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EU digital sovereignty project Gaia-X opens its summit with the departure of Scaleway

French hosting outfit not keen on status quo, leaving to spend more time with its servers

French cloud hosting outfit Scaleway is to depart the EU's data sovereignty project, Gaia-X, with CEO Yann Lechelle worrying that what began with splendid ideals is getting increasingly mired in the status quo.

Scaleway's announcement came as the second Gaia-X summit got under way, titled "Here to deliver", and amid rumblings from members over the sponsorship of the gathering by the likes of Huawei and Alibaba as well as the involvement of US cloud giants such as Microsoft and AWS.

"Scaleway will not renew its GAIA-X membership," the company said. "The objectives of the Association, while initially laudable, are being sidetracked and slowed down by a polarization paradox which is reinforcing the status quo, that is an unbalanced playing field."

We did not intend to create a mass movement away from Gaia-X... I actually believed in it, even though the foundation was asymmetrical because of German interests, working with US players, mostly, and French players, who were also cloud providers

Scaleway was one of the founders of Gaia-X, and its departure will doubtless cause more than a little discussion behind the scenes during this week's event.

"It's been brewing for many months," Scaleway CEO Yann Lechelle told The Register. Of Gaia-X, he said: "The idea was to create a sort of improvement in terms of sovereignty, right. And sovereignty is very loaded as a term.

"Does anyone question the sovereignty of Microsoft in the US?" he asked, rhetorically. "Nobody does… what we do know is that we do not have sovereignty when it comes to tech, and that is the main issue."

Lechelle went on to highlight differences between the German and French approaches, noting that a preference by some countries to work with the tech giants ("itself, not a problem," he added) "reinforces the dependence and the dependencies on extraterritorial tech monopolies."

"Gaia-X," he said, "evolved in terms of governance. I fought very hard that the governance remained strictly European. But then, the German counterparts and even the French big players – not cloud providers, but big consumers of cloud – wanted to keep working with the big tech players.

"And so at the end of the day, the reason why we're leaving is that Gaia-X as a construct is only reinforcing the status quo, which is that dominating players will keep dominating."

As the news broke, Sid Nag, a VP analyst at Gartner, told The Register: "My feeling is that players like Scaleway might be saying 'You know what, is it worthwhile for us to continue to invest in this? For a second or third-tier cloud provider it involves a significant investment of time and money and energy. They're probably saying, 'I'm not seeing the benefit of doing this any more.'

"The Gaia-X initiative was about creating a sovereign cloud of sorts for the Eurozone. But there's this secondary motivation of competing with the hyperscalers based in North America."

Nag added: "If there was a way for North American providers to operate on Europe-based data for their European clients in a sovereign manner then I don't think this would even be a conversation today."

On the latter point, Lechelle noted efforts by the French government to, as he put it, "move away from the dusty mainframes and move to the public cloud."

"Except, at the same time, there's the CLOUD Act. And the CLOUD Act gives the US way too much access worldwide. So we talk about extraterritorial laws. And the EU is weak in that sense, because we do not have reciprocity."

As Microsoft continues to push Office customers to the cloud, European governments have found themselves in somewhat of a quandary when it comes to data. "So what they're saying in a way is like, OK, here is the deal: Microsoft, you need to do a joint venture with French players, create a packaged version of Azure, and Office 365. It will be managed by French operators, and therefore it will be disjointed from the US cloud and therefore not subject to the CLOUD Act."

As for Gaia-X, Lechelle said Scaleway would "be looking in from the outside." After all, Gaia-X is an open project. "But," he added, "we don't have time for this now… we need to spend our energy becoming a relevant player at scale."

Reactions to Scaleway's departure have so far been muted. Lechelle put it diplomatically, saying: "Some of the members might want to reach out to us (and they have); maybe they will disengage, maybe they will not..." or, as he suggested, some might opt to leave things until after this week's summit.

"We did not intend to create a mass movement away from Gaia-X," he told us. "I actually believed in it, even though the foundation was asymmetrical because of German interests, working with US players, mostly, and French players, who were also cloud providers."

Other members reiterated their support. An HPE spokesperson told The Register the company was "committed to the framework. We are contributing to the Gaia-X foundations and driving a number of projects with customers and partners."

Amanda Brock, CEO of Gaia-X member OpenUK, also confirmed her organisation's support and commitment. "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."

Of Scaleway's departure, Brock said: "With 300-plus members, if we are realistic, there will inevitably be a level of dropout. 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."

Simon Hansford, CEO of UKCloud, took a slightly more cautious tone: "It has been puzzling to see the increasing presence of global giants such as Huawei and Alibaba on Gaia-X – which we wholeheartedly support in principle. Nonetheless, this does raise questions as to whether the current setup of Gaia-X is capable of fulfilling its objective as a genuinely sovereign cloud for Europe."

The Register put Scaleway's points to Gaia-X and will update should we receive a response. ®

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