ownCloud: The Project That Became a Company

ownCloud

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Many companies try to create a free software project around their products; however, ownCloud has taken the opposite approach, creating a company around a project.

In four years, ownCloud has gone from a theoretical need to a small but steadily growing company run largely by people who proved themselves in the free software community before becoming ownCloud executives.

OwnCloud began with a keynote speach by Frank Karlitschek at the 2010 KDE Camp in San Diego. A long-time KDE contributor and former vice-president of KDE e.V., the non-profit that oversees KDE, Karlitschek observed the growing popularity of cloud services and the security and connectivity challenges that working with a variety of services creates. His solution to these challenges was to provide the software for each user to create their own cloud, allowing them to centralize the view of their data while remaining in control of it.

The problem with commercial cloud services, Karlitschek explains, “is that we give up control of our data, which means privacy is a concern; you don’t really know who has access to the data. Then there’s the storage cost – I mean, if you really want to upload all your files to Dropbox, it’s not cheap.” OwnCloud, he says, gives “basically the same functionality as Dropbox, but you have complete control over it.”

Karlitschek adds, “Because we don’t have an interest in selling you storage, we can offer way more flexibility.” Not only can ownCloud users repurpose an older computer, but they are not locked into a single vendor’s services.” FTP servers, Samba storage, Window’s Active Directory – all these and more can be mounted and managed together in ownCloud.

With this simple but elegant approach, ownCloud “was really successful from Day One,” Karlitschek recalls. In early 2012, Karlitschek, Markus Rex, and Holger Dyroff founded the company, but as Community Leader, Karlitschek speaks with obvious pride about the continued community influence of the project.

“This is the reason we have a real community,” he says. The company continues to rely on community efforts for its translations – which now include nearly 50 languages – and the security team, which “is really run by community people.” The community includes a large number of Raspberry Pi enthusiasts, for whom the DIY approach implied by ownCloud is a close match to their own philosophy. The community also provides documentation, videos, and apps, as well as a recruiting ground for ownCloud’s executives and employees, many of whom have experience in KDE and SUSE.

In return, the company organizes conferences and webinars, helps participants with travel funds, and maintains lists of resources, such as trusted vendors from whom users can buy storage if they prefer not to host their own. “I think it’s a nice way of working together,” Karlitschek says simply.

Community and Enterprise Editions

OwnCloud is available in Community and Enterprise editions. The Community edition can be broadly described as a version for personal use. With parts of it licensed under the GNU General Public License and the Affero General Public License, the community edition is available in the repositories of many major distributions.

By contrast, the Enterprise edition is released under a private license and includes certification by the company and subscription services for technical support. The Enterprise edition also includes what Karlitschek describes as “features that a community user doesn’t ordinarily need or want,” such as monitoring systems for compliance with financial industry regulations, two-step authentication, and support for commercial software such as Oracle database and Microsoft SQL Server.

“But we don’t compromise on security,” Karlitschek emphasizes. “It’s not like the Community version is less secure than the Enterprise. We would kill our community if we did that.”

In particular, both editions support AES-256 encryption on the server. “But a surprisingly large number of our customers don’t do that, because they are working in their own trusted environment. But if you want to run it somewhere else, where you don’t really trust the back end, or get FTP storage from a university, then you can mount it into your encrypted ownCloud and be secure. But that depends on how you want to run it.”

Another feature introduced in the last release is ownCloud Documents, which the company website describes as “an Open Source competitor to Google Docs.” Like Google Docs, ownCloud Documents is a productivity suite designed for online collaboration, but with Open Document Format – the same one used in LibreOffice and OpenOffice – as the default for saving documents.

Both editions are also supported by more than 170 plugin apps, which are listed on a community site. Many of these apps are file viewers or tools for working with cloud storage providers. However, others include a photo gallery, a music player, and a virus killer. Karlitschek himself mentions an app that connects with a mail server, allowing users to view mail from within ownCloud. With such apps, ownCloud appears to be hovering at the edge of being a dedicated operating system for cloud services.

As I write, ownCloud has just released the Community edition of its seventh version, with the Enterprise edition scheduled soon after. The new release includes such features as a new sidebar in the user-interface, improved speed for syncing, activity notification email, and a redesign for improved performance on tablets and phones.

Future Developments

Next month, ownCloud has also scheduled the latest of its hackathons. However, the event is expected to be markedly different from its first hackathon, which Karlitschek describes as five people sitting around table – or even from last year’s, which saw 50 attendees. This year, the hackathon has morphed into a Contributor’s Conference, with a schedule that includes keynotes and lightning talks. Exactly how many will attend is uncertain, but Karlitschek expects more than 100 attendees.

Looking further ahead, Karlitschek sees a major concern for ownCloud development as the rise of “data silos” – one-stop services for commercial cloud storage that are basically efforts at vendor lock-in under another name.

“For instance, if you saw [Google I/O] last week,” Karlitschek says, “they’re pushing their own solutions. One thing we would like to do is to enable uses to move their stuff around and share with [other] users without the need to be with one provider.”

OwnCloud already supports most of the main storage providers, although Karlitschek adds, “I won’t say that there aren’t challenges.” However, ownCloud plans to improve support for at least the main cycles by improving interfaces and centralized search across the different silos. “At the moment, they all supply APIs that are good enough for integration. It’s difficult to say if the market won’t change that.”

OwnCloud has come a long way quickly, but the immediate future seems more of the same. A few months after its founding, the company estimated some 400,000 users. Now, just over two years later, it estimates 1.3 million, and all signs are that the momentum will continue – thanks in no small part to the company’s close connection to its community roots.

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