For Scaleway’s Yann Lechelle “the battle is not lost”, he views the cloud as a utility, just as strategically important as “energy, water or telecommunications”.

This is a translation of the French article written by Guillaume Grallet published by Le Point on 20/09/2020.

The heart of a data center - an example of where cloud data is stored. © Flickr Creative Common.

“This cloud battle exists, because, today, we lost. We need to restart the fight” explained Emmanuel Macron on September 14 at the Élysée Palace, before stating in front of an audience of entrepreneurs that “if we want to have long-lasting control over our ecosystem, if we want sovereignty at a European level, then we have no choice but to reopen the matter. It’s going to take more than two or six months.”

Knowing who manages the infrastructures which host our personal and professional data is a matter of national sovereignty, and abandoning the idea of having our own infrastructure is tantamount to allowing foreign stakeholders to monitor our private and professional communications. Not only this, but they are also capable of bringing our economy to a grinding halt. Accessing data, as well as remotely storing and remotely managing it is comparable to fuel for an ever-increasing number of companies.

"Let's be clear, today, we've lost the cloud battle" acknowledges Emmanuel Macron.

Of course, it’s not the first time our political decision-makers have tried to seize the opportunity, France tried to launch a sovereign cloud in 2012. Rather than placing this in the hands of the cloud providers that already existed in the country, the creation of two new companies - Cloudwatt and Numergy began. Commercially speaking they were not very convincing, and the French state lost tens of millions of euros along the way.

Fundamental infrastructure

In the meantime, Amazon via their AWS platform, just like Microsoft and Google, continued to increase their market shares here. The GAIA-X project seems far more pragmatic. Launched in the midst of the 21st Franco-German Ministerial Council that took place in Toulouse in October 2019, the initiative aims to reinforce existing French and German cloud operators. The announcement of the partnership between France’s OVH and Germany’s T-Systems, on September 14, 2020, is therefore undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Yet, considering the crucial role data plays not only in our daily lives, but also in industry, agriculture and health or even energy and transportation, equipping ourselves with our own infrastructure seems increasingly urgent. “Has the French State really done all it can since February 15, 2016, when you came to visit OVH, to win this battle? By entrusting Microsoft with the Health Data Hub, you refused to partake in the battle for our sovereignty” tweeted Xavier Bertrand on September 15, 2020.

@EmmanuelMacron: Has the French State really done all it can since February 15, 2016, when you came to visit @OVHcloud_FR, to win this battle? By entrusting Microsoft with the #HealthDataHub, you refused to partake in the fight for our sovereignty!

Xavier Bertrand, the President of the Regional Council of Hauts-de-France, is actually referring to the fact that the platform, which is playing a growing role in health policy in France, hosts most of its data with the American cloud provider. “We’re not bound hand and foot to Microsoft”, Stéphanie Combes, the Director of the platform, explained to Le Point three months ago. The purpose of a Health Data Hub is to “compile CT scans and PCR tests in one digital platform so that we can develop artificial intelligence in order to improve the detection of severe Covid-19 cases”, the former Project Manager explained to the French Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. She also stated that they would be open to a new call for tenders should a European provider be ready to offer “the same features as the American [one].”

According to Bernard Benhamou, the General Secretary of the French Institute for Digital Sovereignty, “this data tells our stories, our lives, it represents us”, and calls for the creation of “European champions”. As for Guillaume Meulle, from the XAnge fund, “the cloud battle was lost 10 years ago, when OVH should have received the necessary funding to become a global player.” He also “laments the storage of French peoples’ health data in a foreign cloud”, yet for him, “instead of trying to turn back time, it would be better to prepare for forthcoming battles - artificial intelligence will make use of this data, for example. Key decision-makers are not taking enough risks, and they don’t buy the startups which will become tomorrow’s major players. We need to take inspiration from the United States, where the Small Business Act requires orders to be placed with small businesses.”

So does Europe really have the means to put forward a cloud offer that can hold water against the American and Chinese giants of the cloud? There are many talented options in our country, from Outscale of Dassault Systèmes to Thales, from telecommunications operators to Rapid. There’s Space, Claranet, Euris, and Clever Cloud based in Nantes, and also in Paris. We spoke to Yann Lechelle, the CEO of Scaleway, another Paris-based cloud provider that, with their four data centers in France, one in the Netherlands and another in Warsaw, promises an offer that is “flexible, trustworthy, secure, sovereign and sustainable.” Yann Lechelle, who used to work with the voice assistant Snips, is also a member of Hub France IA’s board of directors. For him, the cloud battle is not definitively lost. An interview.

- Le Point: why is the cloud so crucial, whether it be regarding health, transport or financial data?

Yann Lechelle: The cloud often seems like an abstract concept, most of us never see beyond our mobile phones or laptop computers. With all our data stored elsewhere, it’s impossible to comprehend where the data really comes from, where it’s stored, the formidable computing power behind it all… behind the cloud. The very word “cloud” itself evokes the image of fluffy, floating cotton, a useless and sometimes even bothersome immaterial substance drifting across the sky. Worse still, apparently the cloud even consumes energy!

“The cloud needs to be grounded to the Earth, just like its inhabitants”

For many citizens, nearly all of their digital activity passes through the neat wrapper of a web browser or another application used as an alternative to a navigator, meaning that very little is now stored on computers themselves. Everything goes back and forth from the cloud, without any connection, meaning we are completely cut off from most modern economic activity. Nowadays we pay our taxes, check our Social Security accounts, our medical records, our bank balances… everything is either already on the cloud, or will be there very soon if the insatiable growth of the big Californian tech players is to be believed. If all our digital lives really do pass through the cloud, and all our data is stored there (banking, health, social, education, insurance…), then the term itself is extremely misleading. We ought to replace the term “cloud” with more suitable analogies like foundation, anchor, rail or road network, electric, land and regional grid. The cloud needs to be grounded to the Earth, just like its inhabitants.

So the cloud is not just important, it’s primordial. At a national level, we can go so far as to say that sovereignty itself is at stake. What is more, depending on other nations for the cloud removes digital sovereignty, so if we are aiming for a digital future, then depending on others would remove all sovereignty. If Donald Trump requisitions the digital industry in the States, then France instantly becomes its annex. The CLOUD Act (The Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act) is already in place for this very purpose.

- is the cloud battle really lost in France ?

Of course not, all nations can choose to impose borders, even digital ones. This is not a new practice in China, and Russia followed suit more recently. These protectionist methods might seem radical, but the technology enabling them exists. The United States’s mindset is no less protectionist, but as they massively export and dominate their technology, the subject has not yet arisen. However, we’ve already seen that TikTok no longer has the right to exist on US soil...

The cloud battle couldn’t be further from being lost in France for two reasons. Firstly, the cloud is a bit like the weather, it’s ever-changing, and there’s no way to know what it will look like in five or ten years’ time. Secondly, and more importantly, France is the birthplace of its very own cloud providers. The three French clouds - Scaleway, OVH and 3DS Outscale are able to meet nearly all of the country’s cloud demand. Incidentally, Germany and France’s GAIA-X initiative, which has 22 members, only counts three CSPs (Cloud Service Providers) among them, the very same ones I just mentioned. Together they have 50 years of experience, and clients all across the globe. Their respective founding entrepreneurs, Octave Klaba and my now colleague Arnaud de Bermingham, are unparalleled. As branches of listed French companies (Iliad or Dassault) or with massive funding, they are taking things to the next level. We’re talking about billions that have been invested, deployed and are yielding a return. The cloud is a utility, just like energy, water or telecommunications.

France tried and failed to create its own, solo, state cloud. A cloud is not something that can be forced, it takes time to grow and there’s stiff competition. It’s the job of an entrepreneur. We also need to remember that we have American cloud providers on French soil too, because they are excellent, and because we laid out the red carpet for them. The directors of their subsidiaries here are graduates from the top French schools, they grew up rubbing shoulders with our ruling elite, and this means it’s hard to get angry with them, to oppose them, to question contracts, or rather annuities... because, yes, the Americans are also our friends and allies.

At France Digitale Day, Michel Paulin from OVH and I were amused, if only for a second, by Emmanuel Macron’s statement about the cloud battle being lost. Nay, it has only just begun! The Americans themselves are scared to death of the Chinese giants crossing the wall and the GAFAM are afraid of their own shadows. The Google Cloud Platform (GCP) is high-speed and rarely disrupted, Microsoft Azure is meticulously converting its customer base from the last ten years, Amazon’s AWS is leading the way… and rightly so! The global cloud market is worth $300 billion per year even though 80% of the world’s IT is not yet in the cloud. The margin is substantial. It’s not a war, it’s a feast!

“Let’s not leave our children with a country that has been abandoned by yet another key industry”

There’s ample reason to go after a few points of market share, and with my French cloud comrades, we are here to fight for them, in France, in Europe, and throughout the world. We refuse to enter into fatalistic analyses. We’re also doing this to create jobs in France, to assert our sovereignty and expertise in this sector, and to not leave future generations with a country that has been abandoned by yet another key industry.

- how can we better structure our forces in France and in Europe? - are we really on a level playing field with the giants of the digital sector?

Liberal Europe’s protectionist policy for the digital sector is about as tough as the fluffy cloud I described at the start. Driven by its 450 million fellow citizens, Europe does, on occasion, come out of its long hibernation, and become the beast that forces Microsoft to unbundle Internet Explorer from Windows to avoid Bing being forced on users. That was 10 years ago, and unfortunately, by doing so, and through lack of a credible alternative, Europe paved the way for Google. There’s nothing wrong with Google at first sight either, but this only aggravated the situation by including another company worth a billion dollars (or 5 now).

“Addiction and Stockholm syndrome”

Europe needs to enforce its values and stop letting the major digital players get away with not paying taxes proportional to the value they actually capture. We also need full reciprocity with regard to data processing. The US-EU arm wrestling over the Cloud Act and the Privacy Shield reflects an awareness of this imbalance, and intervention falls to the regulator who can impose sanctions, and force those players who have become too dominant and anti-competitive to divide. The regulator’s role has never been as important as in a capitalist economy whose only enemy is monopoly. For example, the fact that the dominant cloud players distribute “cloud credits” worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to startups should be classed as dumping. It’s clearly an anti-competition practice that’s virtually impossible to monitor. The startups, who essentially get free drugs, develop their software in a stable and often irreversible way, but when they have used up their free credit, they find themselves stuck with their provider. Moving is impossible, so they have no choice but to cough up if they want to continue working on their projects. It’s a hold up, plain and simple. And of course, the startups love the system, they’re hoping to be bought out by the very same providers - it’s a lethal combination of addiction and Stockholm syndrome. It’s just a shame for us, and the taxpayer, via the BPI (the French investment bank) and the CIR (the French research tax credit), is the one who has to foot the bill of this virtuous circle that serves to generate value and foreign taxes.

Alongside Germany, France holds a strong position in Europe. Together, we can spread the message of common sense, and demand balance without compromise. We should not believe, even for one second, that imposing a tax will restore the glaring imbalance. It’s time to tackle the problem at its source by looking at how digital stakeholders seduce developers - are they already in our children’s and teenagers’ schools? Did they win a massive multi-year contract without a call for tenders? Do they have other activities on the side which reinforce their network and dominance? Europe is bolstered by half a billion citizens, and has a GDP close to that of the US. So yes, we are on a level playing field.

- what innovations is Scaleway working on, and how can it fight to make another cloud burst through?

Thanks to our relatively small size, counting nearly 300 Scalers, we benefit from unusual agility. We have over 120,000 servers spread across six data centers in Europe, and even though we share many characteristics with industrial-sized infrastructure players, we have managed to stick to our software startup roots. In just a few years this has helped us to catch up with everything key to what is known as a state-of-the-art public cloud, the version that is eclipsing the private cloud.

“A different cloud is possible”

Our approach is based on a simple observation - not only is the cloud battle not lost, but we are entering a phase of maturity which allows us to use the cloud’s fundamental components in an almost flippant, interchangeable way - compute, store, transfer. We often refer to Utility Computing or commodities. This is Scaleway’s differentiating factor, we are an alternative to AWS with the same S3 storage protocols, and an alternative to GCP with the same orchestration methodology through Kubernetes. We speak the same language as modern developers who don’t want to be locked-in with one Terraform or Ansible provider.

One of our major innovations is our latest data center located in Saint Ouen l’Aumône, 45 minutes northwest of Paris. Instead of air conditioning and cooling units, all it takes is a few grams of water evaporated in the air, a few hours per year, and the air coming in from the outside can be cooled through a process known as adiabatic cooling. Thanks to this process, our data center not only uses up to 1.5 times less energy than most data centers, but it also only uses renewable energy so it is zero carbon (not to be confused with carbon neutral!). With our data center we have already achieved something that is merely a dream for others! A different cloud is possible. It can’t be a cloud belonging to one single company, or region, it needs to be distributed, balanced between the different stakeholders. The technique to achieve this is no secret to the dominant players, but they remain opposed to it - I’m talking about the multi cloud. This forced sharing technique would actually benefit everyone. For Scaleway, it’s all about providing a cloud that makes sense, a cloud that is regionally and socially responsible. This is precisely why we are proud to share our new tagline - Scaleway, the cloud that makes sense.

This is a translation of the French article written by Guillaume Grallet and published on 20/09/2020 by Le Point. The original is available here: