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It’s too early to say what the long-term impacts of Britain’s split with the European Union will look like for investors. But while the June 23 referendum sent a shudder through the global investment community, some are already seeing pockets of opportunity. One area of fallout I’ve been watching closely is Brexit’s impact on cloud data — and here, too, there are patches of blue sky for investors.
First, a little context: Brexit’s impact on IT and cloud data stems largely from the issue of data sovereignty. In brief, data sovereignty is geared toward keeping local data local. Despite the image of the cloud as some nebulous, ephemeral data repository, it is in fact a series of physical data centers that reside in specific geographic locations and are subject to the data laws of those locations. Under data sovereignty laws, the data in EU data centers currently belongs to EU citizens. But two years from now, when Britain’s divorce from the EU likely becomes effective, UK data will need to reside in the UK, and EU data will need to be stored in the EU.
In other words, get ready for some gigantic IT infrastructure plays as mountains of data get segregated — a daunting prospect for hundreds of corporate behemoths, even without the 24-month time frame. A data migration strategy will not suffice. Public and private cloud providers must essentially first duplicate their infrastructure on both sides of the English Channel before they can begin to segregate it.
What’s an investor or venture capitalist to do? Here are three things to keep in mind:
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1. Invest higher up in the stack. One remedy for Brexit’s looming cloud data headache is serverless architecture. Today’s computing and storage workloads could be architected using a simple geographical flag that would allow the cloud to intelligently route workloads to the appropriate jurisdiction for computing and storage. The world’s data could then easily “self-organize” to route customer information and workloads according to the governing sovereignty principles. Instead of anchoring workloads to specific computing nodes, serverless architecture would allow those workloads to be automatically routed and rerouted to the geographies appropriate for each workload.
What are the implications of the serverless architecture trend for investors? Since cloud computing came of age about a decade ago, most cloud investment has focused on lower-level functions such as storage, compute, and networking. While necessary to build the cloud, these are all part of the cloud’s physical infrastructure. Brexit provides a wake-up call to investors to focus less on physical infrastructure and more on higher-level services that will allow workloads to be more easily moved to or from certain jurisdictions or sovereign locations. In other words, invest higher up in the stack.
A parallel evolution is playing out in the telecommunications industry. Fifteen years ago, telecom investors were similarly focused on physical infrastructure — routers, switches, fiber, and so on. But savvy telecom investors today are more focused on higher-level abstractions like software, APIs, and servers. A case in point is Twilio, which allows developers to send and receive phone calls and text messages in the cloud using APIs. Since it went public in June, the company has almost quadrupled in value. With cloud data and Brexit, the serverless concept is exactly the kind of higher-level abstraction I believe smart investors will look into.
2. Consider multi-cloud. Brexit has triggered all sorts of rumblings among other EU members who may decide to follow Britain’s lead. Brexit could unleash a domino effect that will push data from country to country, and continent to continent over the next 25 years — a bewildering prospect for cloud providers and investors. Compounding this confusion is a complex regulatory environment that’s very much in flux. Europe is still test-driving its brand new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), due to take effect in 2018, which was designed to strengthen and unify data protection for individuals in the EU. Also in the works is the new EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, which replaces the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor agreement that was tossed out in 2015.
Driven by the imperative to move data, large cloud providers will likely respond to this uncertainty by building data centers in multiple geographies. (In the wake of Brexit, Amazon is already said to be considering one in Italy). But even for the largest cloud providers, it would be impractical to build data centers in every country. Instead, look for more partnerships that take advantage of emerging multi-cloud technologies of the kind recently announced by IBM and Workday. In the fragmented and fluid post-Brexit datascape, no cloud provider can afford to be an island, not even the largest players. Wise investors will instead look into the multi-cloud trend, which provides CIOs new options for data mobility.
3. Bigger may not be better. For major cloud providers, scale has always been a key to success. It provided redundancy in case of disaster. Global coverage addressed latency issues. Amazon Web Services achieves this scale by having the vast majority of its roughly three-dozen data centers concentrated in Virginia, with others in Oregon, California, Ireland, and Germany, and more on the way. But with data sovereignty suddenly front and center in Europe, AWS and other major cloud providers may find themselves forced into unanticipated capex spending. That possible AWS build-out in Italy could just be the start; new AWS data centers could next pop up in Greece, Spain, and France.
Unplanned spending on this scale has obvious implications for investors. But in building data centers in so many geographies — going wide instead of deep, as it were — AWS may risk undermining the very scale that’s been so critical to its success. Here again, the takeaway for investors may be to focus less on cloud’s physical infrastructure, and to invest higher up the stack instead.
It’s time to change up your cloud investment strategy. Thanks for the wake-up call, Brexit.
Bart Schachter is COO of Iron.io.
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