An immaterial, invisible universe, the foundation of our smart world, is already transforming our lives. The cloud is the backbone of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Hidden inside it is an unknown, 10-year-old Greek story of international success, a pillar of today’s extremely rapid digital innovation.
The term “cloud” entered the consciousness of Greece’s wider public, including the political/pundit microcosm, with, first, the passage of the new law on digital governance, which mandates that, starting on January 1, 2022, all public agencies must gradually offer their services through the cloud, and second, by Microsoft’s announcement that it will build cloud server infrastructure in Greece, putting the country on the international digital map.
But what is this cloud? It is clusters of computers, where huge volumes of data, files and information are stored online. Data are 21st century’s gold, oil and electricity. The cloud capacity is limitless; files and applications can be directly stored, processed and managed there, from any device – cellphone, tablet or computer. Cloud services are offered by large data centers established anywhere in the world.
It may be only recently that the cloud has started becoming a part of the public discourse, but the cloud is nothing new in Greece. And we do not mean the G-Cloud, the government cloud, which is the repository of many public information systems. (The G-Cloud, incidentally, has been operating for four years and will soon be upgraded to cover increased needs in storage, computing power, memory and speed brought about by telework and the rapid increase in digital document and other data traffic.) We mean the first Greek cloud, conceived and developed as software by an inspired team led by the current dean of Athens University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Professor Aris Koziris. This was done in 2010, at a time when this had not even been developed by large technological firms.
All this happened in a building close to the one housing the National Infrastructures for Research and Technology (GRNET). “Mr Koziris’ team developed the Synnefo [Cloud in Greek] software, set up data centers in four locations in Greece and created the Okeanos cloud, initially to serve the university and research communities. This is the largest cloud in Greece to date,” notes Theodoros Karounos, head of the e-Governance Division at GRNET, who also helped upgrade educational digital infrastructure.
Nowadays, many applications run through GRNET’s cloud: affidavit services at gov.gr; electronic applications for birth certificates to Citizens’ Service Centers (KEP); remote lessons; e-Presence (government officials’ e-conferences); and the forms you need to fill to go outside during the lockdown, to name just a few.
Professor Koziris gives a brief history of how the cloud began in Greece:
“The foundation for the development of the cloud had been laid years ago. When I was vice president at GRNET, from 2004 to the end of 2014, the know-how already existed.
“In 2010, George Papandreou was prime minister, and we were already under the first austerity program, a number of people sat together and signed a memorandum for the development of data centers and cloud in the public sector: Apart from me, there was Theodoros Karounos, the prime minister’s counselor on digital governance issues, Diomidis Spinellis, then general secretary of information systems, Antonis Markopoulos, undersecretary for digital planning, all the heads of agencies involved (the General Secretariat of Research and Technology, General Secretariat for Social Security, Administrative Reform, Society of Information, Supreme Council for Civil Personnel Selection, Cadastre, e-Government Center for Social Security, Management Organization Unit and GRNET). There was also a call for financing in order to bundle the needs of all the agencies.
“There was a competitive tender for the acquisition of the government cloud (G-Cloud) infrastructure, but, like any such public sector procurement tenders, it was completed much later: Both the G-Cloud, operated by the Society of Information, and the data center serving the General Secretariat for Information Systems, started operating in 2017.
“We at GRNET started building our data center in the basement of the Ministry of Education in 2010, to serve the university and research communities. My dream was to build something very big, world-class, very competitive. We created a team of about 25 people, with software engineers coming mostly from the National Technical University of Athens, who had already planned to move abroad but, in the end, stayed in Greece, an incredible concentration of talent. Together with the engineers who were operating the GRNET network, we created Okeanos (Ocean), still the largest computer cloud in Greece. We began buying the equipment, computers, hard disks, accessories, by the thousands – to the surprise of the market, which expected us to opt for off-the-shelf solutions – and created the software and the cloud at a moment that a public cloud infrastructure was almost nonexistent. Not even Microsoft or any of the other big providers had built one. There was only Amazon.
“What is a cloud infrastructure? It is thousands of PCs which can be used as a virtual layer over the data center, as a unified supercomputer,” Professor Koziris says. “If you want to offer a service that demands many servers, you don’t have to buy the equipment; you can develop your application in the cloud, through your PC screen.”
“We created open-source software, which we called Synnefo which anyone could use to create their own cloud,” remembers Vangelis Koukis, who undertook the project and who is currently the chief technology officer at data and machine learning services startup Arrikto, which he co-founded. “This open software was used by academics and researchers from Greece and abroad, but also private companies that wanted to create their own cloud. It started creating a community, growing and developing. The biggest of its many installations was GRNET’s Okeanos. But we always wanted the software to be used widely. The cloud started operating in 2011, when nothing comparable existed, and proved its worth. In 2013, it already offered 10,000-15,000 virtual machines simultaneously with many petabytes of data and one of the largest storage arrays set up with the innovative Ceph technology, which is currently widely used.”
No other data center in Greece has more than 2,000 machines. In 2013, Okeanos was the largest public cloud in Europe. Among its users were GÉANT, the European data network for the university and research communities, CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, as well as US and German companies offering cloud services to private health providers in various countries. “We entered into a partnership and signed a non-disclosure agreement with Google, we worked on the same technologies, there was a lot of extroversion and international presence,” Professor Koziris says.