Can ownCloud prove itself as a Google Drive and Dropbox killer?

-By Vaibhav Kaushal

Dropbox was first. It was not Google this time which spearheaded the ‘sync your files on the cloud’ industry though they are one of the best in the field. But they, by no single inch are behind in popularity or functionality. But is cloud behaving the way we want it to?

Cloud storage – the problem

Ever since we had Drive, we have always wanted a Drive client for Linux. There are costlier products like InSync and then there are hack-together products like Grive. InSync is paid and it seems no one is in mood to get that running on their systems just for syncing files. Grive has to be run manually and that is not how cloud needs to work for us. Let us first see the limitations of Google Drive or Dropbox; the pioneer first:

  1. Dropbox:
    1. Smaller storage space (up to 5 GB on free accounts)
    2. Multiple accounts not supported by client.
    3. Cannot edit documents and spreadsheets in the web interface.
    4. Control over sharing is broken in certain ways
  2. Google Drive:
    1. No Linux client
    2. Multiple accounts not supported by client.
    3. Sharing can be done only with those who have a Google account and the control is not granular enough.

OwnCloud is the cloud you wanted since the beginningIn addition, all these storage solutions are controlled by third parties. While Google and Dropbox will swear to protect your data, we have heard enough about NSA, haven’t we? So the one weak point about them is – they both belong to a country where the government is voracious for all kinds of data. Do we have a solution, if at all? Yes, and the answer is – have a cloud storage of your own.

Your very ownCloud

So what is so great about this thing anyway, you might enquire!We’ve got a lot to tell and don’t know where to begin. Let us begin with the first word ‘own’.

Ownership: So, ownCloud runs on your hardware, which means that if you want ownCloud, you have to have your own web server. That said, if you host any site, ownCloud can run on that. Now, it will not run via your blogger or wordpress account; you do need your own server. That also means – your privacy depends on your hosting provider’s terms. If you have a server which you completely own, ownCloud will make it yours! Combined with a service like that of DynDNS, you can host your ownCloud instance even on your laptop!

Space restrictions: You are limited by space only by choice. If you install ownCloud on a hard disk with 2 TB of free space – that is the storage space you get. If you want ‘a hell lot more’, well, there are a lot of techniques to combine hard disks and mount the cumulative storage as one mountpoint (LVM?) so your space limitations are determined by your choices. Your choices and no one is there to impose anything on you.

Multiple Cloud Accounts and Services: It is almost indispensable that you have one or more Dropbox or Google accounts and it would be a nuisance if you had to run all those clients. Even when you want to access your files via a web-browser, opening 3 tabs is a little bothersome. ownCloud allows you to mount your other cloud accounts from Google and Dropbox. You can also mount Amazon S3 storage and other ownCloud instance. Even FTP and SFTP are supported. Summing it up – you are hardly going to need another client program for accessing your other cloud accounts. What’s interesting is that none of your externally mounted storages and cloud services consumes any data on your own server. If you keep all files to be stored on your own server in one directory under the root directory of your files app view and mount each of your other cloud accounts in different folders under your files root, you’ll be able to configure the ownCloud client to manually control the sync of each of mounts and your own server to your desktop. You do not get this feature in any other tool.

Calendar and Contacts: If you want to have a private place to sync your calendar and contacts, ownCloud is the place for you. You can sync your Android and iOS devices with them and remain assured that your contacts  belong to you, only ‘you’. To begin, you can export your current contacts in VCF format and import them to your ownCloud.

Pictures, Tasks, Videos and Documents: Much like Dropbox, ownCloud allows you to view pictures online. It organizes the pictures according to folders. You can also create simple documents and view or download them. You can have a tasks list and download videos you saved on the cloud. These apps group them together and you can check them out at one place. Document-editing is in its infancy but it seems it’ll catch up soon. Interestingly collaborative editing has been enabled even at this stage!

Management and quota: There will be an administrator account using which you can add other users (like your family members, or office colleagues (if it is an office instance)) and set storage quota – that been said, you can govern which one of your users is consuming how much space. You can even set rules for yourself.

Sharing: Let’s say you have an important file. How do you share it with someone? Well, in case of DropBox or Google Drive, you add that person in the list of people who have access to the file. Of course he/she has to have an account with them. Or you can simply make the file public, which is not always the desired solution. With ownCloud, you have many options:

  1. If you want to share a file with another user, you can type his username and share the document with him.
  2. If you want to share it with someone else, you can use ‘share link’ option. This will generate a link for the purpose which you can copy and distribute.
  3. It is desirable to protect the access from public. In that case, you can set a password on the share. Make sure that the password is not guessable and is known only to the desired person!
  4. If you would like to remove the share after some time, you can set an expiration date. ownCloud would invalidate the share link post that date automatically. You do not have to revoke the share access manually.
  5. Finally you can send the link to anyone via email.

No cloud provider allows you to have as much monarchy over your file sharing. You will also be able to share files and folders in one of your mounted clouds the same way.

ownCloud preserves file versionsDownload to your cloud: It is desirable to just download a file into your cloud without having to download the file manually and then upload it. Interestingly, ownCloud allows you to do that with exceptional ease. Just go to the folder where you would want to download the file and click on ‘New’ button at the top. Options shall emerge; choose ‘From link’ and enter the URL of the file you want to download and the command be honoured! What’s interesting is that you can make ownCloud do that with one of your other mounted cloud accounts too! So if you want to save a wallpaper to your Google drive and have it mounted to your ownCloud installation, you can simply launch to your ownCloud mounted directory and perform the above mentioned trick.

Versions: ownCloud, just like Google Drive keeps a log of different versions of the same file. This is very helpful when you want to go back to a version of file which was unintentionally altered by you or someone else.

The killer? Umm, yes but no!

With a feature-set as extensive as that, it can be laid out that one day it’ll kill other cloud service providers. However we have to keep in mind that ownCloud needs your own server to run. So for all those people who do not have a server running, ownCloud might be a little distant dream.

Yet another area where Google is way stronger than ownCloud is – Document Editing. The document editing in ownCloud is too weak to be practical. Except the basic formatting – Bold, Italics and Underline, there is basically nothing you can bank on. The display is immature (no page view) and you cannot download the documents in any format other than ODT. Also, you cannot upload another ODT and expect ownCloud to read it for you. So document editing is on weaker side.

In addition, ownCloud would limit your file uploads by the size of file. ownCloud is written in PHP and if you want to be able to upload large files (like 1 GB or more), either your server should already be allowing max upload file size of 1 GB or above or you should be in position to edit php.ini (shared server is not a good place for that).

Due to those reasons, ownCloud is not the best solution for everyone. However, if you have a small company to administer and you want control over things and can spare a server, ownCloud beats almost every other solution available in the market irrespective of their price!

Posted on Dec 29, 2013 11:22 AM
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