An interview with Ulrich Ahle
Gaia-X, the European initiative to create interoperable data spaces, has a reputation for being slow and bureaucratic. Ulrich Ahle, the previous CEO of the FIWARE Foundation, has now taken over the management. It should coordinate the European actors more closely and promote the industrial use of data rooms. In an interview with the PROSTEP newsletter, he explains the goals and potential of Gaia-X.
Question: Mr. Ahle, what is your most important task as the new CEO of the Gaia-X Association and what excites you about it?
Ahle: I led the FIWARE Foundation for seven years. FIWARE is today the world’s leading open source technology, especially for digitalization in the area of
My most important task will be to bring together the different actors in Europe who are working on creating interoperable data spaces. There are a whole range of activities financed by the European Union, the member states, but also by private companies. In Germany, Catena-X is particularly worth mentioning, one of Gaia-X’s lighthouse projects, or what is now being developed in the Manufacturing-X area. One of my goals is to bring these activities together more closely, because some of them are not sufficiently coordinated with one another.
Secondly, it is about defining a solution approach that must be accepted and applied globally in order to be sustainable. It is therefore necessary to work with global hyperscalers in addition to European cloud providers.
Question: According to surveys, the majority of German company management is not familiar with Gaia-X. Can you briefly explain who or what Gaia-X is?
Ahle: Gaia-X is an organization originally founded by 11 German and 11 French companies to define and implement the framework and policies that enable to realize and operate interoperable data rooms. And this is based on a federated cloud infrastructure and a European value system.
Question: What are the advantages of these data rooms? What makes it different from previous forms of data communication?
Ahle: In recent years, we have created digital platforms, especially in the PLM environment, that make it possible to connect well-known data sources and development partners. We associate the few with the few. The aim of the data rooms is to connect many with many and to create mechanisms to be able to connect and verify previously unknown data suppliers and users without manual intervention. The data rooms will replace the multitude of one-to-one connections between the partners in a supply chain by creating the possibility of connecting to the data room only once and communicating with all partners. This significantly reduces the complexity of data connections and interfaces. And, for example, we are able to map the CO2 footprint of a vehicle – one of the use cases of Catena-X – much more easily because we have all partners in one data room.
Question: For outsiders, the structure of Gaia-X is a bit confusing. There is Catena-X, but also the Mobility Data Space. How does this work together?
Ahle: It would be far too complex to create a single European data space that covers all industries and processes. That’s why the Data Spaces Business Alliance, an association of FIWARE, Gaia-X, IDSA (International Data Spaces Association) and Big Data Value Association, set out the framework for the design of interoperable data spaces two years ago. The approach envisages that there will be different data rooms for different industries, but they will largely use the same technical building blocks, interfaces and data models in order to be interoperable.
Data rooms for different industries are currently being implemented at the European level. Catena-X, for example, is a data room specifically for the automotive industry…
Question: The German automobile industry…?
Ahle: Catena-X initially emerged as a German initiative, but is now gradually being globalized. Manufacturing-X creates a data room for the rest of the manufacturing industry, which is set up as an international cooperation from the start. Then there is the Mobility Data Space, which was started very early on in a pioneering project led by acatech and which is now to be expanded to a European level. There are a dozen other similar initiatives to create data rooms for the energy industry, smart cities or smart communities, agriculture and other industries. It is important that they remain interoperable, because it would be fatal if a smart community could not communicate with a smart energy data space.
Question: Last year the federal government canceled funding that had already been approved. Is Gaia-X running out of money?
Ahle: It is not entirely true that the funds were cut again. Last year, calls for funding were published and projects were selected for funding, the first wave of which also received funding, e.g. a cluster of four Mobility Data Space projects. However, there were other projects planned for funding, for which there were no longer sufficient budget funds available. This caused frustration and uncertainty. But when we now see that 150 million euros are earmarked for Manufacturing-X alone, then you can clearly see that the federal government continues to rely on Gaia-X.
Question: Gaia-X has long been criticized for being too slow and too bureaucratic. Forrester even said the project had no future. Is this criticism justified?
Ahle: The supervisory board understood the criticism and decided to do some things differently. That is, among other things, the reason why I switched to Gaia-X in order to implement what we had successfully done at FIWARE here too. I firmly believe that Gaia-X really has the potential to become a game changer in data management. Otherwise I wouldn’t have taken on this challenge.
Question: The public has been given the wrong impression that Gaia-X should become the new European hyperscaler. But that was never actually the goal, was it?
Ahle: No, it was never the organization’s goal to offer cloud services and operate data rooms itself. Rather, it should define the framework conditions and architectures to enable interoperability and federated cloud structures, and then implement this together with the European cloud providers. It was about concepts on how to work together in an environment with multiple cloud providers and how to exchange them relatively easily to avoid vendor lock-in.
Question: Isn’t the involvement of global hyperscalers like AWS or Microsoft, from whom we actually want to emancipate ourselves, a contradiction to this?
Ahle: No, I don’t think that’s a contradiction. It’s about compliance with framework conditions such as the Data Governance Act, Data Act and what we call GDPR. These are the framework conditions for defining such data spaces based on a European value system. However, we are open to the hyperscalers collaborating if they accept these conditions. And we see that some of them are moving in this direction. AWS recently announced a European Sovereign Cloud.
Question: You talk about a European value system. What does that mean in relation to data rooms?
Ahle: It’s essentially about data sovereignty, i.e. that the data producer is able to determine and technically enforce what someone who has access to their data can do with it can and can do. But it is also important to me that open source and shared data does not automatically mean that the data is free. That’s why we also have mechanisms for data monetization in our concepts, which is also very important for the sustainable operation of data rooms.
Question: It is certainly also important to convince companies of the advantages of data sharing?
Ahle: The data rooms have two main benefits: One is that they significantly simplify data management, not necessarily within the organization, but whenever I share data with others organizations must share. This saves me costs for data management.
The second is that I create opportunities to make money from data. A good example is the use of the sensors of premium vehicles that can park autonomously to detect free parking spaces. The information is made available to operators of smart parking solutions in the Mobility Data Space for a fee. Without the data room, the vehicle manufacturer would have to enter into a commercial agreement with each city that wants to use the service and technically connect to their smart parking solution.
Question: Is this an actual existing application or still a pilot?
Ahle: This is a real application, but I’ll be completely honest: we are still at the very beginning when it comes to the industrial use of data rooms.
Question: You were at this year’s Gaia-X Summit in November. Did you get the impression in Alicante that Gaia-X was finally gaining momentum?
Ahle: Yes, in Alicante it became clear that Gaia-X is reality. We had Oliver Ganser, the CEO of Catena-X, on stage in our opening session, and we presented the Agdatahub, a data room for the digitization of agriculture that is being built in France. Both solutions not only exist as a concept, but are implemented and running. They are based on the Gaia-X Clearing House, which enables interoperability and provides the functionality to identify and validate participants. There are now three Gaia-X Digital Clearing House providers that are accredited by the organization. T-Systems is one of them.
Question: Some cloud providers have left Gaia-X and founded the European cloud alliance EUCLIDIA. Is this a serious competitor?
Ahle: As mentioned at the beginning, one of my goals is to bring together the European players in particular. This also applies to EUCLIDIA. We have to join forces instead of working in an uncoordinated manner or, in cases of doubt, even against each other. This is a huge task and I understand the impatience, especially of those who have invested money in Gaia-X. But it also takes a bit of time to design things and bring the actors together.
Mr Ahle, we wish you much success in this task.
(The interview was conducted by Michael Wendenburg)
Ulrich Ahle (born 1962) has been CEO of the Gaia-X Association (AISBL) since November 1, 2023, which aims to create interoperable data spaces. Previously, he led the FIWARE Foundation for seven years. Ahle began his professional career after training as a toolmaker at the automotive supplier Hella and studying mechanical engineering at the University of Paderborn at Nixdorf Computer AG. He then worked in various management positions at Siemens Business Services and for a long time managed the consulting and system integration business for customers in the manufacturing industry, retail and transportation in Germany at IT service provider ATOS. Ahle was on the board of the prostep ivip association for 16 years and is a founder and board member of the International Data Spaces Association.