Thursday, 13 June 2013

Private Cloud Storage

I am a big fan of Dropbox.   I have been in the information technology industry for well over a decade now and my first smart phone made me very interested in the cloud storage solutions available.   It's not until you have a modern mobile phone that you realize how handy it is having your data available whenever and wherever you are.

So with my new HTC Incredible S purchased December 2011 I installed Dropbox.   I then proceeded to install other Dropbox clients on my Windows desktops and Linux desktops.   Low and behold my files just appear everywhere at the same time, perfect.

Then I learnt about Evernote.  At the time I thought Evernote was handy and complemented Dropbox quite nicely.   After using Evernote for a year or so and learning how to use it properly, I discovered the benefit of building an information architecture based around the Tags in Evernote.

So here I am in the year 2013 with some experience on personal cloud storage and I have found a few interesting observations about my use of these services.   Firstly, Dropbox is less important to me than it was to start with.   In fact when I look back now, it was never really that useful to me on my phone.   I found it very useful on my Desktop but not my phone.   Secondly, the information you want on the run is normally text.   Evernote is absolutely brilliant for handling text notes and photos that you want to use for research or reference.

I should add at this point that I don't like spending money on services if I can avoid it.   Call me cheap if you wish but I am a dad with four kids and my beautiful wife stays at home running the household and home schooling the bunch.   My children, wife, house and life in general will always be a higher priority for me than cloud storage and hence the finances get steered in that direction.

This is where Dropbox and Evernote now need to be compared.   Both Dropbox and Evernote are businesses and need to make money.   Both services need to attract customers to make their service popular and get support from third parties making their services even more valuable.   Dropbox chose the path of storage amount restrictions to cause customers to pay for their service while Evenote chose the path of storage traffic restrictions.

With Dropbox you get a fixed amount of storage for free.   At the time of writing this post that amount is 2GB.   You can get up to 18GB of storage for free if you invite a lot of people to use Dropbox.   If someone installs Dropbox from an invite you sent then, both you and the person you invite will get an extra 500MB of free storage.   If you use the Dropbox link at the very top of this post and become a member of Dropbox I will get an extra 500MB as will you.

Now the business model that Dropbox has is not bad.   If you love the service and need it for work or storing large amounts of data then you pay for a subscription.   If you don't need to store a lot of data, it is free.   Over years of use you will find they increase your storage quota also.   The problem is most people have many gigabytes of data stored somewhere and it will cost them money to store this in the cloud.   An example is my CD collection.   I ripped all of my CDs many years ago and having a little OCD when it comes to information technology I used a lossless codec.   This comes to 82GB of storage and only includes my music.   Add to that the videos, pictures and other documents it is going to cost me $500 a year to store it in the cloud with Dropbox.

How about Evernote?   Well Evernote could have chosen the same storage limit business model as Dropbox but they didn't.   They chose, in my opinion, a much better solution.   Evernote only charges you for traffic to their site and it is only accumulated monthly.   At the time of writing this post you can upload 60MB of data per month for free.   My quota used today is 2.2MB or 4% and this will be reset in 9 days.   What this means for someone like me is that the service is totally free and is unlikely to ever cost me money.   Does that mean that I am a leech on Evernote and not contributing to it?   Definitely not.   By using Evernote and blogging about Evernote and showing people Evernote to explain information architecture for SharePoint content types I am giving them free publicity.   I am making the product more popular.   I am one of the many millions of people who have the app installed on my phone adding support to its popularity.   Evernote benefits by supporting me as a free customer.

So where are we?   Well you have gathered by now that I am a big fan of Evernote and still a fan of Dropbox.   But I don't need Dropbox.   I have a 4TB USB hard disk attached to a Raspberry Pi at home and it has all of my files stored on it.   I have another 4TB USB disk I use to backup all of the files in case of hardware failure.   This file server storage I have setup has cost me only a minimal amount.   The Western Digital USB drives cost $198 each.   The Raspberry Pi cost $50 with a case.   So for under $500 I have massive amounts of storage that will last for a few years at least.

All of this led me to research private cloud storage.   I don't need Dropbox to store my files.   What I need is access to my files from anywhere.   I started researching open source private cloud storage solutions with the intent of replacing Dropbox but I learned after installing a few of them that I didn't want file sync on my phone.   I just want to be able to access the files.   Similarly I do want file sync for my desktops.

I started my private cloud storage research with ownCloud.   I tried very hard to love this open source product but found it very buggy.   In fact it has so many bugs it is unusable.   So I started looking at other solutions.   This Reddit post helped a lot with my research.

Here is a list of private cloud storage solutions I looked into or installed and a brief comment on each.
  • ownCloud 
    I installed this and found it buggy and poorly programmed for its primary task.
  • git-annex
    I am a developer and LOVE git, but this isn't quite what I wanted.
  • Seafile
    I installed this and was very happy with it except that the files are stored in a database format rather than just allowing easy access.
  • SparkleShare
    I was keen on this solution but I could not see an Android client on Google Play so did not install it.
  • BitTorrent Sync
    This is an awesome file sync tool but again, not quite what I was looking for.
  • SpiderOak
    This solution is not open source so I didn't really look into it.
  • Unison
    I didn't look into this solution at all.
  • AjaXplorer
    This is a brilliant browser and mobile file access solution with a desktop client on the way.
 After evaluating some of the above private cloud solutions I settled on AjaXplorer.   Here is my previous blog post about installing it on a Raspberry Pi.   It gives me access to my files from my mobile with a nice client interface.   I can access my files with a browser if need be.   And I will be able to sync files to my desktop once the desktop client is released.

So I now have a headless Raspberry Pi installed in my house running off a phone charger using maybe $15 worth of electricity per year.   Plugged into that is a Western Digital 4TB USB hard disk.   The Raspberry Pi has three primary services running on it being Samba for local file access, AjaXplorer for private cloud file access and Deluge for the odd Bit Torrent file I need to download.

I am still a user and fan of Dropbox.   I use the Camera Upload feature of the Android Dropbox client.   It allows me to share files with other users of Dropbox.   It also lets me share files to non Dropbox users through the public links saving my home upload bandwidth.   But I realized through this whole process that I didn't need a cloud storage solution, I already had one.   All I needed was easy access to it.

I will continue to be a big fan of Evernote.   It is perfect for information access on your mobile devices and desktops.

If you know of any other private cloud storage solutions I have not looked into, please comment below.

[Update - 2013-07-18] -  I have added to my Private Cloud Storage solution and blogged about it here.