23 August 2013

Nipping at Dropbox's heels

There is a real resurgence of cloud storage taking place since Dropbox first launched some years ago and quickly rose above (and for the most part crushed) its competition at the time.  I'm going to highlight what I thought was going on earlier in the year, what's happened since then, and then highlight two new services.

Earlier this year I wrote about p2p file sharing as a threat to Dropbox, particularly the Cubby service.  The problem is, Cubby got their pricing model wrong (you have to pay for DirectSync, their p2p product) and haven't changed it.  Too bad for them, they'll never compete successfully with Dropbox in this way.  I don't expect them to disappear any time soon, but I do expect them to idle along as a bit player in the cloud storage space.  However, if they switched their Directsync feature into their "Basic" (freemium) package and focused on a pay model of central mirrored/subset storage for backup and faster syncs of critical data, it could still be a different story.  But probably not for much longer.

I also looked at BitTorrent Sync earlier this year.  I had various issues with it and while I like it, and ultimately lost trust in it due to regularly disappearing files from a folder I had under test between several machines.  I no longer use it although in the right circumstances I might still use it (e.g., mirroring a lot of content between multiple locations for a limited duration and easily verifiable results).  I continue to think that BT Sync will remain in the tech fringes for now - they will continue to be hampered by the need for a central server (is the server really secure?!), shared secrets approach (who can see my secrets and my files?!) and lack of open source (what am I really installing on my box?!)

Two interesting things have happened since then in the cloud storage world:
  1. A new service called Copy has been making the rounds.  The good news is that you receive 20GB up front (if you activate your account through a referral link; otherwise you receive 15GB for direct signups).  This is 10x more space than Dropbox's upfront free 2GB of space.  I'm using Copy a lot now rather than Dropbox.  Copy has built their own infrastructure rather than using Amazon's AWS as Dropbox has done, I'm assuming that's given them much better cost structures and allows for this much greater level of freemium marketing. After a few weeks of testing, I switched to using it actively.  I've now been using it for a few months, no issues.  [Disclosure: If you click the links above you get 20GB rather than 15GB because its a referral and yes I get free space for the referral - thank you very much!] [Postnote: Warning! See comment below]
  2. On the p2p storage side I stumbled on ownCloud.  I have it running on my own cloud IaaS server (Digital Ocean - working great and dirt cheap at $5 per month for a basic server instance) and have a few nodes connected to it.  It feels clunkier than Dropbox and Copy, but it does seem to work and most importantly, it's free! I'm testing it now and haven't switched to using it as a primary cloud file store yet.  [Note: I've only used at as network storage, not for Contacts and other features.]
Last thing to note - I've given up on BoxCryptor and moved on to using an OS X Extended/Journaled 256 bit AES, sparse bundle disk format on each of these cloud services.  I've had to give up multi-platform access that came with BoxCryptor but on the positive side I'm not paying a yearly subscription to BoxCryptor and I have filename encryption as well.  I'm currently testing volumes in Dropbox, Copy, Google Drive and ownCloud, so far so good with all of them. [Postnote: read comments for a pain point on this approach].

So that's how things look in August 2013 for best practices in cloud storage:
  • Use Copy.  It works.  Much more storage for free.  Good for non-technical folks.  Or just keep using Dropbox if you have enough storage with them and/or don't mind paying for your storage.  [Postnote: Warning! See comment below]
  • If you're technical enough, use ownCloud on your own server.  It looks viable for a do-it-yourself if that's important to you and it's opensource as well.
  • If you're technical enough, value security, and don't need multi-platform access to your files, use an encrypted multi-file filesystem like OS X's sparse bundle format to store your folders and files [Postnote: see comments].


  1. Just a word of warning on using the OS X sparse bundle filesystem format approach. Here is something you don't want to see (example from filesystem contained in Dropbox):

    ./Secured/SparseBundle/bands/11 (CompName's conflicted copy 2013-08-24)
    ./Secured/SparseBundle/bands/12 (CompName's conflicted copy 2013-08-24)

    I just happened to see the Dropbox warning roll through in the notifications area at the time - lucky.

    As a suggestion, if you want to take the sparse bundle approach, you need to have complete discipline around sync completions and not doing anything while a sync is underway. You can't edit files or even browse the filesystem because browsing the filesystem requires (I think - TBV) opening the sparse bundle bands which in turn changes file opening times. The write triggers a filesync. This means you need to stop any file related activity (browsing with finder, opening files) on client A and let the sync complete on clients A-B before you start doing anything on client B.

    If this is too annoying you can always pay the $48/year for Boxcryptor (https://www.boxcryptor.com/en/pricing) that is encrypting both file content and names.

    The right longer term solution has to be a Linux filesystem that encrypts contents and filenames, but not the filesystem structure (inode or equivalent files). This provides you with both encryption and many separate files (assuming you're generally editing smaller files). TBD!

  2. This just in from copy.com when I asked about how they managed sync conflicts between sync clients:

    "Unfortunately at this time, the user who syncs second would overwrite the changes by the user who syncs first. We're currently working on fixing this issue at this time."


    This is a huge fundamental difference and outright failure between dropbox and copy.


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