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I’m on my way to a meeting at Intersect about the next phase of the Cr8it data packaging and publishing project. Cr8it is an ownCloud plugin, and ownCloud is widely regarded as THE open source dropbox-like service, but it is not without its problems.

Dropbox has been a huge hit, a killer app with what I call powers to “Share, Sync & See”. Syncing between devices, including mobile (where it’s not really syncing) is what made Dropbox so pervasive, giving us a distributed file-system with almost frictionless sharing via emailed requests, with easy signup for new users. The see part refers to the fact that you can look at your stuff via the web too. And there is a growing ecosystem of apps that can use Dropbox as an underlying distributed filesystem.

ownCloud is (amongst other things) an open source alternative to Dropbox.com’s file-sync service. A number of institutions and service providers in the academic world are now looking at it because it promises some of the killer-app qualities of dropbox in an open source form, meaning that, if all goes well it can be used to manage research data, on local or cloud infrastructure, at scale, with the ease of use and virality of dropbox. If all goes well.

There are a few reasons dropbox and other commercial services are not great for a university:

  • We need to be able control where data are stored and have the flexibility to bring data close to large facilities. This is why CERN have the largest ownCloud test lab in the world, so I’ve heard.

  • It is important to be able to write applications such as Cr8it without being beholden to a company like Dropbox.com, Apple, Google or Microsoft who can approve or deny access to their APIs at their pleasure, and can change or drop the underlying product. (Google seem to pose a particular risk in this department, they play fast and loose with products like Google Docs, dumping features when it suits them)

But ownCloud has some problems. The ownCloud forum is full of people saying, “tried this out for my company/workgroup/school. Showed promise but there’s too many bugs. Bye.” At UWS eResearch we have been using it more or less successfully for several months, and have experienced some fairly major issues to do with case-sensitivty and other incompatibilities between various file systems on Windows, OS X and Linux.

From my point of view as an eResearch manager, I’d like to see the emphasis at ownCloud be on getting the core share-sync-see stuff working, and then on getting a framework in place to support plugins in a robust way.

What I don’t want to see is more of this:

Last week, the first version of OwnCloud Documents was released as a part of OwnCloud 6. This incorporates a subset of editing features from the upstream WebODF project that is considered stable and well-tested enough for collaborative editing.

We tried this editor at eResearch UWS as a shared scratchpad in a strategy session and it was a complete disaster, our browsers kept losing contact with the document, and when we tried to copy-paste the text to safety it turned out that copying text is not supported. In the end we had to rescue our content by copying HTML out of the browser and stripping out the tags.

In my opinion, ownCloud is not going to reach its potential when the focus remains on getting shiny new stuff out all the time, far from making ownCloud shine, every broken app like this editor tarnishes its reputation substantially. By all means release these things for people to play with but the ownCloud team needs to have a very hard think about what they mean by “stable and well tested”.

Along with others I’ve talked to in eResearch, I’d like to see work at owncloud.com focus on:

  • Define Sync behaviour in detail, complete with automated tests and have a community-wide push to get the ongoing sync problems sorted. For example, fix this bug reported by a former member of my team along with several others to do with differences between file systems.

  • Create a standard way to generate and store file derivaties such as image thumbnails, or HTML document previews, as well as additional file metadata. At the moment plugins are left to their own devices, so there is no way for apps to reliably access each others data. I have put together a simple Alpha-quality framework for generating web-views of things via the file system, Of the Web, but I’d really like to be able to hook it in to ownCloud properly.

  • Get the search onto a single index rather than the current approach of having an index per user, something like Elastic Search, Solr or Lucene could easily handle a single metadata-and-text index with information about sharing, with changes to files on the server fed to the indexer as they happen.

  • [Update 2014-04-11] Get the sync client to handle connecting to multiple ownCloud servers, in Academia we will definitely have researchers wanting to use more than one service, eg AARNet’s Cloudstor+ and an institutional ownCloud. (Not to mention proper dropbox integration)

Creative Commons License
Notes on ownCloud robustness by Peter Sefton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License


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