INTERVIEW

Gaia-X for a European data economy

Cloudprovider.biz has interviewed Francesco Bonfiglio, head of the European association Gaia-X (270 companies, yet growing fast), on the contents and the steps forward taken to implement the project disrupting the Cloud in Europe. Sovereignty and transparency, even in terms of technology uptake.

01 Lug 2021

As in the transition from the mainframe to the era of microservices over the Internet, the European cloud project Gaia-X features the concept of a cloud that grows out of being hyperconcentrated in the hands of a few global hyperscalers into horizontally distributed and scalable. “Something that still doesn’t exist but will soon get to as being in the cards, and because in the wider data field there are lopsidedness that must be addressed and corrected in the interest of European countries.”

As for the technology underlying the new Gaia-X framework, the position is clear and uncompromising: “No exclusions and overlapping between new and existing elements: the Gaia-X services will be those compliant with Gaia-X principles, in a transparent and verifiable way”. Compliance will concern single services, not providers, with a system automatically validated by the same infrastructure.  VMware, participating in the project, is already compatible by default.

Gaia-X

In the interview with Cloudprovider.biz (network of VMware and Digital360 Group) CEO Francesco Bonfiglio started from a key element in the idea of the association: “Gaia-X was born as a governmental project but immediately became an international non-profit association, thus open to everyone. The sole requirement is that only European members sit on the board: just because we are pursuing European principles and for this reason, as anyone would do to defend their principles and laws, we want to ensure that the founding objectives of the association would not be jeopardized. That said, all the biggest service providers worldwide were gathered behind Gaia-X, Microsoft, Google, Alibaba, plus hubs springing up in Korea, Japan, China, South America, towards a global initiative. We are not setting up any barriers, the choice to create something exclusive to Europe would have been wrong and is not our choice; just because the solution cannot be to replicate in the same way what others have already done”.

A horizontally distributed and scalable cloud

Gaia-X will be able to realize in a short time the project it set – and Bonfiglio is confident in this – since it will succeed in spreading the idea of a distributed cloud model, horizontally scalable. “Computing, storage, networking, security and artificial intelligence must be as widely spread as possible, understanding that the cloud must be made up of many nodes communicating with each other. Of course, it’s about creating something new that can’t be supported by existing, hyperconcentrated architectures, but it’s also about doing it in an inclusive way.”

The CEO still stands on the matter: “The real question that should be asked to those who wonder why Gaia-X has not excluded American or Chinese players, is instead why it has welcomed them and why they have decided to invest in working at Gaia-X booth. The answer is quite simple: players need to understand what their customers are looking for, and such customers are the same we are working with. So, hyperscalers are as interested in the project as we are, and they will probably have a huge decision to take when Gaia-X will become a standard and could be inconsistent with the architectures they have already developed. There will be time to fit such architectures, but this will be a plus for Europe.”

The project of a European data economy

Gaia-X started out as a French-German project, with initially 22 founding companies, 11 French and 11 German, by September 2020, then opening up to members from other countries to reach 270 companies officially onboard by June 2021. “Companies from different sectors,” Bonfiglio explained, “and from 25 different countries, all sharing a single purpose: the definition of a new generation of data infrastructure to foster the creation of those data spaces that are numerically representing social, industrial, natural ecosystems surrounding us. Sharing takes place through technological infrastructures, via the cloud: without clouds, there would be no platforms, matching point between data and technologies; without platforms, data could not be used, therefore there would be no digital economy”.

Bonfiglio dwells on the digital economy of data: “Gaia-X is the rebirth of the data economy in Europe through the creation of a safe, sovereign, transparent infrastructure, based on the principles of independence, data circulation freedom, supplier guarantee, as well as quality and security for the technology consumer. Furthermore, the system will allow to join the already existing infrastructures, without creating new ones, according to a networked model. Something completely different from the current hyper-concentrated cloud architectures, which expose Europe to legal and economic risks”.

Global market and Italian hub

The association is working on creating digital sovereignty in terms of governing data and reducing reliance on non-European technologies, but the goal is to foster data economies not just in Europe. “Within five years, Gaia-X is expected to have a global market. By that stage everyone will have to take a decision, Europe having invested less will have a bigger gap, and yet less effort to change the model.  We will likely be competing fairly on par with the current big cloud players.”

Italian companies having joined Gaia-X are now more than 40, though growing non-stop. “All the hubs within the Gaia-X ecosystem are totally self-managed parts of the organization – Bonfiglio pointed out – working on data spaces to investigate ways of sharing data to create value. Another great value is being connected with local governments. The Italian hub works with the Ministry of Digital Transition and the Chief of Staff Stefano Firpo will sit on the steering board. The Italian hub has chosen to focus on specific areas such as health care, but also peculiar ones such as tourism and culture. However, it is the sharing between the different hubs that creates value and proposition, and the individual initiatives are open to all European players. However, each hub is expected to create stories, use cases specific to its own country and share them with the others. The federative logic that moves Gaia-X results in the collaborative approach behind the different members; in other words, there is no such thing as a Gaia-X project if there are no players getting together.”

First services by year-end and then massive growth, assuming…

The road-map calls for a tight schedule. “I’m confident that the first Gaia-X projects will be up and running by the end of the year. The federation services, which have to deal with identity and trust, sovereignty, catalog management and compliance, four categories that are the infrastructure binder, will be released in their first version by the end of the year. We’re not only producing paper but also code, which will be open and available to everyone. From next year a development of Gaia-X catalogs, initially around vertical and then horizontal data spaces, is expected.

From push to pull in five years. “My goal is to get to push with Gaia-X in the first two years, and if this works as I’m sure it will, the market will create demand. When demand is created, the market grows exponentially and we can go from the current four percent European cloud to 10 percent on a global scale, and to at least thirty percent data market in Europe on the Gaia X platform. The assumptions are in place: we are supported by governments, we have a single project and not hundreds, we have a project where technology operators participate sharing their needs: nothing like this has ever existed, we are at the beginning but the elements are all there”.

What can divert the line from its path? “Time. Before we create something new, our economy can’t stop, and until there is an alternative, we have to use the few technologies we have. So there is a risk of technological lock-in. It would be catastrophic to create great use cases and then implement them on non-Gaia-X infrastructure. The other problem is related to the typicality of Gaia X, which is an association and not a company, so we have to take into account all the opinions and expectations of countries, which are not easy to balance.”

Gaia-X brings benefits to local cloud providers

The benefits a local cloud provider will gain by joining Gaia X are plentiful. “The first advantage of a local player is to join forces with other local operators, and other European operators, to build a much more powerful offering. So – Bonfiglio explained – there is a great opportunity for small operators to join the big ones. Let’s not forget we are giving everyone equal opportunities, even setting up consortia. We also have start-ups that are contributing their technology because they understand that they can be more visible.”

The CEO of Gaia-X adds even more: “Technology providers have a huge advantage because the phenomenon of hyperscalers and the market control they hold also impacts them. Those who provide hardware, operating systems, data bases or virtualization systems know very well that, in order to maintain economic sustainability, cloud providers have had to create completely custom infrastructures and architectures. Instead, technology providers will find in Gaia-X a natural collocation as well as a competitive market of their own, which they would otherwise risk losing due to hyperconcentration”.

VMware technology is fully supported by Gaia-X

VMware is on board with the project. “VMware is already supporting the initiative, as are many other partners, and is a key component of the value chain we are building. Gaia X doesn’t set out to rebuild what already exists, rather it sets out to build a layer on top of technologies, from hardware to operating systems, databases, virtualizers, and containers. VMware is one of the technologies that first understood the need for multiple and hybrid clouds, the need to move workloads from nodes to nodes, and therefore was the first in the market to embody the concepts of interoperability and portability, cornerstones of Gaia-X.”

Bonfiglio added: “Technologies such as VMware are inherently compatible with Gaia-X as they allow the realization of those principles, in particular transportability, reversibility, interoperability, required by the architecture we are implementing. Gaia-X architecture doesn’t overlap with existing ones, it doesn’t aim to write European virtualization technologies or to replace American technologies, it just aims to integrate existing technologies as long as those fit Gaia-X requirements. Some technologies, such as VMware’s, will be easier to deploy as opposed to those that manage data directly; others that provide data may have additional problems. Technologies that prevent transparent access to data will be more difficult for adoption.”

Technology approach is hyper-inclusive

“We are providing requirements,” says Bonfiglio, “that each provider will decide how to adapt to. However, trust in technology is greater than trust in humans, and creating trusted architectures that cannot be corrupted in any way by humans is a goal of Gaia-X. So we will provide certification mechanisms that will be fully automated. The fact that certain technologies are compatible or enable Gaia-X services will not be self-certified by the vendor, nor will it be defined by the association: it will be the architecture itself that will enable it. Anyone can build technology for Gaia-X if the technology is compatible. Gaia-X principles are defined within Gaia-X project and any service that meets these principles will be qualified, but, and here is the important thing, the services will be qualified, not the vendors. No one will be able to claim to be Gaia-X compliant, yet they will be able to claim to have Gaia-X compliant services if they can be verified by the same Gaia-X technology.”

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