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Must-Read Research: Bringing the Cloud Back Down to (Sovereign) Earth

Andrew Donoghue •

Gartner has published its latest Hype Cycle on emerging technologies which includes the emergence of so-called Sovereign Clouds – the result of a collision between technological promise and geopolitical reality.

Disruptive technologies, by their very nature, are intended to upend the existing status quo.

Digital cameras have usurped traditional film and electric vehicles will eventually do the same to the combustion engine.

However, while change may be inevitable, invariably it is not pretty: often the disrupted party refuses to go quietly. The intangible future collides with the very tangible present and the status quo usually likes to do some disrupting back.

Take ridesharing apps for example. The mission of ridesharing companies is to revolutionize urban transport for the betterment of all – unless, that is, if you happen to be deeply invested in the existing taxi industry, for example.

True, a lot of headway has been made, but ridesharing app companies have also faced a lot of roadblocks – both figuratively and literally. From demonstrations of aggrieved taxi-drivers, to outright bans in some cities. Plans to create a virtual workforce of self-employed drivers have also come face-to-face with the realities of employment law.

National Clouds

Analyst group Gartner recently highlighted a similar challenge being faced by large cloud services providers. Cloud technologies – and public cloud in particular – offer the promise of ubiquitous IT services unencumbered by the specificities of physical infrastructure, or the machinations of national identity or geographic boundaries. Unfortunately, while the cloud giants have delivered on much of that promise, national borders and sovereignty issues are proving to be frustratingly resilient.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2021 report provides a useful heads-up on a variety of technologies which the analyst group believes will provide a degree of competitive advantage over the next five-to-ten years. (The full report is behind Gartner’s paywall, but this press release gives a good overview.)

One of Gartner’s most widely recognised instruments for analysing the impact of technology – the Hype Cycle – charts the growth of a technology from the Innovation Trigger, through the Trough of Disillusionment, and hopefully to the eventual Plateau of Productivity.

One of those emerging technologies is the concept of Sovereign Cloud, which Gartner believes is currently at the very start of the hype cycle. According to Gartner: “Countries can engage a sovereign cloud to achieve digital and data sovereignty, which will in turn provide legal requirements to apply data protection controls, residency requirements, protectionism and intelligence gathering”.

The reason why a country or region may want to invest in developing its own national or territorial cloud are, as some ridesharing providers have found, the historical and legal realities of the physical world are often harder to sweep away that some technologists assume. As well as Sovereign Clouds, national controls over data have also highlighted the broader issue of Data Sovereignty: a less defined set of drivers which is in some cases dictating the construction of data centres in specific countries to satisfy national or regional data protection and privacy laws (such as the EU’s GDPR). While Data Sovereignty may be a positive for regional data centre operators, it does to some degree undercut the ‘scale’ approach of the large cloud providers, requiring them to have infrastructure in countries where they may have previously planned to serve from a neighbouring state.

With regards to the Sovereign Cloud technology specifically, Gartner explains that while the cloud may be theoretically global in nature, the organisations providing the technology are still bound by national ties and identity. “…the market for digital and cloud technology and services is currently dominated by U.S. and Asian providers. As a result, many European companies store their data in these regions, creating political uneasiness as well as concerns about retaining data control and complying with local regulations.”

Data Sovereignty

The EU is pushing ahead with its own sovereign cloud plans in the shape of Gaia-X. The initiative, announced in 2019, is designed to help nurture the growth of homegrown cloud service providers. While it could be viewed as a riposte to the dominance of Chinese and U.S. cloud companies, its backers claim it’s not about direct competition, but rather establishing a level playing field. The established U.S. and Chinese cloud players are free to join Gaia-X if they abide by its rules that are designed to ensure cloud services meet the data protection, security and other policies outlined by the EU. The EU appears to be taking the plans seriously, and has earmarked part of its $750bn NextGenerationEU COVID-19 recovery fund to support Gaia-X.

While Gaia-X will mostly be built around existing data centre and telecoms infrastructure – already in place or planned – from its 300 plus supporters, there are some plans to establish additional physical sites to support future expansion. The exact make-up of those sites is still under discussion, but the need to establish physical buildings and facilities to house the cloud is another obvious example of how technology ideals must contend with real world realities. The EU, like the cloud service providers, will have to balance the accelerated demand for digital services with the need to ensure that infrastructure is built and operated in a sustainable way that meets climate goals (an area which suppliers such as Vertiv are heavily focused on right now).

Ultimately, as the emergence of sovereign clouds demonstrates, the relationship between the disruptor and the disrupted is not one-way, but bi-directional. Cloud services are reshaping the technology landscape, but in doing so are also being reshaped themselves. What shape that will ultimately take is hard to say, but hopefully it will be one that exemplifies the best of the old and new, and leads to Gartner’s Plateau of Productivity rather than being mired in the Trough of Disillusionment.

If you are interested in other research reports around the data centre and critical infrastructure pls check out Vertiv’s new Analyst Research and Market Insights page.

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