3aIT Blog

Cloud-based file storage services such as iCloud, Dropbox and Google Drive offer a very easy way to make your important files available to you from wherever you wish to access them. Whether you’re using a desktop machine in your office, a phone at home, or a laptop on the other side of the world, your files are always available to you.

However, as the recent “celebrity photo hacking” issue has demonstrated, this convenience sometimes comes at a cost. We often comment in our office that you should replace the word “cloud” with “other people’s computers” in your head before deciding what you’re happy to store there. Although the exact method used to steal the photos from the various cloud services is currently unknown, it is true that with all the services mentioned above, you do not have ultimate control over your files.

With this in mind, we have been trialling an alternative called “Owncloud”. In most respects, this works in a very similar manner to other cloud services. You can have a “cloud” drive on your computer that accesses your files. It has an app for your phone and tablet for accessing your files that way. It also has a web interface accessed via your web browser to get at your data that way if desired.

However, what sets Owncloud apart from many of the other cloud services available is, as the name suggests, the service is hosted not on “other people’s computers” but on your own. This removes ones of the major sticking points when considering whether to move important data “into the cloud”. As you have control of the server(s) the data is being uploaded to, you can know for certain what is happening to that data – who has access to it, whether it’s being backed up, where it’s being backed up to… And if that data needs deleting one day, you can be far more confident that it’s actually gone.

Also, all major cloud service providers only offer a limited amount of storage space before charging for additional storage. Usually this is in the form of an ongoing monthly cost. The storage space available when using OwnCloud is only limited by the size of the hard drives you set it up on, and this can always be increased at a later date. Just for a simple comparison, 1TB of storage with Dropbox costs £8 a month. A 1TB hard drive to put in your server to store your data on costs from as little as £50 these days.

As far as additional features are concerned, these are similar to other cloud services. You can see exactly who has access to any given file or folder. You can share out specific files and folders to a 3rd party – useful for giving access to large files that are too big for email. Versioning can be enabled so that when a new version of a file is saved, older versions can still be accessed.

Our own experience of using Owncloud has been largely positive. Obviously, due to the nature of the product, there’s a lot more initial configuration needed before it is ready to go. However, this does allow for customisations like being able to use your company’s Active Directory logins (ie Windows passwords) to access the service. Therefore if someone leaves your company, you can disable their Active Directory account, and access to this cloud service will be automatically suspended.

It is encrypted with industry standard SSL all the way to the server. Also, for an extra level of security, it’s possible to encrypt all the files so the data on the drive is useless without the password to access it.

Of course, this does not solve all problems with cloud based services. While the “other people’s computer” problem is solved, any service of this nature still has to be accessible to the whole world via the internet to work as intended, which means that it is still technically vulnerable to attack. Secure passwords will remove most of the risk in this respect, but the risk is still there nonetheless. However, knowing we can switch off the machine with our data on it (and even put a chisel through the hard drives if we have to) helps us sleep easier at night!