Cloud firms demand right to use French government's €285m 'sovereign cloud'

After financing two initiatives designed to let the public sector store data in the cloud without fear of it being accessed by foreign governments, France's 'sovereign cloud' project is under attack.

After the French government last year invested in two cloud businesses, a group of cloud and hosting companies have banded together to demand that the infrastructure behind these "sovereign clouds" be put at their disposal.

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Cloud providers Alterway, Gandi, Ielo/Lost-Oasis, If Research, Nexedi, Vifib, along with free software associations Adullact and Aful, launched a petition last week directed at Fleur Pellerin, France's minister for the digital economy.

The petition seeks to unbundle the "French sovereign cloud infrastructures in order that any service provider can access their buildings and equipment (servers, network, storage) to install their own cloud management software and roll out competing offerings that would protect consumers' interests as well as innovation and free trade".

Cloud for the public sector

The idea of creating a French sovereign cloud infrastructure emerged during summer 2011. Launched under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, the initiative was primarily meant to offer cloud services to the public sector, as well as SMEs and consumers, that kept French data on French soil.  

By investing in French-owned and operated cloud companies, the government was hoping to establish cloud services that could handle French data without the threat of it being compromised by foreign legislation such as the US' Patriot Act. At first, the government was supposed to fund just one cloud infrastructure through a public/private partnership — a company that was to be called Andromède

However, rather than just invest in a single entity, the government decided to fund two companies: the first involved Orange and Thales (CloudWatt), and the second, Bull and SFR (Numergy ). They gathered a total investment of €285m of public money — but quickly gathered a lot of criticism too.

Distorting competition

In February last year, Alain Bénichou, president of IBM France, said the investments were "distorting competition", while some months later Stephan Ramoin, president of cloud hosting company Gandi, denounced the project as a waste of money. Jules-Henri Gavetti, CEO of fellow hosting business Ikoula, later followed up with a complaint that the large companies involved in the two projects "already compete against us and that's fair. But I'm shocked to see them setting up the same offerings with public money. That's unfair competition".

Late and modest offerings

CloudWatt and Numergy recently announced their first products: two Dropbox-like services that are yet to become generally available. It's far from good enough, according to the petitioners: "after six months, no service is available and won't be for months", they said.

They also denounced the fact that "the plans that have been announced rely on complex architectures based on foreign technology. But there are numerous French cloud technologies and SMBs" that provide the same products, the critics say. More than that, the petitioners refer to the introduction of the French constitution, which states that "any good or company that operate or gets one of the features of a national public service or monopoly must become the property of the community."

Ironically, the French government has not yet decided whether or not it will rely on Cloudwatt and Numergy's infrastructures to build its own internal cloud services.

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