How OVHcloud's Octave Klaba is building a different cloud computing company

When people think of the cloud computing industry, three names come to mind – Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. Yet smaller cloud companies are still doing well. OVHclouda French company that has been around since 1999 is one of them.

Of course, cloud computing wasn’t even a thing in 1999. The company has managed to stay relevant after all these years thanks to a dogged approach to hosting and internet infrastructure. A few days ago I met with Oktav Klaba, founder and chairman of the company.

“There’s a difference between impossible and unlikely. We may be an unlikely company, but we exist,” he told me.

We talked about his long-term vision for OVHcloud, which includes data centers as a service, private 5G networks, satellites and quantum computing.

A game of catch-up

How do you compete with companies like Amazon and Microsoft when you have “only” 2,800 employees and no side business to fund your cloud division?

OVHcloud’s vision can be summed up in two words: using open source as the cornerstone of product innovation and uncompromising sovereignty. The company’s project to offer data centers as a service is a good example of these two points.

“There will be more supermarkets that will use robots. Companies like Auchan or Carrefour will have fulfillment centers that will be robotic. There will be Renault plants with more IoT. There will be airports, container terminals… We will have to bring intelligence and automation to many different places,” said Oktav Klaba.

And he believes computing resources will need to be closer to end customers. Companies will decide where their “cloud” is located. He calls this concept “operational sovereignty.”

“Today, customers can’t choose. They can either choose our data centers or the AWS data centers located I don’t know where,” Klaba said. “Operational sovereignty does not exist today because you cannot choose.”

We are redesigning the entire data center stack so that data centers can operate autonomously even if they are down Octave Claba

In essence, OVHcloud wants to be able to provide the best of both worlds. Some customers are looking for the abstraction layer of public cloud infrastructure and the flexibility of on-premises installations. They want to choose their own data center or they want to convert their own data centers to OVHcloud enabled data centers.

With this service, the cloud company brings its own server farms and handles hardware upgrades. It runs its pre-integrated cloud service system on these servers so it works more or less like your own dedicated OVHcloud data center.

And because it’s a service, customers pay a monthly bill. They don’t have to get a loan from their bank to depreciate the hardware over a few years.

“Some customers have very sensitive and secret data. They want us to manage their data centers without external connection. It’s already a challenge,” Klaba said.

“So we’re redesigning the entire data center stack so that data centers can operate autonomously even if they’re down. Everything needed to run a data center is inside the data center,” Klaba said. And it will eventually be open source.

When it’s time to update the software stack, someone goes to the data center with a mini NUC and a USB key. Updates are deployed quickly to all servers in the data center.

“That’s why we went public, that’s why I raised 350 million euros. We’re going to open source our software stack so you can download and deploy it yourself,” Klaba said. “I want to give it away for free so you can do my job.”

In this case, there will be two main advantages. First, cloud companies continue to reinvent the wheel. For example, all cloud companies offer database-as-a-service products, but typically don’t share the code behind those services. Everyone keeps developing the same thing over and over again.

Second, a strong open source community is usually more efficient than a private company developing its own proprietary component. OVHcloud wants to be at the center of this open source data center software community.

“It’s a crazy bet. You can make such a bet only once in your life. But we think we will succeed,” Klaba told me.

Private 5G, satellites and quantum computing

When talking about high-end computing, Octav Klaba was a bit annoyed by all the hype in the industry. “There is so much nonsense around the edge. “So many people talk about peripherals, but they don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said.

He then gave me an example of what he meant by finite calculations. Like other cloud computing companies, OVHcloud wants to offer private 5G networks.

“There are large warehouses, airports, inland ports, refineries, large factories… They need some kind of connectivity that covers a huge area with low latency and high bandwidth. It needs to be secure, easy to deploy and connected to the cloud,” Klaba said.

So many people talk about peripherals but don’t know what they are talking about Octave Claba

In this industry, OVHcloud competes with traditional telecommunications companies and manufacturers, but Klaba believes that these companies do not necessarily know how to create something stable, always up-to-date and always online. “Now they have to use Kubernetes and they’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, how do I manage Kubernetes,'” he joked.

“On the other hand, Microsoft, AWS or Google invest a lot in these areas. They buy companies. They say they can do anything for you and for free. But then it will be connected to their infrastructure and they sell you value added services and charge you for it. It’s an amazing hack,” Klaba said.

OVHcloud doesn’t necessarily want to follow the same strategy, but has developed proofs of concept for private 5G networks. Once again, it’s all about staying in the race for this market and for high-end computing in general.

As for satellites, OVHcloud does not want to compete with Starlink and become a telecom company. Instead, it wants to focus on earth observation satellites.

As satellite sensors get better and better, it becomes harder and harder to get the data back home. Currently, satellites rely primarily on radio transmission.

“We are working on ground stations that can receive this data, but using light,” said Octav Klaba. And he believes OVHcloud can take advantage of France’s overseas regions around the world for this new network of ground stations.

Klaba was also particularly enthusiastic about quantum computing. “It’s amazing what’s happening with quantum computing,” he told me.

According to him, it is only a matter of time before we get quantum computers. And it encourages all major European companies to start investing on this topic right now.

“If they don’t make an effort now that quantum computers are here, it will take them 3 to 5 years to start using them. All their competitors who have invested one or two million euros a year for three or four years, they will be ready. Banks will say we use quantum computers and our risk calculations are faster and cheaper,” Klaba said.

In this case, OVHcloud mainly wants to create an ecosystem of companies working on quantum computing. But recruiting physicists working on this topic can be difficult. According to Klaba, there is still a shortage of talent.

“I think that’s the next big thought. In the last century, the big thing was Einstein, atomic theory and nuclear power plants. Today it is quantum and it will be exponential,” he said.

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