The IT industry has a few leaders that serve most of the market. The American and, less, Asian technology that many companies currently rely on is excellent for its purpose, but as more and more businesses digitize and the need for IT networks and systems will only continue to increase, isn’t it time for Europe to step up and claim a piece of the pie? What will happen across the IT landscape in the next few years, and what opportunities does Europe have to stay relevant in IT innovation?
The need for strategic innovation
Europe needs to get back in the drivers seat
“I believe all fields of expertise need a document that clearly states what the field brings for the society, how it does so, and what it needs to continue to do so. Computer systems and networks form the infrastructure of the digital economy.
Because this industry currently doesn’t have a Manifesto, I, and several others, took the initiative.”
– Alexandru Iosup
The digitization of all facets of our lives makes systems and networks increasingly crucial for things like AI and data processing, and the technology we have been working with will not meet our needs for the next couple of decades.
“We are currently missing over fifty thousand IT experts. I’m an educator in higher education. Even if we do everything right and every student who enters the system graduates in time, we will still be short of tens of thousands of experts in the foreseeable future.”
The Computer Systems and Networks Manifesto
What is happening today that calls for a Manifesto?
“We are building on several decades of excellent work in computer systems and networks. We’ve been so successful, and we’ve moved so fast, that many don’t even realize that operating a smartphone activates hundreds of services over the network and engages tens to hundreds of computers in data centers or what we know as the cloud.
Besides the speed at which IT is innovating, systems and networks are becoming faster, but also demand is rising and diversifying quicker than ever. The digitization of all facets of our lives makes systems and networks increasingly crucial for things like AI and data processing, and the technology we have been working with will not meet our needs for the next couple of decades. We are already encountering several challenges, such as data privacy, reliability, and accessibility, but also of sheer scale and sustainability.
Bringing over so many processes to the digital domain – what we know as “digitalization” – can overload the current systems. We saw this happen during the pandemic. Physical hospital systems can become overloaded, and computing infrastructures can too.”
The Impact of Innovation and Digitization on Computer Systems and Networks
The speed of innovation and the digitization of society are exponentially impacting computer systems and networks. Is developing everything for cloud the answer?
“Rebuilding applications for the cloud takes time. A lot of today’s apps would be difficult to port to the cloud. And even if we do manage to do so, they would not necessarily work well. Compare it to public transport enabling people to travel between cities. When many people want to travel, the transport system experiences known problems or presents operators with new issues. It’s a metaphor, but this could happen if all applications suddenly start to use the cloud. Are the platform’s scalability and availability, security and privacy sufficient? Additionally, re-architecting, re-engineering, and porting to the cloud require tremendous expertise.
If you have all the know-how, cloud offers precisely what you need. However, we don’t have all the answers, especially for the more challenging domains. For example, how best to deal with privacy and data in healthcare. Today, almost 90 percent of Dutch organizations want to adopt cloud technology. But how many have the expertise required to do this? We lack both the people and the expertise to fully benefit from cloud infrastructure any time soon.”
The Skill Deficit
What can we do to overcome this skill deficit?
“Perhaps this is the point of the Manifesto. I believe we should bring together all relevant stakeholders: the groups and organizations with a primary interest in designing, building, deploying, maintaining, and using the infrastructure. If we bring everyone together, we can express and address society’s needs regarding new technology and rethink how we educate people to solve the current lack of expertise.
We are currently missing over fifty thousand IT experts. I’m an educator in higher education. Even if we do everything right and every student who enters the system graduates in time, we will still be short of tens of thousands of experts in the foreseeable future.”
The Need to Invest in IT Innovation
Why should we consider investing in IT innovation?
“The European IT landscape differs from the American or Asian one in that we in Europe do not have our “own” extremely large providers, which is surprising, especially if you look at the Netherlands. Yet, over 60% of our economy (3.3 million jobs) depends on applications running in data centers; this is exceptional. You don’t see this in countries like Poland or Romania, their economies are structured differently.
IT plays a huge role in our lives, and that is not currently reflected in the effort we are putting into its development. If the Netherlands does not invest in high-quality research and improving IT expertise, it will not capitalize as one of the innovators in this exciting field. Everything is changing now, we are currently experiencing a paradigm shift, which offers many opportunities for the Netherlands to create new kinds of digital services or become a hub between other emerging powers in Europe and the world.
Finally, besides strategic value, the Dutch Datacenter Association states that for every euro invested in computer systems, we get 15 euros of added value. Investing in our own IT systems and networks is at the very least worth considering.”
Alexandru will share his vision in an exclusive interview during Club Cloud on Wednesday, November 3rd
“I’m not sure it’s wise to sacrifice a generation by not providing them with the means to create at least 15 times what you put in. And the same goes for education. If you do not invest in people that can teach, the country will lack the expertise needed in the general population, and that problem is not easily solved.”
The Risk of Not Investing in Computer Systems and Networks Innovation
What if we don’t? What risks are we taking?
“We may not foresee or understand it now, but do we know the climate cost of our inaction? Any data center on Dutch soil consumes energy from Dutch resources. Instead of having foreign companies use this energy, why not use it for workloads that benefit us. For instance, if the Netherlands built a service and data delta, it could become one of the major data hubs in Europe. Yes, we would have to run those workloads, but we would also be able to apply our policies, that benefit our infrastructure.
Climate change is not the only problem, but the energy consumption of data centers is becoming one of the critical challenges. It’s still just three percent of our total electricity consumption, but that number is already important and quickly rising. As the Netherlands is one of the countries in Europe with limited energy resources, we need to consider what to spend it on carefully.
Secondly, if the Netherlands misses this opportunity to get ahead of the bandwagon, the next chance might only present itself two or three decades from now, when the ICT technology goes through the next radical change (the paradigm shift linked to Moore’s Law of exponential processing improvements seems over, so we are now experiencing a radical change away from it).
I’m not sure it’s wise to sacrifice a generation by not providing them with the means to create at least 15 times what you put in. And the same goes for education. If you do not invest in people that can teach, the country will lack the expertise needed in the general population, and that problem is not easily solved.”
Aren’t we doing a great job already with the Dutch Startup Delta, led by one of our royals’ Constantijn, subsidized research projects, and many grants going to technical research and development?
“We are doing a lot and at the same time, not nearly enough. The investments exist, both from within the industry and from the state. However, we need to see investment in light of what we need and the highly competitive field. It pays to be one of the key innovators, but, looking at the current level of investment in R&D, we can’t, even if we wanted to.
At this moment, all our major economic partners are investing heavily in computer systems and networking, research, and education. Germany is doing it. France is doing it. Switzerland is doing it. The whole of Europe is doing it in various ways. The US and China are investing. Many significant partners and competitors are moving faster than the Netherlands.”
A Cloud Platform That Responds to What Is Needed
What are the advantages of local innovation?
“Imagine having a platform that is designed and developed to support the specific kinds of applications and businesses in the Netherlands. The platform would genuinely respond to what you need: a cloud that offers the right services, the right performance, the right business model, takes responsibility for the environment and fulfills the societal goals of Europe, including privacy. We’re also part of Europe, and I think the Netherlands can benefit from more European suppliers.”
What are the steps we need to take?
“I think that the approach we’re looking at is not difficult to understand. First, the industry and the government of the Netherlands need to cooperate to find enough funding for innovative research to push the limits of today’s technology, participate in the European and then global debate about technology, and understand how to ensure that technology is reliable, independent, and secure. Together, we need to take a holistic view, make sure we know how to check all the boxes.
Secondly, let’s focus on educating people on computer systems thinking. Unfortunately, not many people understand how these systems work, and therefore, can be tricked into believing that simple solutions exist. There is no simple solution until we invent it. If we can educate enough people, from users to experts, we can instill a different way of looking at problems that can help us address significant societal issues, like climate change; advanced IT infrastructure will surely be involved in any foreseeable solution.
Thirdly, as stated in the Manifesto, we need to join the European Union’s computer systems and networking research. We cannot just look at different countries to build centers of excellence, for example, for (cyber)security (in Bucharest, Romania) or for digital services (in the Berlin area, Germany), while we are not doing any such thing. Europe does an outstanding job in building itself all the infrastructure it needs, except so far for digital infrastructure. I believe we can do this, but we need financial investment and a long-term vision – the latter is why we started the Manifesto.”
“Most Dutch companies are still exploring the waters of upcoming technology, for example, containerized and serverless computing, which are the next wave in cloud computing.”
A Vision on Computer Systems and Networking
What is your long-term vision?
“We are on the right track, but I’m not sure if everyone understands how important speed is. If you adopt tech at the right time, especially in IT, you reap benefits in all areas: better results, lower costs, and more innovation. If you’re too late, you miss out on most of the competitive advantage. Most Dutch companies are still exploring the waters of upcoming technology, for example, containerized and serverless computing, which are the next wave in cloud computing.
In other places across the world, they’ve already converted significant chunks of the workloads to these technologies. An industry of 10 billion dollars has already formed worldwide, and the Netherlands is just getting started. So I think the next few years will be all about catching up with the US, China, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, and more.”
Governments do not seem to have much technical know-how, while tech is becoming a more significant part of people’s lives. There’s such a gap. Is it just a matter of time before the commercial giants rule the world?
“Our politicians aren’t to blame even if they would only partially understand this new, mostly digital world. Even as experts, we don’t understand it completely. It’s very complex and rapidly evolving. However, as we are increasingly turning into a digital world, sovereignty will need to be reconsidered because it’s entirely new territory.
In a digital environment, everyone can participate from anywhere in the world, anytime. So, the Netherlands should wonder how it can protect its citizens, how it can support them, and how to be part of this digital world responsibly. I would suggest, respectfully, that politicians ask these questions and listen actively to experts to understand. For instance, how can sensitive information be accessed efficiently yet be kept private? What are these non-fungible properties that have emerged in the last couple of months? What is the meaning of digital currencies? All these things are part of this digital world, and it’s tough to understand. But you have to, to govern well.”
On that note, political parties are proposing to implement regulations, like specific taxes. How do you see market forces unfolding?
“Let me give you an example. For over 30 years, I’ve been reading more than a book a week. I used to buy my books at a bookstore, but I get 99% of my books online these days. Always from the same provider; no need to mention its name. Even if its prices go up due to tax, I am ‘locked in.’ Offline, I could buy from different bookstores, online it’s not so easy. Also, cost is not the deciding factor; it’s convenience. I want to find all my books in one place, so I choose the supplier with the most extensive selection. Any new entrant will face the enormous problem not of cost, but instead of accumulating data and providing the right books. Where does it find them?
Keep in mind, the notion of reading is really about getting books that match your interest. The danger, however, is that these large companies have acquired a marked position in which they are almost untouchable. If they are taxed, they can either up the prices or compensate because they buy on such a large scale, at a considerable discount. Startups have no chance in this market, with or without tax. But, there are plenty of other opportunities they can seize. Yes, the book market as we know it today is saturated. There are hardcovers and e-books, but is there a third option? That’s the mindset companies need. Tax should be a last resort for the government, as it can also stifle innovation.”
You call for Europe or the Netherlands to invest in innovation and knowledge and build an IT infrastructure of their own. Aren’t we too late?
“I’m optimistic. I think we can take a leaf from the playbook of these very successful big tech companies or big tech countries. Looking at the short term, especially with the digital revolution happening as we speak, it seems like we are and will remain at a deficit. But, once we’ve taken the steps to establish a position in this market, in the long run, two, three, five decades, or 100 years from now, this will not matter anymore because technology will go through disruptive shifts. We just need to be ready with infrastructure, capital, and trained people. It’s not easy, but that’s precisely why we started creating this Manifesto.”
Manifesto on Computer Systems and Networking Research
The Manifesto on Computer Systems and Networking Research in the Netherlands is available to the general public. You can access the Manifesto and its executive summary (both in PDF) via one of the following links: