignty, which implies that we as Europeans have control over the technologies we decide to use,” said the spokesperson. “It implies that we build our cloud standards upon European technologies and that we encourage the adoption and development of European technologies.

“This is what led Clever Cloud to join Gaia-X, as well as many other European companies. But if Gaia-X departs from this goal, Scaleway’s departure will just be the first of a series.”

For this reason, news of Scaleway’s decision not to renew its Gaia-X membership should serve as a “wake-up call” for the initiative, the spokesperson said.

Clever Cloud agrees with Brock that departures from Gaia-X are inevitable, but seeing who stays and who goes will reveal a lot about how far (or not) the project has strayed away from its initial goals, the spokesperson added.

“We have to wonder why 300-plus members joined Gaia-X,” the spokesperson added. “If the reason why they joined is not the reason why Gaia-X thinks it exists, there will be an identity crisis and many will not renew their membership.

“Departures are inevitable, but if these departures are mostly European companies, with American and Asian companies staying, it will say something about Gaia-X’s initial goal and outcome.

“We believe Gaia-X can still convince European cloud providers they have a solid reasons to stay, and Clever Cloud wants to stay, but we need a change now in how our concerns are addressed. They are legitimate concerns, and so far, we feel like they have been looked down on.”

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