There are lots of cloud services out there these days—many of them free
in the "beer" sense—but privacy-sensitive and free-software-oriented
users have long been
looking for alternatives. One of the few "free as in freedom" choices is
ownCloud, which is the brainchild of KDE
developer Frank Karlitschek. The project has been making steady progress since
last we looked in on it back in June 2010,
releasing ownCloud 2 in
October, while preparing for ownCloud 3 in January. In addition,
Karlitschek and former SUSE/Novell executive Markus Rex have formed
a venture-capital-backed ownCloud
company to foster the project while providing support and
The idea behind ownCloud is pretty straightforward: provide a way for users
to replace closed source cloud services like Dropbox (or Ubuntu One)
for file backup and sharing, Google Calendar and Contacts, picture sharing
services like Picasa or Flickr, and so on, as well as providing storage for
applications via the remoteStorage protocol from the Unhosted project. All of that
functionality would be free software and user-installable so that the
provider lock-in problems (as well as privacy concerns about what service
do with the data they collect) can be avoided. Add in access from a
variety of different kinds of devices (desktops, laptops, tablets, cell
phones, ...) and it makes for a sweeping vision.
There are many parts of that vision that still need to be filled out, but
much progress has been made in
ownCloud 2, with more to come in version 3.
For version 2, there are four different "applications" that come in the
ownCloud web interface: Files, Music, Contacts, and Calendar. Files can be
uploaded to the server from the browser, shared with other users of the
or published for anyone to access via a URL. In addition, using the WebDAV
protocol and the user-space
davfs2 filesystem allows one to mount the ownCloud files directory locally, which allows local
applications (and file managers) to access the files directly.
The Music application allows playing music files within the web application
or, using the Ampache server, to stream the music to desktop players.
Calendar and Contacts provide the basics of managing that kind of data in
the web application, while also providing access to that data for other
CalDAV and CardDAV.
The server side installation of
ownCloud 2 is fairly simple for anyone with
root access to a Linux server. It is mostly a matter of getting the
pre-requisites installed, which includes PHP, a database (MySQL,
PostgreSQL, and SQLite are supported), and the appropriate PHP "connector"
for the database choice. After a bit of Apache configuration, you point
your browser at the site, which lands you on the installation wizard; after
answering a few questions, ownCloud is up and running. WebDAV installation on
the client side is also fairly straightforward (or was for Fedora 16 at
least). That said, neither task is
so easy that non-technical folks can be expected to handle it.
Overall, ownCloud 2 seems to work reasonably well. There are glitches and
some oddities in the interface, at least in the released version. There
are two other versions of the code available, including a Git repository
for the latest development version. Neither of those options worked for me
when I tried them in late December, but those problems are presumably
solvable. The key functionality, sharing data between disparate devices,
works well enough that I will be spending the time to get newer versions
running in the near future—or wait for ownCloud 3, which is due
at the end of January.
One of the areas lacking in ownCloud is data encryption. Connections are
made to the server via HTTPS, so the network communication is encrypted,
but files are stored in plaintext on the server. Encryption is listed
as one of the features for version 3, but details are a little hard to come
by. For users that set up their own server, encrypting and decrypting the
data on the server side may be sufficient (depending on the key management)
to protect against a system
compromise that gives access to the stored data. That seems to be the feature
planned for ownCloud 3.
But, for users that are storing their data on someone else's server (e.g. a
friend or service provider), client-side encryption will be needed. That
seems like a harder nut to crack because it requires code on
each and every client. Without that, though, there can never be any real
assurance that the data is not accessible to whoever provides the
service—and possibly to attackers that compromise the server.
There are some other features listed for ownCloud 3, including a photo
sharing application and a better interface for the calendar application with
support for recurring events. There is also a mention of allowing external
applications to integrate into the ownCloud web interface so that things
like the Roundcube mail application
could be added to ownCloud installations.
One area that the project could do better with is
documentation. Information about ownCloud, its development, bug tracking, and so
on are scattered across a number of different sites including Gitorius,
Shapado, the mailing list, the
ownCloud web site, and so on. It makes it a bit difficult for new users to
track down the information they need—some sort of consolidation or
master index would likely go a long way toward fixing that problem. The
project does make it pretty easy to get a feel for what can be done with
ownCloud on its live
It's also a bit hard to tell what, exactly, the plans are for the ownCloud
company. It appears to have a commitment to open source and is being led
by two longtime open source community members, so there is good reason to
believe that the project will continue—and prosper—with some
corporate backing. From the information on its web site, part of what the
company is selling is the open-source nature of ownCloud, and its lack of
vendor lock-in. All of that bodes well.
There are certainly some areas that need work in ownCloud, particularly in
the ease of installation and configuration areas. One would guess that
ownCloud.com will be putting a fair amount of effort into that, but it's
not alone. The openSUSE project has also been working on ownCloud
integration. From the looks of the ownCloud mailing list, there is an active
community springing up around the project.
Hosting ownCloud instances for those who don't want the hassle might make a
reasonable business opportunity for ownCloud.com and others. A reasonably
priced per-Gigabyte subscription service could be attractive for privacy
conscious users if the encryption issues can be resolved. Whether there
are enough of those users to truly support that particular business model
remains to be seen.
The ownCloud project shows a lot of promise. It is certainly usable today
and will only get better in the near (and hopefully, long) term. It may
only be interesting to a subset of internet users, since many are willing
to trade their privacy and security for "free" services, but for the other
folks, it will be real boon. Companies may also find that hosting their
own instances of ownCloud (possibly with a support contract from ownCloud.com
or someone else) makes a lot more sense than relying on Dropbox, Facebook,
or even Ubuntu One. In any case, ownCloud seems to have a bright future
and is well worth checking out.
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