In late 2020, the project Gaia-X has been officially presented at a virtual summit to some  4000 participants. The French and German economic ministers highly praised and admired the next-generation data ecosystem for Europe.

Since then, in addition to the 22 founding companies from Germany and France, more than 300 other companies have expressed interest in becoming members of the Gaia-X organization.

What is Gaia-X?

The project's ambitions are evident in its name: Gaia - in Greek mythology - is a primordial deity of the earth..

Mythology aside, the official definition says that Gaia-X is "a secure, federated system that meets the highest standards of digital sovereignty while promoting innovation. "

It's a little dry, like the rest of the European legislative texts. Still, the theory behind it goes like this: We, Europeans, should fear the excessive dependency on American or Chinese IT cloud infrastructures because, in case of a serious trade conflict, they could pull the plug. To avoid that, we need a European cloud. (Or even more straightforward: Europe does not want to become a digital colony).

Gaia-X project is pitching European values of an open, federated, and collaborative ecosystem against both the Chinese model of government control of domestic markets and the US model of uncontrolled corporate reign.

On paper, it makes an awful lot of sense. Design and build a cloud hosted and managed by European providers that adhere to our strict regulatory requirements (for example, data privacy).

On several occasions, the Gaia-X's initiators made clear that its aim is not to create yet another hyperscaler, similar to Google, AWS, or Azure. Instead, it wants to counter the cloud giant with a network of many smaller providers from Europe. But managing distributed systems is challenging to master, especially in a multi-cloud environment.

Integrating various providers and agreeing on one unified data model (and format) could be a daunting task. It's still open how that will work.

Who needs a European cloud?

The optimism of the Gaia-X creators stems from the fact that there is no trust in the solutions of the US and Chinese providers.

As important as their cloud offers nowadays are, many European businesses are hesitant when using foreign (US, Chinese) offers. There is a lack of trust. A recent survey (from 2020), carried out by a German bank, revealed that more than 80 percent of medium-sized companies prefer to use domestic cloud offers (read: European) even when they have far less to offer than their US competitors.

Thus, so far, only six percent of those companies rely on US solutions. Gaia-X wants to target precisely this type of businesses. It wants to close that gap by enabling interoperability, portability of infrastructure, and secure data services.

But isn't this too late?

Data protection-compliant cloud services from European providers have existed long before Gaia-X. Yet, many companies preferred to entrust their data to American corporations. Even large German companies like Lufthansa, Deutsche Bahn, or VW lead the way and leave their data to Microsoft Azure, AWS, or Google Cloud. 

If the big guys do that, what can be so wrong with it?

Telekom and Microsoft had already suffered a shipwreck with their "Microsoft Cloud Germany" - a first attempt to build a genuinely European cloud. But the offer was expensive and had fewer features than the original Azure Cloud. Not really compelling.

And remember Andromeda?

Ten years before Gaia-X, the same companies involved in this project (Atos, Thalès, and Orange) facilitated the creation of a sovereign cloud. Supported by the French government, Andromeda used 150 million Euros of public funding to support...the US American OpenStack. 

Not exactly the best foundation to build on.

But more important is the question, how does Gaia-X plan to beat its competitors and win at least a little of the market share:

  • AWS - 32%
  • Azure - 20%
  • Google Cloud - 9%
  • Alibaba Cloud - 6%
  • IBM Cloud - 5%
  • Salesforce - 3%
  • Tencent Cloud - 2%
  • Oracle Cloud - 2%

It's not impossible; Azure has done it in recent years and now threatens the pole position of AWS (Azure: nearly 3x increase in market share in five years). It's a long battle though. A battle that needs more than the current 27 million euros budget (however, more billions are promised).

What we need is a more trust-based approach in dealing with cloud providers

Putting the sovereignty and the fear of the "kill switch" aside, I think that businesses need a more neutral approach while buying cloud services. Data leaks and cyber attacks are unavoidable. It can happen on every cloud platform, even a European one. 

The biggest issue I see with approaching cloud topics in this part of the world is data protection concerns, which far too often block our digital transformation. Europe is becoming (or maybe it is already - challenging to say from where I sit) a digital laggard. 

Don't get me wrong; we're all on the same side here: nobody wants to see their data privacy compromised. Healthy skepticism towards global providers is appropriate. But not every cloud service is criminal just because it comes from the USA or China.

Take a closer look under the hood, understand contracts, security measures, and look over their certifications. This requires a lot of effort, but it's worth it. 

Too many data privacy advocates skip these steps and, by default, ban all global services. This mindset has caused that Europe hardly has any export opportunities for its digital services. And a highly fragmented Gaia-X may struggle to achieve the economy of scale necessary to become an export hit.

What about people who will build and run the cloud (aka talent shortage)?

The real challenge is to find people who design and run the cloud, no matter if it's ASW, Azure, or Gaia-X.

Cloud computing is an interdisciplinary, complex topic that requires a lot of know-how and is by no means a walk in the park or a sure-fire success. 

Ultimately, many cloud projects fail because the companies just don't have the know-how and people with skills in cloud technologies. 

It starts with selecting the cloud provider based on the required features. It continues with the conception of the cloud roadmap through cloud and provider management, cloud optimization, and exit strategies. 

Therefore, cloud teams have to be made fit for the new offers, tasks, and topics.