Gaia-X project doesn't have a future, claims Nextcloud boss

How the hyperscalers derailed Europe's cloud infrastructure train

Interview Nextcloud CEO Frank Karlitschek is blunt about the future of Europe's Gaia-X project: it doesn't have one. At least, not in the way many of its founders hoped.

The ambitions were grand and noble. Alarmed at the data-slurping habits of foreign tech giants, Gaia-X was officially launched in 2020 as an EU data infrastructure initiative. According to the organization, "Gaia-X strives for innovation through digital sovereignty."

While not a cloud per se, it was designed to be a federated system to link cloud providers and permit data to be shared in a "trustworthy environment."

In an interview with The Register, Karlitschek - whose business offers an open source file hosting service for self-hosting explains: "I don't have any hopes for Gaia-X, to be frank. I don't think Gaia-X has a future. It's basically a paper monster that will exist but will not have any impact in the market, unfortunately."

How did this go from lofty goal to discarded concept? If we step back a few years to before the pandemic, European governments were exploring how to consider cloud infrastructure for Europe. Karlitschek recalled initial meetings with the German government, which eventually evolved into the Gaia-X project.

Early discussions revolved around taking an Airbus-like route – where European aerospace companies collaborated to take on the American aviation giants. However, the path quickly changed from creating yet another cloud services entity to virtual hyperscaling.

"With open source and open standards, we can make sure that the existing ones are interoperable together. And customers can switch from one cloud provider to another. You can get storage from one cloud provider, compute from another one, and payment services on the third one," Karlitschek tells us

"I really liked the concept...we got involved from the very beginning, so Nextcloud was a day one member when Gaia-X was founded."

However, then came the discussion on whether the hyperscalers should be invited to join. Karlitschek tells us that for a long time, he was very much a fan of the free market. "It's a good thing to open up to everybody, and everybody can participate and follow the rules."

However, he says that welcoming the hyperscalers into Gaia-X, unfettered by restrictions on voting power, was a mistake.

"I think it was a mistake because this all was then hijacked by the US hyperscalers, in my opinion.

"They did it in a very intelligent way … by creating de-facto standards, by flooding it with documents and people and regulations and everything.

"And then the small organizations like us – Nextcloud – we couldn't really participate any more because we don't have the resources to read, like, 1,000 pages of documents all the time."

Karlitschek is not afraid to name names. "I read this book from the Microsoft President Brad Smith. It's called Tools and Weapons." He reckons that there are strategies and tactics contained within aimed at using standards and certifications in its dealings with smaller competitors.

We read the book – so you don't have to – and didn't spot much amongst the nearly 400 pages of close-typed thoughts of Smith. It did, however, cure our insomnia. We also asked Microsoft for comment and will update should the company respond with a statement.

Despite professing himself no fan of conspiracy theories, Karlitschek says he doesn't think this was done just by accident. "I think there was a strategy behind it."

Gaia-X CEO tell us, via a spokesperson, that "Gaia-X continues to work on its original vision to 'Enable trusted decentralized digital ecosystems' based on European values."

"To enable this, Gaia-X works closely with European Cloud Service Providers and is also open to working with non-European hyperscalers while maintaining sovereignty through Gaia-X rules."

Gaia-X is making some progress. The first Federated Cloud Services Catalogue turned up in November, with more than 500 cloud services meeting Gaia-X requirements.

However, that progress might be too little, too late as events overtake the organization regarding marketing, standards and adoption.

Karlitschek is concerned about standards, not just de facto standards driven by rapid adoption. "I think standards doesn't mean only technical standards. I think we also need some common understanding about differences between those services and also, for example, what the term 'digital sovereignty' actually means.

"I think this is an interesting marketing discussion where everybody is now calling their service 'sovereign' somehow."

While the Federated Cloud Services Catalogue is useful, there's a sense of a window of opportunity closing. "There was a discussion that there would be a central webpage, within the Gaia-X website, where users could order different services and choose and compare," Karlitschek says, recalling the original thinking behind the service.

"But then, of course, it was decided that this was not a good thing anymore. Then there was a discussion about having a reference implementation of the Gaia-X services so that smaller cloud providers can just take it, deploy it, and then be compatible. Again, this did not really happen."

Now we're here: "Just a bunch of standards and certifications, which are not really helpful, unfortunately."

And of the governments that poured millions into the project? Karlitschek points out that one of the originators of Gaia-X, the German government, allocated more than €3 billion for Oracle Cloud Infrastructure in recent months.

A Gaia-X spokesperson adds: "The German government is intensively supporting the targets of Gaia-X," and added: "More and more Hyperscalers are adapting their strategy to these framework conditions and are applying these European values while providing Cloud services." ®

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