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Gaia-X clouds on the horizon

As in the transition from the mainframe to the era of microservices on the Internet, the European project Gaia-X, currently consisting of 270 companies and rapidly growing, embodies a horizontally distributed and scalable cloud, in contrast to existing offerings that are concentrated in the hands of a few global hyperscalers. “This is something that doesn’t exist yet, but we will achieve it. It’s in the pipeline. There are imbalance issues in the data economy that need to be addressed and corrected. This is in the interest of all European countries,” says Bonfiglio.

On the technology that will form the bedrock of the new Gaia-X architecture, Bonfiglio is clear: “No exclusions and superimpositions of new things onto the existing ones: everything that comprises Gaia-X will comply with Gaia-X principles, in a transparent and verifiable way”. And compliance will concern individual services, not vendors, with an automatic mechanism that will be validated by the infrastructure itself. VMware, which is actively participating in the project, is already compatible.

In the interview with (network of VMware and Digital360 Group) CEO Francesco Bonfiglio starts with a key element in the association’s proposal: “Gaia-X was born as a governmental project but it quickly became an international non-profit association and is therefore open to everyone. The only constraint is that only European members sit on the board: for the simple reason that we are advancing European principles. Just as anyone would wish to defend their principles and laws, we want to ensure that the founding objectives of the association are not corrupted. Having said that, all the biggest service providers in the world will sit at the Gaia-X table: Microsoft, Google and Alibaba, for example. We have hubs coming up in Korea, Japan, China and South America, in the direction of a worldwide initiative. We are not putting up walls. The choice to create something exclusive to Europe would have been wrong; for the simple reason that rebuilding what others have done before cannot be the solution.”

If Gaia-X succeeds in realizing the project in the short time it has set itself – and Bonfiglio is convinced that it can – it will be because it succeeds in affirming the idea of a distributed, horizontally scalable cloud model. “Computing, storage, networking, security and artificial intelligence must be as decentralized as possible, understanding that the cloud must be made up of many nodes that talk to each other. It’s certainly 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 remains on point: “The real question that should be asked of those who wonder why Gaia-X did not exclude American or Chinese players  is instead why it welcomed them and why they decided to invest in working at the Gaia-X table. The answer is simple: operators need to understand the needs of their customers, and the customers are the same ones we have at our table. So, hyperscalers are as interested in the project as we are, and they will probably have a big decision to make when Gaia-X becomes a de facto standard that may be incompatible with the architectures they have developed. There will be time to adapt those architectures, but to Europe this will give an advantage.”

Gaia-X started out as a Franco-German project, with initially 22 founding companies, 11 French and 11 German in around September 2020. After opening its doors to members from other countries, 270 companies had been officially brought on board by June 2021. “Companies from different sectors,” explains Bonfiglio, “and from 25 different countries, all sharing a single intent: the definition of a new generation of data infrastructure that can facilitate the creation of those data spaces that are the numerical representation of the ecosystems that surround us, social, industrial, natural. Sharing takes place through technological infrastructures, through the cloud. Without the cloud, there would be no platforms or meeting point between data and technologies. Without platforms, data could not be used, therefore there would be no digital economy”.

Here Bonfiglio dwells on the digital economy of data: “Gaia-X is the rebirth of the data economy in Europe through the creation of a secure, sovereign, transparent infrastructure, based on the principles of sovereignty, freedom of circulation of data, guarantee of the supplier, as well as quality and security for the technology consumer. And it wants to do it through a system that will allow the infrastructures that already exist to be joined up, without creating new ones, according to a federated model. Something completely different from the current hyper-concentrated cloud architectures, which expose Europe to legal and economic risks”.

The association is working on creating digital sovereignty in terms of governing data and reducing dependence on non-European technologies, but the goal is to foster data economies both within and outside Europe. “We think that within five years, Gaia-X will have a worldwide market. At that point everyone will have to make choices; Europe, which has invested less, will have a bigger gap, but it will also find it easier to change its model. We will probably find ourselves competing on an equal footing with the current big cloud operators.”

There are now more than 40 Italian companies that have joined Gaia-X and this number is growing all the time. “All the hubs within the Gaia-X ecosystem are totally self-managed pieces of the organization,” Bonfiglio points out, “working on data spaces to study ways of sharing data that create value. They have another great value, which 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 unusual ones such as tourism and culture. However, it is the sharing between the different hubs that creates a value proposition, and the individual initiatives are open to all European players. What we expect is that each hub will create stories and use cases specific to its own country and share them with others. The logic of federation that moves Gaia X translates into a logic of cooperation that brings the various members together; in other words, there is no Gaia-X project if there are no operators willing to cooperate”.

We expect the first services by the end of the year and then to move towards exponential growth, provided that two conditions are in place:

Firstly, the roadmap must include a tight schedule. “I am convinced that the first Gaia-X projects will be up and running by the end of the year. The federation services, which have to do with identity and trust, sovereignty, catalogue management and compliance, four categories that are the glue of the infrastructure, will be released in their first version by the end of the year. We are not only producing paper but also code, which will be open and available to everyone. From next year I expect a development of Gaia-X catalogues, initially around vertical and then horizontal data spaces.

Secondly, we must get from push to pull in five years. “My goal is to get to push with Gaia-X in the first two years.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 there: we have the support of governments, we have a single project and not hundreds, we have a table at which technology operators sit to discuss needing each other: there has never been anything like this, we are at the beginning but the elements are all there.

What can divert the train from its path? “Time. Our economy can’t stop before we have finished creating something new. 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 have to implement them on non-Gaia-X infrastructure. The other problem is related to the form 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 reconcile.”

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

The Gaia-X CEO adds more: “Technology providers have a huge advantage because the phenomenon of hyperscalers and the market control they exert 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, in Gaia-X, technology providers will find a natural location and also their own competitive market that they would otherwise risk losing due to hyperconcentration.”

VMware is on the project. “VMware is already supporting the initiative, as are many other partners, and it 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, containers. VMware is one of the technologies that first understood the need for multiple and hybrid clouds, the need to move workloads from one node to another, and therefore was the first to interpret in the market the concepts of interoperability and portability, which are among the cornerstones of Gaia-X.”

Bonfiglio adds: “Technologies such as VMware are natively compatible with Gaia X because they allow the realization of those principles, in particular portability, reversibility, interoperability, required by the architecture we are implementing. The Gaia-X architecture does not overlap with existing architectures, it does not aim to write European virtualization technologies or to replace American technologies, it aims to integrate existing technologies provided that these technologies adapt to Gaia-X requirements. Some technologies, such as VMware’s, will be easier to adopt because they don’t handle data directly; others that do provide data may have additional problems. Technologies that prevent transparent access to data will be more difficult to adopt.”

“We are providing requirements,” says Bonfiglio, “to which each vendor will decide how to adapt. But 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. Therefore, 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. The Gaia X principles are defined within the Gaia-X project and we will qualify any service that meets these principles, 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, but they will be able to claim to have Gaia-X-compliant services if they can be verified by the Gaia-X technology itself.”

The interview originally appeared in Italian on