“The challenges of the cloud, as the hidden face of digital services, should be made known to European citizens”

The cloud is a foundation used by new economy businesses to offer their services—and in the last few years, it has brought about a lot of breakthrough innovations. But above all, the cloud is the hidden face of the digital revolution, and it’s often overlooked by the general public. However, the cloud presents some major challenges, particularly in terms of protecting and processing personal data. Xavier Perret explains why it’s important to have a European-based cloud provider among the world’s largest actors on the web market.

Nearly every day, we talk about the digital revolution. OVH provides companies with the foundation for this revolution: cloud computing. And yet, OVH isn’t well-known to the general public. Why is that the case?

OVH is the factory, producing the technological building blocks that form the foundations of the digital revolution. We talk about the internet being virtual. OVH deals with the hardware aspect of it. Companies need infrastructures to store the data they produce: data centres, servers, a global fibre optic network, and network hardware spread across the globe. To give you an idea of how much we manufacture, OVH has more than 300,000 physical machines, and more than 350,000 virtual servers currently operating in 27 data centres. To manage a fleet this large, we need people on shift all day and all night, ensuring that our infrastructures are always online and completely secure. For our economy, these factors have become critical requirements. OVH now has 2,400 employees worldwide, and we’d like to recruit another 1,000 employees in the next year. We’re definitely not a household name, but I think a lot of you have heard of us before. Or you might have used our servers without realizing it, by using a digital service offered by one of our customers. And we have a lot of customers - more than 1 million worldwide!

Decades ago, IT for companies as well as civil service was managed internally. Since the end of the 2000s, companies have been mass-migrating their data and services onto the cloud. Managing an IT infrastructure can be restrictive, and also involves costly investments—not to mention IT security, which requires increasingly specialized skills. The cloud provides its users with simplicity, flexibility and agility. E-commerce websites, job-specific web and mobile applications, intranet, music and video streaming services, gaming, administration portals…today, the cloud hosts all kinds of services, and helps companies innovate more rapidly by leaving them to focus on their real added value. Which is taken up less and less by IT administration!

IT is now used “as-a-service”, and companies like OVH manage the hardware layers, the maintenance, and the hardware and software updates for fleets of servers: that’s the cloud! In just a few clicks, you can get the resources you need to deploy a new project, test an idea, or handle peak loads. These resources can be delivered in a few minutes, and you only pay for what you use. This is a revolution that remains invisible to the general public, who use digital services more and more on a daily basis, and are contributing to this explosive increase in their usage.

As a consequence of this, data production is growing exponentially, at a rate of 40% per year (source: IDC). This creates a growing need for storage and data processing capacities, especially because of big data, machine learning, deep learning, and the technology we’re hearing more and more about: artificial intelligence.

Just imagine a robotized factory will soon be producing more than one petabyte of data each day. And a self-driving car will produce no less than 5 terabytes. But the data collected is also personal and behavioural, used by algorithms to improve the digital services you use on a daily basis, and adapt them to be more personal to you.

At a time where GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) are seen as the new leaders of the economy with unlimited power, OVH is stepping forward as a European competitor. In a global economy, is it important to have European alternatives to the major American superpowers that lead the web market?

Data is being collected and used every day on a massive scale with informed (or less-informed) consent from users—in exchange for which they receive increasingly high-performance services to use in both their daily and professional lives.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into effect from 25th May 2018 onwards. This is a major project that will standardize data protection laws in all countries within the EU, and provide stricter guidelines for companies that process data—and these days, that means almost all companies! The aim is “to give EU citizens back control over their personal data, and to simplify the regulatory environment for international businesses”.

It’s a major advancement, which confirms that Europe as a territory is concerned with protecting its citizens’ private lives and data confidentiality, including data held by companies involved in increasingly intense global competition (another effect of the digital revolution).

I believe that the application of this new regulation (which is giving companies a lot of work to ensure that their processes are compliant) will also be an opportunity to raise general public awareness regarding data protection.

A survey carried out recently by the ICO showed that only 1 in 10 British adults have a good understanding of how their personal data is used by UK companies and organisations. It also revealed that only 20% have trust in companies storing their personal information.

It’s now time to move beyond this distrust and lack of knowledge, to gain a better understanding of the challenges associated with where data is stored, and what legal regulations apply. EU citizens need to understand that the cloud isn’t just an intangible mass that floats above all of our heads. Their data is stored physically in data centres, and guarantees will differ depending on whether those data centres are based in the UK, France, Europe or the US (take the Patriot Act, for example, and the general surveillance programs that have been revealed over the last few years). The same goes for when their data is hosted on French soil, but by a cloud provider that applies US laws, or was originally founded in Asia (under the extraterritorial application of certain regulations). Because China, in particular, has sailed full steam ahead into the digital era, and its determination to expand has won over Europe.

In an atmosphere of strong growth (up by 30% per year), and with a business that requires substantial investments, the cloud market will experience a sharp increase in market consolidation over the next few years. Really, this has already begun. Because tomorrow, around ten cloud service providers will share the market, and we think it’s very important for companies and their customers to have a European alternative to cloud-based solutions offered by American and Asian companies.

Here, it’s a question of data sovereignty, and given the importance that digital technology now has in our daily lives, these geopolitical issues must be made known to European citizens.

OVH is now a European leader in cloud services, and to strengthen its global position, it is accelerating its international development by building new data centres in Germany, the UK, Poland, and the Asia-Pacific region. It has also built a datacentre in the US, but has made its American entity legally independent from all other areas of the company. Our goal is to support our customers wherever they’re based in the world, and wherever people are likely to use our technological innovations.

What makes the OVH cloud stand out? When people talk about storage technology and data processing, what is it that sets Europe apart from the rest of the world?

Aside from the legal and regulatory aspects, which are absolutely vital, we defend a different cloud model: an open cloud. At OVH, we strongly believe that companies must retain freedom of choice when it comes to the digital world. They must be free to choose their cloud providers, free to change them, free to divide up their applications among several providers, as well as store part of them internally (hybrid cloud)—and they must be free to choose where their data is stored. We have to protect and preserve this freedom.

Data reversibility (in other words, the ability to migrate or repatriate data) is not always possible, or it can be made difficult by technological vendor lock-in policies. To combat this, our cloud solutions are based on technological standards, including a number of open-source technologies.

The cloud has become a strategic subject for companies. Too strategic to be worth taking risks on, or signing a lifelong contract with an operator. By defending an open cloud, we can stop dominant players from setting the rules, just because they control part of the market.

OVH has recently solidified this militant approach by creating the Open Cloud Foundation, which has already been joined by around 30 companies, professional associations, public organizations and research centres. This foundation is also interested in intermediation issues (an increasingly common choice to use intermediaries, so that end users can access or discover your services: search engines, marketplaces, etc.), as well as new issues regarding intellectual property with the rise of artificial intelligence and ‘cognitive computing as-a-service’, which you can train using your data, whilst its ‘trained neurons’ don’t belong to you.

In short, I think the European approach sets itself apart on one essential point: our awareness of the social impact of this digital tsunami. Europeans, and particularly French people, are starting to develop an advantageous critical relationship with technology in terms of their usage of it, and its harmful effects. This is reflected through biases that can slip in algorithms, at a time where they’re starting to have a major impact on our lives, influence our relationship with information, guide our political and cultural choices, and where we travel. All of this is done with alleged neutrality, and it’s very important to question that!

Everyone can see the benefits of what we call the cultural exception, which involves not considering culture to be a property like any other in international agreements, especially those related to business. It’s good to have an independent European cinema, which can thrive in spite of the blockbusters released by the American film industry (and in the future, the Chinese industry). This avoids supremacy, and protects cultural diversity.

The same goes for the cloud, too: industrial domination from the US in the digital market will inevitably result in cultural domination, with Farhad Manjoo arguing that the main five tech companies based in Silicon Valley will continue to dominate the tech industry.

By claiming a place on the market, and applying European values to the way it offers cloud infrastructure and data processing services, OVH has a strategic role to play in how companies transform themselves digitally.

So should we slow down, and not be so quick to adopt and use new technologies?

We shouldn’t slow down. But we should give it more thought. All companies are stakeholders in this digital transformation. As you know, if we miss the curve or slow down in the digital race, we risk being threatened by new, more agile actors on the market. These actors will have learned how to benefit from new technologies, and would use them to shake up a market dominated by established actors struggling to renew their value proposition, since there’s too much inertia in their management and their IT (their famous legacy)! But jumping onto the digital transformation train is not just a defensive reflex. It’s also an offensive strategy: digital technology gives companies the opportunity to increase their efficiency, and focus more on their business and know-how. In short, it’s an opportunity for them to reinvent themselves.

It’s tempting to jump on the potential offered by services that use voice recognition, semantic conversation analysis, facial recognition and object recognition in photos and videos, in order to enrich the services we offer to our users. There are just as many data-intensive technologies. However, in a world dominated by digital services that defy cultural, historical and territorial boundaries, we must be vigilant about how and why we collect, process and use data. We must also be vigilant with regards to data ownership, because if we’re not, users will grow conscious of this and may well turn against services that they used to enjoy using. After all, they would see the real cost: the loss of control over their private lives.

Here’s a direct question: Are the cloud and algorithms neutral technologies?

The first notions of algorithms date back to the 9th Century, around the same time as the concept of algebra. Which is where the etymological root of the word ‘algorithm’ is found: in early Arabic. The 1970s saw the emergence of the first computing machines, which were able to run algorithms automatically for the first time. Since then, the power of computer hardware has constantly grown, and algorithms have been perfected.

In recent years there has been a shift, leading to the widespread use of algorithms. With cloud computing technologies, people are now able to store and process large volumes of data at a relatively low cost. In other words, the power of supercomputers, which were only affordable to a few massive companies and research labs just a few years ago, has become accessible to any startup company.

The direct consequence of this is that algorithms now have a huge impact on our lives. But an algorithm is not neutral. In the best cases, it reflects its creator’s interests; in the worst cases, it reproduces biases that its creators are often unaware of.

These biases are primarily sociological and cultural, and are present in data sets. They introduce themselves into these algorithms via self-learning mechanisms. They are definitively able to trap people in a ‘cognitive echo chamber’, or even reproduce and reinforce inequality.

Under the guise of being a perfectly rational mathematical object, an algorithm can spread biases insidiously. Is that a worrying thought, when we’re talking about recommendations for TV series, movies on a VOD (video on demand) service, or auto-generated playlists on an audio streaming website? We can put things into perspective.

But when we know that algorithms are used in other social sectors such as healthcare, justice, insurance, financial services, and even the fight against tax evasion, we should absolutely be asking ourselves, “What political agenda do these algorithms have? What is their logic?”, in reference to the French book written by sociologist Dominique Cardon, which looks to give an answer to this question.

And we should think about the conditions we need to put in place in order to maintain control, in the era of algorithms and artificial intelligence. Ted Harris has presented a TED talk on this subject, with the question: Can we build AI without losing control over it?

Teaching, design, the right to audit algorithms (to fight against the black box effect), or even the loyalty principle (taking into account user interests), are very interesting lines of work for dealing with this issue.

Just like algorithms, the cloud is a form of technology that can reveal both positive and negative sides to itself. I also believe that one of the last sectors that marketing and digital departments should integrate AI into is ethics.