"Cloud" is easily the most overused term of the year for the computing
industry. Case in point is the CloudUSB distribution, a
project that promises to provide automatic backups and data along with
privacy protection. The cloud name is a stretch and the security is far
less than promised.
CloudUSB is a USB-based Linux distribution based on Ubuntu 10.04 LTS. The idea is that you can carry your own Linux distribution with you for use anywhere, thus allowing anyone to use Linux on any computer and keep their data safe in the event the USB key is lost. In practice, this is more limited than suggested by the Web site.
To use CloudUSB, you need to download a 950MB ISO image and a script to copy the image to your USB key. The script makes use of UNetbootin to copy the image to the USB key and set it up correctly. It takes about 10 minutes to copy CloudUSB over and get it ready. You'll need at least a 4GB key to use it effectively, and larger is better if you have a significant amount of data. I used an 8GB Seagate "puck" USB drive. The configuration routine allows you to decide how much room to allocate for data, so I split it evenly between 4GB for the OS and 4GB for personal data.
After booting CloudUSB, it lets you log in using "cloudusb" as the name
and password. That default is used when creating the USB key, so you'll
want to change the password on first boot. To finish the CloudUSB setup, you need to run the setup.sh script on the desktop to configure Dropbox.
Encryption and data sync
CloudUSB uses the Dropbox service to synchronize data, so users who don't already have a Dropbox account will need to set up an account before being able to use the synchronization service. CloudUSB sets up a
private-data folder for keeping sensitive files in. The private-data folder is encrypted, and requires a password that matches the user login.
Or it's supposed to be encrypted, anyway. After running through the instructions and setting everything up, I removed the USB key and mounted it on another Ubuntu Linux system. There, under the Dropbox directory, I was able to see the
private-data directory and view all of the contents. I had followed the how to configure instruction to the letter, so it didn't appear to be a user error.
The setup.sh script that comes with the distribution uses
encfs to set up an encrypted directory. It appears the script
isn't properly encrypting the directory, though. When the system is
does use encfs to mount the Dropbox/private-data
directory as Desktop/.private-data. However, if you use
fusermount to unmount that directory, the mount disappears but
Dropbox/private-data is not encrypted. I've contacted the developer, Gianluca Mora, and he's looking at the problem.
The CloudUSB Web site points to the Edubuntu wiki as the source of instructions for creating an encrypted home directory. Users may want to simply use UNetbootin to create their own USB key and configure an encrypted directory on their own rather than relying on the CloudUSB project.
Even if the setup works properly, the only thing being encrypted is
what's stored under the Dropbox/private-data directory, and all that's
being synced is the material under Dropbox. Any user configuration,
bookmarks, and so on will only be synced if the user takes the time to file
them under the Dropbox directories.
Aside from Dropbox, though, CloudUSB isn't very "cloudy" at all. CloudUSB
includes the standard desktop fat-client applications, without mixing in
'cloud' apps as Peppermint Linux does. On the Web site, there's not much indication that there are any plans to go beyond Dropbox synchronization and making it slightly easier to set up a distribution on a USB key. The scripts to create the CloudUSB ISO are available, so users who want to work on customizing their own USB distro might start there.
There's very little to say about the distribution itself outside of its encryption abilities, or lack thereof. It's largely a package-for-package clone of Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, though it does have a couple of packages you won't find in the standard Ubuntu install. Specifically, CloudUSB includes Dropbox, Skype, Wireshark, UNetbootin, and Emacs. If you've used Ubuntu, though, you've pretty much used CloudUSB.
The rationale behind the project is a good one, but the execution is flawed on a number of levels. It's also limited by the choice of Dropbox to some extent. Some users will not want to use Dropbox because it is in part proprietary software. On a practical level, Dropbox may be difficult to squeeze onto a USB key for users who have accounts with more storage than you'll find on most USB thumb drives. Dropbox doesn't provide a way to synchronize only a few folders to an account, so it's easy to see users with larger Dropbox folders running out of space instantly using CloudUSB.
The final verdict is that CloudUSB needs some work. Even when the setup
problems are addressed, it doesn't offer all that much over a standard Ubuntu install with Dropbox added.
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