Public cloud providers are on a European building spree

Major public cloud vendors are expanding beyond their first European locations, offering flexibility, choice and compliance to technology leaders.

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Not long ago, European customers of the global public cloud vendors relied upon a single data centre 'region' for all their cloud computing needs. From Lisbon to Lviv, Kiruna to Kalamata, customers of Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure sent everything to Ireland, and customers of the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) sent everything to Belgium. And, mostly, public cloud's early adopters in Europe just got on with it.

For the majority of public cloud workloads, storing and processing data somewhere in the European Economic Area (EEA) really was -- and is -- good enough. Network latency was mostly low enough not to be a problem, and European regulations covered the main use cases well enough to appease all but the most cautious lawyers.

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But connections can always be faster, and there are still use cases in regulated industries and government where keeping personal data inside specific geographic borders is either essential or encouraged. More and more often these days, customers seem to feel happier when their data doesn't leave the country. Mostly, no law requires it and no regulation recommends it -- but it's still happening. We should all push back against this odd trend towards data balkanisation, much harder than we are.

Cloud providers like IBM and Interoute have pursued a strategy of placing smaller data centres in more countries for a while, and now their bigger rivals are joining them in the rush to add countries to the cloud data centre map. Germany, with its strict data protection laws, is proving an irresistible draw. The UK featured on many roadmaps before last year's Brexit vote, and the unexpected result doesn't appear to have changed many plans. Oracle, this week, was the latest to announce new facilities in the UK. New guidance on the storage and processing of French government data has played some part in the recent enthusiasm for announcing plans to open data centres in that country, too.

Alongside these big markets, various cloud providers are also targeting other European countries: Sweden, Finland, Italy and more all feature in recent announcements. But will we really reach a point that even the smallest countries can expect their own AWS, Google, or Microsoft data centre? Probably not. Economies of scale must make that implausible, despite the expectations of local CEOs and politicians.

I recently took a look at the trends and explored where they might lead. AWS launched its first region outside the United States in Dublin, Ireland, in 2007. The other big -- mostly American -- public clouds followed quickly, usually picking countries (like Ireland) with competitive taxes, qualified (English-speaking) workforces, and one or both of cheap power or plentiful cool air to keep those big server farms operational.

It's now time to expand and vendors do this in two ways:

Vendors expand in countries they already operate from. Microsoft opened a Dublin data centre in 2009, and has invested over €1 billion in expanding it three times since then. IBM launched cloud services in the UK back in 2014, and in November announced plans to triple the number of data centres in the country.

They open data centres in new countries. Just in 2016, public cloud platform vendors expanded into new (for them) European countries including Germany, Finland, Italy, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and the UK. Both Microsoft and AWS announced plans to enter France, at least partly in response to new guidance from the French government. Entering new countries usually generates more headlines than expanding an existing data centre. It also brings a whole new group of cautious local public cloud adopters within reach, removing concerns they had about sending data abroad.

European CIOs already use public cloud platforms. Regulations -- or caution -- may force them to process some types of data in specific countries, reducing the number of vendors available to them. As these vendors expand their offerings across Europe, CIOs will have more choices available to them, and more opportunity to reduce complexity by choosing the same vendor in multiple countries. European rules around the storing and processing of data across borders must become clearer and more straightforward, so that even the most sensitive data from Poland or Sweden or France can be stored and processed in Ireland or Belgium or Germany with confidence.

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Until that happens, the recent proliferation of public cloud locations in Europe offers CIOs their next-best option.

Paul Miller is a senior analyst at Forrester, serving CIOs. Follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulMiller.