What is Gaia-X? A guide to Europe's cloud computing fight-back plan

Europe is pushing for more independence from cloud giants in the US and China with Gaia-X, which aims to create an ecosystem of cloud and data services protected by EU laws.

What is Gaia-X? A guide to Europe's cloud computing fight-back plan

Europe's effort to keep data out of the hands – and data centres – of international tech giants received a boost as leaders from Germany and France joined forces to get the project rolling.

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Ministers from France and Germany met to formally launch Gaia-X, an EU cloud initiative that aims to establish an interoperable data exchange through which businesses can share data under the protection of European laws.

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In a nutshell, the initiative is about boosting Europe's own digital ecosystem – though there is a bit more to it than that. Here's what you need to know.

What is Gaia-X?

Gaia-X is an initiative that hopes to create a unified ecosystem of cloud and data services protected by European data laws.

The system would see various suppliers of cloud services linked up via an interoperable data exchange that would act as a vessel for data across industries. It will also act as a repository that businesses can search when looking for specific data services – such as artificial intelligence (AI), IoT, analytics and big data.

It's not so much poised as a rival to Amazon, Google and Microsoft's cloud platforms as it is an attempt to link existing cloud services from European companies into a unified ecosystem. As well as making domestic cloud providers more visible, Gaia-X will make it easier for businesses across various industries – such as healthcare, agriculture, finance, energy and public services – to exchange data.

Why has Gaia-X been set up?

The EU wants Europe to be a leader in data-driven innovation, particularly in the evolving fields of AI, big data and cloud computing.

At present, this poses somewhat of a dilemma for the EU: as Gaia-X project papers point out, Europe currently has no notable cloud platform, search engine or operating system to speak of, and instead, relies on a selection of infrastructure and platform providers from overseas, particularly the US and China.

These countries take a different stance on laws governing data ownership, data processing and privacy, which can create conflicts of interest: it's more difficult for a company to protect their users' data if it's being stored and processed on a server in the US, operating under different data laws.

Gaia-X aims to reduce Europe's reliance on international cloud giants, and instead encourage businesses to look to home-grown solutions, protected by European data laws.

At the same time, it's hoped that Gaia-X will stimulate cross-industry collaboration by making it easy for businesses to search for cloud services, exchange data and collaborate on new digital services that could boost the EU's digital marketplace.

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What are the rules of Gaia-X and who can join?

Gaia-X won't create its own set of policies and guidelines from the ground up, but will instead incorporate a number of existing European rules and build on them. 

Perhaps most importantly, participants can choose which data they wish to share with other companies, which they want to keep to themselves, and what the data can be used for. This means participants maintain ownership of their data when using it across different industry spaces and can't be "locked in" by individual suppliers.

Any cloud company, including Amazon, Google and Microsoft, can apply to join Gaia-X, but they must abide by the initiative's strict set of principles and guiding policies, which are as follows:

1. European data protection

Adherence to the European legislation, including GDPR, the Free Flow of Non-Personal Data Regulation and the Cybersecurity Act, and the ability to apply different levels of protection based on the type of data and use case.

2. Openness and transparency

Open data infrastructure that promotes transparency and standardized contracts and procedures, to reduce complexity and costs.

3. Authenticity and trust

GAIA-X will provide mechanisms to ensure that participants are compliant with rules regarding with IT security, data sovereignty, service levels and frameworks, as well as clear conditions for collaboration, cross-company authentication and access management.

4. Digital sovereignty and self-determination

Each participant can decide where their data is stored, who can process it and for what purpose, based on their own data classification.

4. Free market access and European value creation

The opportunity to exchange data between companies, organisations, institutions, research institutes and associations and create new business models that could be built and scaled-up in Europe. For example, participants can link their cloud services and jointly evolve and scale them.

5. Modularity and interoperability

Gaia-X will link up and integrate data from different cloud platforms, removing barriers to access and allowing smaller, specialist cloud services to compete.

6. User-friendliness

Gaia-X will use familiar interfaces based on centralized services so that it can be used without extensive technical know-how.

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Who is involved in Gaia-X?

As reported by ZDNet, the founding members of Gaia-X consist of 22 companies representing a range of industries: Amadeus, Atos, Beckhoff, Bosch, BMW, DE-CIX, Deutsche Telekom, Docaposte, EDF, Fraunhofer, German Edge Cloud, Institut Mines Telecom, International Data Spaces Association, Orange, 3DS Outscale, OVHcloud, PlusServer, Safran, SAP, Scaleway, and Siemens.

Since Gaia-X was first announced in October 2019, more than 40 industry use cases for the project have been submitted. Documents outlining the project claim that 170 people from around 150 different companies, research institutes, associations and institutions are now contributing to the initiative.

When will Gaia-X launch?

GAIA-X is expected to launch in 2021, with Germany and France hoping to have a prototype platform up and running by the end of this year.

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