An open source alternative for “the cloud”

Frank Karlitschek. Photo by Annette Exner. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Cloud services have become the default tools many people use to get their work done. But this can mean giving up privacy and control. Some open source alternatives are now offering tools to put people back in charge.

Frank Karlitschek is a German open source developer and founder of Nextcloud, a platform for storage, collaboration and everything else you expect to work together online.

“We have this huge centralization of everything. The cloud infrastructure that drives a lot of the services on the internet, is controlled by very few entities, like Amazon, Google and Microsoft. They are the backbone of everything and this is not healthy,” he says.

Nextcloud was originally founded as an alternative to Dropbox, but where the user could get the benefits of cloud services on infrastructure they control. It has since evolved into a fully modular productivity suite, meaning you can choose which applications you run on the platform.

“The idea was that you can run your own server on your own infrastructure, so it’s decentralized and federated,” says Karlitschek. He compares the current version of Nextcloud to G Suite from Google or Microsoft Office 365.

“There’s a lot of sharing, collaboration and communication features, document editing, calendars, contacts, all kinds of things. It’s a full modern collaboration suite but it’s a hundred percent open source and on your own infrastructure.”

Nextcloud has about 1,800 individual contributors of code, from single fixes to multi-year engagements. “But it’s more than code,” says Karlitschek. “For examples there’s translations. It’s available in 95 different languages and they are all done by volunteers all over the world.”

It is not purely volunteer-driven, however. 45 people are employed to maintain the codebase full-time. Their business model is to sell support subscriptions to organizations that use Nextcloud for free, a time-tested way of generating revenue from free and open source software.

Free and open source software emerged at a time when people ran software on their own computers, whether a PC on their desk, or a server in a hosting center. By running non-proprietary code, you had more control of what your computer was doing.

But as cloud services are becoming the default mode of working together, that kind of control is slipping away. “In a way it’s even more closed than proprietary software running on your own laptop, because at least there you know where it is,” says Karlitschek.

In order to create a product that compares and competes with the global internet monopolies, you need to get a lot of things right.

“You need to have an alternative software that is as good. You need to have all the features that the user expects. If you have less features they will use the other software,” says Karlitschek.

But even if you make the user interface and workflows interesting and useful, there are still obstacles to adopting decentralized cloud services.

With Google or Microsoft, you just create an account and get started. To use Nextcloud, you first need to install it on a server. No matter how easy this process is made, it is still one step more than the experience of the proprietary cloud. Hosting your own cloud also costs money.

“In the old days, with open source and free software, we always had the cost benefit on our side. We could say, if you use Linux it’s as good as Microsoft and it costs nothing, where Microsoft costs money. With cloud services it is unfortunately the other way around. Nextcloud is free, but you still need to host it somewhere. Hosting now comes for free with the other services,” says Karlitschek.

What would it take for you to try out an open source cloud alternative?

  1. Katja

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  2. Anonymous

    We must replace the broken internet and build it to be uncontrollable by deviant forces. I have been looking at going back to the old dial up system with a 56kbps modem. An archaic system to me is vastly superior to the mess we have now. The web now is virtually an un-useable nuisance/security issue. FIDO mail was a slow but reliable way to move limited data around the world. Today very large data bases and files could be mailed anywhere from point to point and made available on local area BBS's. This un-corruptable system would be refined and expanded.

    Doug Ferguson

  3. Anonymous

    We use nextcloud at two private places with "normal" 100MBit/s-Internetaccess and it works perfect. Linux-clients, Android-app. And both sides synchronize each other. What do we still need? ;-)

  4. Anonymous

    I use nextcloud and it's an amazing cloud service. I use it on laptop, android and ios. All hosted on an old pc running ubuntu in my closet! Easy to use and set up.

  5. Edi Rak

    Actualy I'm engaged on a project with similar goal. We at AppsForce strive to provide afordable cloud solution with ease of use and privacy in mind. And provide new market for developers so thay can reach our target conusmers small and medium businesses. And also provide an internet platform for individuals or communites builders.

  6. Anonymous

    Clouds can provide trans-continental resiliency for storage and elastic scaling of resources. I'd be ok with sharing my files in a resilient distributed network if they were encrypted, as long as the storage really was very resilient, with bonuses for access speed and difficulty for other users to track my usage metrics. And I'd be fine with using a distributed computing environment if the cost was not prohibitively higher than centralized alternatives, including when considering the fact that on-premise alternatives usually need to bear the cost of infrastructure big enough to handle high traffic situations even during low traffic times.

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    […] Der letzte Schwerpunkt dreht sich rund um die Dezentralisierung und die Frage, wer das Internet eigentlich kontrolliert. Zur Zeit dominieren einige wenige Konzerne unsere Online-Welt, obwohl es für uns alle gesünder wäre, wenn die Zentralisierung zurückginge. Hierbei beleuchtet der Schwerpunkt den Aufstieg von Smart Cities und wie lokale Regierungen Technologien so einsetzen können, dass sie dem Gemeinwohl und nicht allein kommerziellen Interessen dienen. Zudem zeigt der Abschnitt unter anderem, wie die größten Internetkonzerne ihr Geld verdienen und spricht über Open-Source-Alternativen bei Cloud-Services. […]

  8. Connor

    I'd probably only do it if I someone could direct me to the right hardware. I'm fine setting it up, and the freedom it buys is priceless, but it should be done with as little required reading as possible.