Our purpose is to share on the subject of digital sovereignty and the paths to access it, and to take advantage of the opportunity to discuss how your respective companies position themselves in this context. It is a pleasure to be able to discuss these themes with you through this interview.
[Emmanuel M]: Hello both of you. Before getting to the heart of our discussion, could you briefly introduce yourself and the companies in which you work?
[Arnaud Vieux]: I am self-taught. In 1980 I participated in the manufacture of portable FM transmitters for the first pirate radio stations. In 1986 I created my company of installation and repair service in marine electronics. In 1992 I discovered computing, networking and then AdminSys. In 1995 I became an independent service provider and then a trainer. In 1998 I became CIO of a small company. In 2014 I meet William Pecnik, self-taught and designer of AcidOS and I join the TECWEC System adventure. Since 2017, I am in charge of all the administrative part of the company, fundraising, industrialization and relations with our partners and suppliers. TECWEC System has set itself the ambition of achieving digital sovereignty and returning to the user the ownership of its data
[Guillaume Dumanois]: I started my career at Alstom in 1998 as a business manager. I spent my first years working on major infrastructure projects for export (metros, factories), in charge of deploying telecom networks. I then joined the Alcatel group in 2006 where I held several positions before taking over the management of the “WiFi Sol-Train” project in the context of the automation of line 1 of the Paris metro. At the beginning of 2013, I decided to go and test the American model and I took over the responsibility of Operations at Honeywell Building Solution. This is how I came across HyperPanel Lab for the first time on a Smart Building project with more than 24,000 connected objects to integrate and administer. I then discovered a whole new way of approaching the universe of connected objects and I joined them in mid 2017. This approach is based on a brand new operating system, fully developed by HyperPanel teams and perfectly adapted to the challenges of our connected world, particularly for connected objects and embedded systems
[EM]: You both joined PlayFrance.digital, the collective of French digital companies, could you share with us what triggered it?
[AV]: As far as TECWEC System is concerned, the subject of sovereignty is carried by its founder, William Pecnik, who designed AcidOS with the aim of achieving this sovereignty. Since 2002, when he started his work, he has very often had the impression of being alone in the world. So, it seemed natural to us to join a collective that advocates digital sovereignty in France, and beyond in Europe.
[GD]: For me, this can be summed up by the collective awareness of a loss of independence on strategic areas for our country. And the health crisis has greatly accelerated this process. The appeal launched on the morning of April 9 by Raphael Richard (Néodia), Pascal Gayat (Les Cas d’OR du Digital, Les Pionniers du Digital), Matthieu Hug (Tilkal), Alain Garnier (Jamespot) was for me proof of this awareness among French Tech players, but also a sign that the digital ecosystem was now ready to fight and structure itself to meet this challenge.
[EM]: This theme of digital sovereignty, is a subject that has grown in recent months, linked to Covid and the realization of our industrial dependence on other countries. For you, when did this awareness begin?
[AV]: As I just said, it is from the year 2000 that William Pecnik started writing computer code to create his own “tools”, from a blank sheet of paper and without using pre-existing code. From that time on, it seemed essential to him not to depend on a computer code that belonged to the Americans. So, William started by erasing everything and starting from a completely blank sheet of paper. He passed for a madman a utopian. In fact, he was a visionary who felt the wind change before anyone else. Preventing anyone from capturing our data and using it without our consent. The subject of digital sovereignty has always been a matter of course at TECWEC system.
[GD] : When I arrived at HyperPanel Lab in mid-2017, I realized that our American friends possess the key technologies that make up our connected world, particularly OSes and microprocessors, which gives them an undeniable advantage in the battle for data capture and mastery, the new black gold of the 21st century. And it is indeed data that is at the very heart of this battle for our sovereignty. To use the analogy with oil, our sovereignty can only be a reality if we own at least the oil wells, which is equivalent to mastering data from the moment it is generated, and therefore to mastering the hardware through the microprocessor and the low-level software – the operating system, connected objects, etc. – and the data itself.
[EM]: There is a lot of talk about digital sovereignty. But for both of you, what are the essential pillars for achieving well-controlled sovereignty?
[AV] : It seems important to me to make it clear at this point that the question is not how to achieve or accede to sovereignty, but how to return to it! We possessed this sovereignty, we have in the past been able to provide for our needs in this area. It was collective abandonment that precipitated our dependence on foreign companies. In my view, regaining control of our sovereignty requires us to become aware of the choices that companies must make with regard to sovereign solutions. We won’t force an industrialist to buy French if he doesn’t see his interest in doing so. For that AcidOS allows manufacturers to regain control over their data. But three essential elements are needed to achieve this completely. The hardware, the operating system and the tools and that’s what TECWEC System has done. Without this triptych, you don’t have full control over system security and you take a risk in the data protection chain.
[GD] : For my part, digital sovereignty is based first on technology and then on law. That’s exactly what the Americans have done, firstly by developing the technologies we use in our daily lives, which are massively deployed across the planet (Windows, Intel, Apple, etc.), and therefore all based on American law, and then by legislating, for example on data through the Cloud Act. As far as France and Europe are concerned, we can see that the RGPD’s only legal response to this American sovereignty is absolutely not up to the challenge, even if it is one of the two pillars of our sovereignty. It is therefore now urgent to turn to sovereign technologies, i.e. whose intellectual property is protected by French and European law, and which cover the 4 key elements of the network:
– Connected equipment (IoTs) => data generation and encryption ;
– Telecommunications networks => data transport.
– The data servers (data center) => data storage location.
– Artificial Intelligence (AI) => data processing tool.
[EM]: Apart from the OS aspect, which I agree is a crucial point, what do you think of our lack of industrial autonomy in the manufacture of electronic chips and components?
[AV] : Our lack of autonomy is not a problem of skills, but a problem of cost. We reindustrialized the production of masks in a few weeks. No matter what it cost us, we had to produce. Now that the competition has reappeared, the cost has resurfaced, not the quality or the capacity to produce. The same will be true for components if the need arises. Europe was able to produce microprocessors in the past, I have no doubt that it can do it again. Microelectronics requires large financial resources for its implementation, but in the event of a crisis, it is likely that Europe will be able to remedy this problem. AcidOS can be embedded in an FPGA… The road is not closed, only the will and the means are lacking.
[GD]: You put your finger on the heart of the problem because it is indeed the two founding technologies (OS and microprocessor) for our sovereignty. Not owning them, nor mastering them, both on the technological and legal (IP) aspects, will prevent us from achieving this sovereignty and will force us to remain dependent on third countries. As an example, take the example of Huawei, which despite their technological advance on 5G, now finds itself stuck as a result of the American sanctions taken against them. And precisely, these sanctions concern the OS with the prohibition for Huawei to use the Android operating system and microprocessors with the stoppage of supplies of components from its usual partners, such as Qualcomm, TSMC, Samsung. I would add that I am very surprised at the very low level of reaction in France and Europe following the announcement of the acquisition of ARM (a British group bought out by Japan’s Softbank in 2016) by the American company Nvidia. In just a few years, ARM has become the world leader in microprocessor architectures and sells rights to use its instruction sets to customers such as Apple, Qualcomm, Nvidia, MediaTek, STMicro, etc. This takeover of ARM by a US company once again raises the question of sovereignty and concentration of key technologies in the United States.
[EM]: I come back to the necessary mastery of the OS to keep our sovereignty, Hyperpanel has developed its own OS for IoTs, Guillaume, can you elaborate a bit more?
[GD]: The writing of Hyperpanel OS started in 2007 on the basis of a very simple observation. After the transition from Mainframe to Personal Computeur and then to the era of connectivity thanks to the arrival of the Internet, whether for a PC or in a phone with mobile Internet, it then became obvious that the next IT revolution would come from objects with their connection to the Internet world. However, the operating systems available at the time did not make it possible to meet all the new constraints linked to these objects (small hardware footprint, object and data security, energy consumption, maintenance in operational condition, etc.). We then went back to the fundamental principles of computer science as outlined by John Von Neumann and Alan Turing to write our OS. It is based on a completely new architecture based on the separation of inputs/outputs from applications and the finite state automaton of all the drivers and protocols with an associated execution engine. The combination of these two principles also has the advantage of drastically reducing latency times and being deterministic while being independent of the type of microprocessor used. In the end, we managed to develop an OS that is both a GPOS (General Purpose OS) equivalent to Windows, macOS/iOS, Linux and at the same time an ultra RTOS (Real Time OS) equivalent to FreeRTOS, Mbed. From an application point of view, we are compatible with applications developed in C and we are currently working on the development of a MicroPython compiler. Finally, as all the source code has been developed by HyperPanel Lab teams, we guarantee our customers the integrity of the code (zero back door), which is moreover with a 100% French intellectual property.
[EM]: On your side Arnaud, can you make us discover Tecwec System, and tell us a little more about AcidOS?
[AV]: The search for the next Operating System (OS) is the most strategic competition of our time. It is a race that began more than fifteen years ago, which involves huge financial and human resources, and which will accompany the transition from prehistoric computing to the one of tomorrow. It’s not yet obvious to us, but can we honestly think that in 2040 we will be using OSes that were designed in 1980? New OSes will have taken over and will be adapted to the world and the challenges of tomorrow. AcidOS will certainly be one of these relays. So AcidOS is not an umpteenth version of the Linux kernel or a new modified distribution. AcidOS is an operating system entirely written from scratch and designed for tomorrow’s computing. Designed and improved since 2002, it integrates the latest memory management technologies. It embeds a type 1 hypervisor (Bare metal) and all its services are secured from the power on. AcidOS is less than 600Ko with all its services!
The other big challenge of AcidOS is the ocean of existing applications on the different OSes. AcidOS took the decision to use them as is, without recompiling, without rewriting, without modifying. Moreover, in the IP domain, AcidOS does not impose anything. In the virtual machine your code remains your code. AcidOS does not impose any limit and your applications will be able to run whether they come from Windows, Unix, Linux or Androïd.
With AcidOS which is 100% French, TECWEC System makes the present obsolete.
[EM]: How do you both see things evolving on notions of sovereignty, and the impact this could have on your solutions?
[AV]: The evolution will be laborious until the occurrence of a major economic incident such as we have just experienced. It is likely that the economic war will be fought on the basis of sovereignty. “Your plane doesn’t use my national SE, I don’t want it”! The opposite has just happened with HTC and Android, and it continues with Huawei and components… European industrialists for the moment don’t believe in it too much. Therefore, awareness can accelerate the process of rapprochement. In the meantime, some have anticipated, and we already have industrialists who are discussing with us.
[GD] : There is no sovereignty if there is no possibility for the user to choose, in conscience, his solution. In today’s world of OSes, where it is Soft Power that controls data, the choice comes down to solutions that are mostly American. Beyond the technical characteristics of our solution, we offer an alternative to software governed by American law. Some of our customers are beginning to become aware of this issue and are now making it a prerequisite for any technical discussion. The momentum around this notion needs to be amplified !
[EM]: Do you think that this awareness of the interest of the subjects of industrial or digital sovereignty is real and deep? That it will be translated into action?
[AV]: Manufacturers rely on a business model that works. Why question it. You don’t seriously think that Americans could change the licensing rules included in Linux Open-Source? Yes, they could make the exploitation of the licenses included in Linux Open-Source pay. The real question is how many of them will become aware and anticipate this major and deadly risk for their industry. It is only on this long-term vision that the majority of acts will be done. Digital sovereignty is a concept. The payment of license fees in hard currency will be a harsh reality.
[GD] : This awareness around sovereignty is still relatively recent but has undeniably accelerated in recent months, especially during the health crisis we are experiencing. Unfortunately, we are still seeing too great a gap between words and deeds, whether at the level of industry or government. We have returned to a society where customs are the law. Now we buy a television set because it has Netflix access and not because it consumes less or because it is French-made. But currently it is the Americans who excel in the development of these uses, which ultimately allows them to collect more and more data. Another sector, another example, look at Renault which makes an agreement with Google around the management of the factory 4.0 and which in passing entrusts to the firm of Montain View all the data of its factories…
[EM]: To clarify my question, what do you think of the attitude of our political leaders, when you look back at the latest decisions taken, the Microsoft Azur cloud for the Healthcare Data Hub, Amazon AWS for tracking government guaranteed loans at BPI level?
[AV]: The policies pass, the administration stays. The computer problems of the administration are solved by industrialists, not by politicians. As long as there is no law requiring 100% French/European sovereignty, public services will use what manufacturers propose, which they know how to implement and maintain. And if it’s not sovereign it’s not serious, it works. It’s difficult to compare with the United States, for example, which does not have the administration that we have, and its public procurement rules for example. Either politicians take the measure of this gap and legislate, or things will take time to change. Another important point. Investing millions in AI, for example, without having a sovereign OS to run these applications is like paying for the fuel for our opponents’ engine with our public money. Sovereignty also means making sure that our funding will be put to good use in this area.
[GD]: This is exactly the illustration of this discrepancy between announcements and acts. Given what is at stake around the digital world, both for our economy and for our private lives, the example must come from our policies. But today we are seeing that the decisions taken on the issues you are outlining go against this principle of sovereignty, and worse, are justified for the wrong reasons. If you look at the other side of the Atlantic, the GAFAM have all at some point in their history benefited from the impulse of the State (financing, public markets, etc.). The arrival of the IoTs constitutes a sufficiently large and strategic playground in view of the mass of data that will be generated for there to be this impetus at the French and European level. The sovereign technological bricks linked to the infrastructure are ready (STMicro, HyperPanel OS, OVH, etc.) to take up the challenge against the Americans and the Chinese.
[EM] : Do you think the PlayFrance.Digital collective will make the lines move, or has already made the lines move?
[AV]: All initiatives in this field are good to take and we salute this collective and the work it has done. As the rules of sovereignty become known and disseminated, we hope that our industrialists will react and take the measure of the risk. There are French or European applications that are no worse than GAFAMS, they simply preserve your data. The PlayFrance.Digital players must now trust each other! We also need to go and talk to schools where we’re learning computer science, and explain that Linux is good for teaching and disseminating knowledge, but it can be dangerous for an industrialist. Our engineering students, and not just them, need to know that there are credible alternatives to US solutions. The “grandes écoles” should offer to receive representatives of the PlayFrance.Digital collective.
[GD]: Of course! This has already begun with a role as a whistleblower on several issues (Health Data Hub, PGE, etc.) and media exposure that allows the subject to be brought into the public debate. But the most important thing for me is the aggregation of the strengths of all these entrepreneurs, who each at their own level are preaching for this sovereignty through innovative solutions. We lacked the critical mass to convey the message that France has all the building blocks of its sovereignty at its disposal. And this is already starting to be translated into reality. We have been in contact with TecWec and Arnaud’s teams for several months to see possible synergies between our two operating systems. Similarly, there are already two other companies in the PlayFrance.Digital collective with whom we are in discussions to define and propose a new product in the e-health and connected building sector.
[EM] : We are coming to the end of our interview, what would be your concluding remarks?
[AV]: A quotation from Gaston Berger, French intellectual, father of foresight: “We must therefore prepare our children to be inventors and to show both the courage it takes to take initiatives and the imagination that is indispensable to the discovery of new solutions. Rigorously drawing the consequences of a few well-established principles is not and will never go out of fashion. But today it is much more necessary than yesterday to form bold hypotheses, to put old problems in new terms, to try paths where no one has yet embarked. The future is not to be waited for but to be built and, consequently, first to be invented. »
[GD]: We are living in uncertain times which show that nothing is ever certain and that balances can easily be questioned. Digital technology is entering a new era, that of mass data generated by a multitude of heterogeneous connected objects. I am convinced that this period represents a unique opportunity for France and Europe to break this technological duopoly between the United States and China. We have the technological and legal means to do so. So let’s be optimistic and determined!