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Can Europe achieve Digital Sovereignty and what’s the role of GAIA-X in digital Europe – and beyond? A panel view from VMworld 2021

By Joe Baguley, VP & CTO VMware EMEA

It’s no secret that the digital landscape in Europe has accelerated beyond expectation over the last 18 months. Not only has this resulted in the exponential growth of data volume created, but also its distribution as it gets shared across devices, households, organisations, governments, and borders.

That exponential increase in demand is now matched by a growing need for digital sovereignty and capability across nations. Governments want to know the data they are collecting on citizens remains in their control whilst organizations fear that a potential leak will result in irreparable damage to the brand. This is driving the belief in digital sovereignty, the idea that governments, organisations and individuals maintain control over their data.

This theme of digital sovereignty was the focus for a recent VMware virtual roundtable last week, where I was joined by Francesco Bonfiglio, CEO GAIA-X, Sylvain Rouri, Chief Sales Officer, OVHcloud, and Pauline Flament, Chief Technology Officer at Michelin.

Keeping track

We started by asking, in our data-driven world, what is changing? “Data has become like food. After World War II, people valued the quantity of food over quality. But slowly, over time, we realized this approach was creating new challenges. Today, we want to know where the food has come from and how it has ended up on our plates because we recognize that our choices impact our lives and the world around us. Similarly, with tech and our data, we want more transparency to regain personal control,” explains Rouri.

Most organisations want to be global. They may have started initially operating in one region, but now find themselves having to tread a delicate balance between cross-border regulations in different countries, with operating effectively as a global organisation that needs to interchange and store data in multiple entities.

This was a simpler concept 20 years ago, when companies stored all employee and customer data on premise. Now, though, there is a common agreement that “cloud is the engine fueling the digitization of the digital world.”  And in our true multi-cloud world, the data that organisations handle is spread all over the globe, bringing complications to where it is, who owns it and who can access and change it.

For those in Europe, for example, storing data in the cloud has traditionally meant using a hyperscaler, one which has tended to be based in the US, bound by its own set of national regulations.

Now, citizens, businesses and governments alike are asking where their data resides. As Flament states; “from R&D (who need digital and data sovereignty to safeguard innovation) right through to HR (who need to safeguard employee data in every geography), it is vital for the entire business that our data can be located, protected and accessed within a secure framework”. Bonfiglio agrees, declaring the fundamental need to “get back control of our digital technologies”.

Is there common agreement on responsibility?

The above discussions form the very foundation for VMware’s Sovereign Cloud initiative, launched at this year’s VMworld and intended to give businesses freedom and control in a multi-cloud world. It enables them to engage with trusted national cloud service providers that meet geo-specific requirements around data sovereignty and jurisdictional control.

That’s because the world isn’t made of three or four hyperscalers, but more than 4,500 cloud providers who offer unique services for this blended mix of a multi-world that we now live in, where everyone to some extent, wants to know where and how their data is being used.

With this in mind, it came of little surprise that if there was one takeaway from the discussion on cloud sovereignty, it was the importance of trust.

Bonfiglio believes that “people will not move to the cloud without a trusted platform” and , as Flament adds: “The consequence of exposing data to those who are not entitled to it cannot be downplayed”, and if your data isn’t safe then neither is your reputation.

An opportunity for all

Once siloed as something for the “IT guys”, this conversation of digital sovereignty has evolved far beyond that. “This is about the future of data economy. It is for everyone, and citizens need greater education on importance of their data and who has access to it,” Bonfiglio states.

Enter Gaia-X, a project built on representatives from business, politics, and science from Europe and around the globe working together, hand in hand, to create a federated and secure data infrastructure. Gaia-X is working towards a vision of an open, transparent, and secure digital ecosystem, where data and services can be made available, collated, and shared in an environment of trust. 

While initiated by Europe for Europe, GAIA-X goes beyond regional borders. Bonfiglio comments that he has seen “enthusiastic members from around the world where businesses are hungry for consistent levels of proven trust, and that “This is not just a European problem.”

As Bonfiglio concludes; “Gaia-X is about taking back control of digital technologies. We are talking about the future of the worldwide economy, which is going to be driven mainly by data. If you don’t have control, you have an economy that is worth substantially less.”

So what does the future hold for digital sovereignty? It’s clear that cloud is here to stay, but it’s also clear that data’s future isn’t just in clouds, it’s highly distributed. It’s at the edge, it’s throughout the entire design chain and architecture.

That requires new standards and new ways of talking about data. Previously people have had trust issues going into the cloud, and had their trust broken. That’s why we align ourselves to initiatives like Gaia-X, who can create the framework for transparency and interoperability, and ultimately create the level of trust that the digital era we all live in demands.


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