As the US giants of the cloud space invest in Europe, we ask if transatlantic trust has been rebuilt
Trust is an elusive and fragile thing that can take decades to gain, but can be lost in a moment. Regaining it can be the hardest thing of all.
In the last three years the relationship between US IT providers and their customers - and potential customers - on this side of the Atlantic has been characterised by mistrust. It was this climate of suspicion and enmity that, in October 2015, brought down the EU-US Safe Harbour arrangement, leaving customers and hosting providers in legislative limbo.
But this year has brought several developments that could prove conciliatory to transatlantic IT relationships. In February the European Commission announced that a replacement for Safe Harbour - the Privacy Shield agreement - had been created. The framework was formally ratified and adopted in July.
Around the same time there was more news that could boost European end users' confidence in the safety of working with US hosting providers, when Microsoft won a US Court of Appeal case against the US Department of Justice. The verdict, which reverses an earlier lower-court ruling compelling Microsoft to hand over customer emails stored in a datacentre in Dublin, could prove a landmark decision for the public cloud space.
The sector's biggest names have also been doing their bit to rebuild any trust that may have been by lost by committing to a raft of new datacentre facilities in Europe. Within the space of two weeks there were major investments from each of the market's three biggest players: Amazon Web Services - which is already working on a new London facility - revealed plans to set up shop in Paris; Google announced the creation of its Google Cloud division and the establishment of eight new datacentres, including bases in London, Frankfurt, and Finland; and Microsoft detailed plans to offer cloud services from French datacentres, beginning next year.
Martin Warren, EMEA cloud solutions manager at storage vendor NetApp, claimed that the big three's investments are "a good first step" in allaying any lingering fears European customers might have about allowing US firms to handle their data. But it may be necessary to get even closer to clients, he stressed.
"It's understandable that European customers will be more supportive of cloud computing when they can see that their data is stored in their country," said Warren. "Since most people now understand the importance of data, we feel more comfortable knowing it is within our borders."
But Jon Huberman, CEO at enterprise file sync and share firm Syncplicity, claimed that Europeans are still right to be cautious.
"This is a first step, but as long as data or metadata is transported through the US, their fears are just as valid," he said.
Big Month for the Big Four in Europe
New Nordic datacentre in Fetsund, in Norway - its 12th facility in Europe
New datacentre facilities in London, Frankfurt, and Finland
New datacentre region in France - in addition to London region already being built
New datacentre facilities in France
Jack Bedell-Pearce, managing director at UK-based cloud firm 4D agreed that while "some people" in Europe may be comforted by big players' recent local investments, there are still many legitimate worries.
"There will... be continued concerns about security - the bigger the cloud provider, the bigger the target they will be for hackers - and being able to freely move from one provider to another. There may be concerns about quality of service and technical support, as some high-profile outages have recently highlighted."
John Engates, CTO at Rackspace, claimed that the high-profile legal battles and security breaches of the last couple of years had "certainly played a role" in the recent splurge of investment in more international datacentres.
"These have become risks that companies and governments have been forced to acknowledge and deal with," he said.
"The government response is to create regulations to force companies to keep their data within borders. If that prevents a cloud provider serving customers in a particular country, their only choice is to put a facility in that country. This decision might have been made eventually anyway for the sake of performance, but the recent trend in hacking and spying has likely accelerated the move into new geographies."
Paul Miller, senior analyst at Forrester, claimed that future investments by the big public cloud players would likely be a mix of smaller, in-country facilities, complemented by continued rollouts of bigger clusters that can serve a regional, or even global customer base.
"There does appear to be a growing uncertainty in a lot of European countries, and we are seeing that play out in the datacentre space with a growing desire for a few years to keep data in-country. The cloud providers have to respond to that," he explained.
IBM recently announced a new Nordic datacentre in Fetsund, near Oslo. The facility will be its 12th in Europe, adding to existing locations in Paris, Frankfurt, London, and Amsterdam. Sebastian Krause, the vendor's general manager, cloud, Europe, hinted that Big Blue may make more investments elsewhere in Europe in due course.
"The reason we have picked Oslo is because the Nordic region is a significant opportunity," he said. "We will certainly continue to monitor the markets and the opportunity and you might make your own assumptions [about whether or not we will open more datacentres in Europe]."
Krause claimed that his firm's commitment to hybrid cloud provided a "very, very clear... differentiator" between IBM and both the public cloud giants of the software world, and the more proprietary approaches of Big Blue's peers in the enterprise hardware space.
"Go back 20 months and [it seemed like] the decision was between private and public cloud. We have always been very, very clear that hybrid approaches are the ones that will prevail in the enterprise space," he added.
In a report published last year by Synergy Research, the market watcher claimed that the leading quartet of IBM, AWS, Microsoft, and Google are "leaving the rest of the market behind" in the cloud infrastructure service space.
Rackspace's Engates acknowledged that "AWS has a huge head start".
"But other cloud providers are bringing very compelling products to market and are doing a good job differentiating," he added.
"I believe most companies will want to be multi-cloud anyway and will look to spread their workloads across multiple cloud vendors for a variety of reasons."