Listening to a discussion of cloud in Europe at this week's Think Cloud for Government event, I got the impression that everyone would be in perfect harmony on the topic, if only they'd stop disagreeing for a moment.
There were three key points that everyone including the European Commission's head of unit for software, services and cloud, Ken Ducatel, was fully signed up to:
- Everyone wants SMEs to thrive
- No one wants the politicians interfering
- We must move fast
But when it comes down to the detail, people seem to be needlessly at cross purposes. It's almost as though they're disagreeing out of habit rather than for any substantive reason.
The British are suspicious that the Commission is beholden to what the UK Cabinet Office likes to call "the oligopoly" of entrenched IT suppliers, and that its proposals will favor them over more innovative, smaller suppliers. The rest of Europe fears that Britain is just trying to get its own way without consideration for the sensibilities of any of its European partners.
Thus there's no British involvement in the Commission-funded Cloud for Europe initiative to explore common frameworks for public sector procurement of cloud services. In fairness to the Brits, this particular project does seem to be imbued with all the worst practices of the oligopoly. But if they wanted it steered in a different direction, perhaps they should have got on board early on. Instead, as Ducatel sniffed:
"Unfortunately the UK has chosen not to participate."
Chairing the panel, my diginomica colleague Stuart Lauchlan suggested this might have been due to earlier rebuffs from Ducatel's boss, the commissioner for the digital agenda Neelie Kroes. But Ducatel responded that her criticism had not been of initiatives like G-Cloud so much as the tendency for each national government to separately invent its own bespoke wheel instead of working with others across Europe:
"Our concern is, if we're going to get these billions of euro of growth in the economy, it's no good if people are doing things at sub-critical scale.
"National cloud infrastructures built at national level — building cloud infrastructures that are meeting specific local requirements of that particular country — don't make sense. This is a global business, we need to play a global game."
Billions of euro
The billions of euro Ducatel referred to are the projected impact on economic growth resulting from the uptake of cloud computing by businesses across Europe — in particular, small businesses. The Commission's cloud strategy is founded on the belief that having standardized practices and codes of conduct across Europe will remove barriers to cloud adoption and thus foster this growth. As Ducatel explained:
"There are a whole set of things the industry needs to up its game on, in terms of providing services to consumers and to small firms.
"We don't want to kill off the business model of small firms who are cloud providers. But we do want codes of conduct to emerge. We want to make sure the economy based on cloud computing can actually take the weight of doing this ...
"It will transform the economy but it will only do that if all these things are properly accounted for."
The UK government's position, as outlined in the past by its CTO Liam Maxwell, is that EU-imposed standardization runs the risk of throttling innovation and squeezing out suppliers that can't afford the cost of compliance. But it has made these points from afar rather than engaging more closely with the Commission as it defined its cloud strategy.
Dr Richard Sykes, representing the UK-based Cloud Industry Forum on the panel, said this had left Maxwell's team out of touch:
"They have a blind spot to what is being done by Ken. I think it is really a shame that Liam Maxwell and his team are being so Euro-blind ...
"It in no way strengthens the oligopoly ... Ken's work is going to make it a lot easier for the UK companies that are fast growing to strengthen their European sales."
Perhaps a bit more warmth towards the UK G-Cloud initiative from the Commission in the early days would have helped. But in the end that may be rectified by the growing international recognition for G-Cloud. In a morning keynote, Maxwell had spoken of sharing frameworks and open-source code with other governments including Estonia, whose President happens to chair a steering group set up by Commissioner Kroes to advise on EU cloud strategy. So maybe the thinking will get joined up in the end.
Sense of urgency
The steering group, made up of representatives from leading IT firms and several national government digital services, last week released its draft proposals for Trusted Cloud Europe. Interested parties are invited to comment on the document by the beginning of May. Ducatel said it called for action in three main strands:
- Encouraging "cloud-aware" procurement.
- Basing data location requirements on functional needs rather than mandating a specific geography or jurisdiction.
- Agreeing on a set of industry-driven set of practices.
Keeping the politicians out of the decision-making process has been an important element in at least achieving some results from the cloud strategy, said Ducatel. The emphasis has been put on developing codes of conduct rather than regulation simply because it takes too long to get national politicians from each European country to agree on anything, he explained:
"The member states are the reasons why it takes a long time to go through, because they can never agree ...
"Why we did nothing regulatory as part of the European cloud strategy is because we wanted to get things done.
"After eighteen months we'll have done all the things that we wanted to do."
This is all running to a tight timescale because this summer Neelie Kroes and her colleagues will step down as a new team of Commissioners take over. Said Ducatel:
"She's very much in a hurry. she wants to get things done while she's still on this mandate."
The Estonian President's introduction to the Trusted Cloud Europe document also emphasizes "a sense of urgency." Europeans — and that includes the Brits — have to stop bickering and get their act together if they mean to realize the promised economic benefits of cloud adoption. The digital world won't wait.
Image credit: Gary Eastwood Photography