Following up on our post from the MRDHack day, what follows is an evaluation of ownCloud as an institutional alternative to Dropbox. Our DAF survey showed that researchers at Lincoln require better managed storage space than the current 1GB FTP “H: Drive” provided to each staff member. Many of them are using portable drives, USB sticks and cloud-based services such as Dropbox to store and share their research data. Services like Dropbox provide compelling advantages to more traditional storage. Dropbox provides, for free, double the storage on offer to Lincoln researchers at present; it is always backed up, existing on both the local machine and on Amazon’s servers, it offers versioning for files up to 30 days old with the free account and ‘forever’ for paid accounts, it is accessible from almost all devices with Linux, OS X, Windows, iOS and Android clients available. Files can be published to the web or shared privately with other Dropbox users.

We know, however, that researchers using Dropbox are doing so without a clear understanding of the terms and conditions of the service and would ideally like a similar service to be provided internally by the University, where we can retain control of the data and its associated security.

We were first made aware of ownCloud when D’Arcy Norman blogged about his initial trial of it. ownCloud is an open source tool, which provides the same features as Dropbox (and more). With the release of version 4 in May, it appears to be a credible alternative to Dropbox for institutions wishing to provide a modern storage solution for their staff and students. D’Arcy’s initial experience with ownCloud was promising but he found issues with the syncing of files. Our recent tests of ownCloud have found that these problems have now been resolved with a recent update and what follows is an evaluation of ownCloud version 4.0.6, looking at it from three perspectives:

  1. ownCloud as a general purpose storage technology for an academic community
  2. ownCloud as a storage technology for research data
  3. ownCloud as a technology for integration with Orbital

Storage for an academic community?

ownCloud is an AGPLv3 licensed open source project, which started in January 2010. The project is run by a company, also called ownCloud, which provides commercial services and support for its software. The company resides in both Germany and the USA. The development of ownCloud is also open and supported by standard tools for open source projects: a source code repository, bug tracker, IRC channel, mailing list, wiki and forum. There are currently 13 core members of the project and 34 contributing developers. Development of the code is currently very active with changes made several times a day. The ownCloud project was started by the KDE community (it has no dependencies on KDE) and therefore benefits from the involvement of experienced open source developers. The software is written in PHP and can use MySQL, PostgreSQL or SQLite for its database. As of version 4, ownCloud has the following features:

  • Web user interface for file uploads and management of account and other features. Files can also be uploaded from an existing URL.
  • Windows/Mac/Linux/Android/iOS synchronisation clients.
  • WebDav integration for direct access to file storage. ownCloud has its own WebDAV server.
  • Folder and/or file sharing: publish to the web or share with groups or individuals.
  • File versioning.
  • An API for application integration.
  • Previewing for a number of filetypes.
  • Server side file encryption.
  • LDAP integration.
  • Notifications.
  • ownCloud can be installed in a PHP/MySQL environment on both Linux and Windows servers.

ownCloud also provides a number of other applications that can be activated or not, including a calendar, task list, contacts management, a built in text editor, image management, and experimental support for FTP, Google Drive and Dropbox integration. These are all available from the built in ‘app store’ and configurable by administrators. Maximum quotas for each account can be specified on an account-by-account basis, and a maximum file upload size can also be specified if needed.

The roadmap for version 5, due in August 2012, list the following:

  • Inter-ownCloud Sharing
  • Ajax interface
  • Mozilla Sync Integration
  • Improved permissions
  • Mounting of Dropbox and Google Drive
  • Improved version control

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