Build your own cloud - part 2 In part one, I looked at how cloud services can fail you, using the example of the demise of Google Reader and the ensuing feed-ing frenzy.
Replacing Google Reader with a self-hosted alternative like TinyTinyRSS isn't too difficult - the OPML format offers reasonably good data portability, which allows you to simply reload your RSS feeds in a new reader.
That was a personal example, but what about when cloud services move from the personal to the professional world, as so many are doing?
What happens when something like Dropbox goes from one person's way of transferring their photos to something they employ to hold and shift their documents and files around the company and between meetings. Before you know it, others have cottoned on and the free consumer version of Dropbox has become your company’s unofficial collaboration platform. It does happen.
What if and when your favoured free sync'n'share product is bought by a bigger competitor and closed down LaLa style, or when it kills parts of the service you like or introduces new terms and conditions or charges you really don’t agree with?
Dropbox isn't alone: There's Google Drive. That would never shut down. Right? And Microsoft will never close SkyDrive... OR WOULD IT?
Taking charge of your file hosting, cloud storage/sync or code hosting is obviously a little more complex. But the risk of not controlling these key pieces of infrastructure is also correspondingly higher, especially for businesses where these are key elements of day-to-day business. Often times the reliance on third-party services creeps up without anyone really realising it. One day you wake up and find most of your employees are sharing files using free Dropbox storage or Google Drive.
Here's how that creep happens: your current file-sharing system - if it even exists - probably sucks. The interface is clunky, difficult to use and lacks support for mobile devices. Services like Dropbox, on the other hand, do not suck. It has mobile clients for every platform under the sun and it is about as drop-dead simple and reliable as you could hope for, which is why your employees are using it to share files and get work done.
Having more productive employees is all well and good, except that your files and potentially sensitive data are sitting out there on the web, on someone else's servers, beyond your control and well within the reach of hackers or perhaps even governments that may not otherwise have any jurisdiction over your company's data. To say nothing of the fact that you may wake up tomorrow and find that Yahoo! has purchased Dropbox and is shutting it down in three weeks.
What you need is all the simplicity of Dropbox or Google Drive, but running on servers you control. As with services like email, RSS or photo-hosting, there are a variety of self-hosted file-syncing services out there, but few are as mature as the open-source project ownCloud.
There's much more to ownCloud than just file-syncing. It offers file versioning, backups and simple sharing as well as a variety of other services like a calendar, contacts management, photo gallery, a tasks app, a simple document viewer, mobile clients and the ability to integrate log files into your existing systems, handy for system admins. It's also possible to mount Google Drive and Dropbox folders within ownCloud to help with migration or use both from one interface should you need both.
There are a variety of ways to install and run ownCloud. The simplest option is to go with a provider offering a pre-installed setup. I tested ownCloud with ownCube and had no trouble replacing Dropbox.
The downside to a hosted solution is that you typically don't get much in the way of customisation options and depending on your needs ownCloud as a whole might be overkill. For instance, I already have photo gallery software, run my own LDAP server and am happy managing tasks in my own system – all of which means three major chunks of ownCloud are unnecessary.
It's not safe just because you pay for it
There's also less control. You may be paying for the server space, but as I argued in the previous article, that doesn't necessarily make it any more beholden to you. In fact, using an ownCloud provider really just changes who you're sharecropping for.
That said, OwnCube has some distinct advantages over Dropbox and Google Drive – even over Dropbox's paid-for enterprise solution – not least the fact it's based outside the US and not subject to US data privacy laws (or lack thereof).
Using a hosted service may be sufficient for many individuals, but if you'd like to go a step further, you can always download, install and manage your own ownCloud instance. The server requirements are minimal, a cheap Linux VPS with a decent amount of hard drive space will fit the bill.
And unlike a lot of open-source software, ownCloud has nice documentation. I set up my own instance on a local server running stock Cent OS 6. So long as you're comfortable installing software in Linux you can set up ownCloud. In fact you don't even need to dive into the command line; the setup scripts will run right in your browser.
For businesses there's a third option, the Enterprise Edition of ownCloud, which is the Red Hat to ownCloud's Fedora as it were. Go this route and you can easily integrate ownCloud with whatever back-end your business is already using (say Amazon S3, or a mix of cloud and local). For a subscription price ownCloud.com offers support to go with your installation, including phone support.
While I've been happy with the move to ownCloud it's not necessarily a panacea. There are a couple of pain points, the worst of which is third-party support. All those great mobile apps that offer Dropbox and Google Drive file-syncing seldom support ownCloud. OwnCloud offers its own mobile app, but if your workflow already relies on other apps, you're most likely out of luck.
It would also be nice if ownCloud were a bit more modular - too much of it is interconnected and it can be difficult to pull out just the parts you need (which, I suspect, is why cheap ownCloud providers don't offer such customisation).
I've also found ownCloud to be a little less than completely stable. The innovation and rapid development pace of the project are great for press releases, but less so for day in and day out use. I solved this one by downgrading to ownCloud 4, which has actually had fewer problems than Dropbox in my experience.
This is tradeoff though, taking back control means you're going to have to do a bit more work. At the end of day, though, it also means you're in control. ®