It is time to Federate our Clouds

Posted by ownCloud GmbH – 14. July 2015

ownCloud is at the forefront of new technologies being developed in the cloud file sync and share area.  I’ve been having conversations with researchers working in this area like the W3C, CERN and even had a very good discussion with Tim Berners Lee about this topic lately. We, at ownCloud, are also working with other cloud vendors to create a standard in this area.  In this blog I will introduce the challenge that the next generation cloud file sync and share services have to solve. In a follow up next week, I’ll discuss where I see ‘the cloud’ and File Sync and Share going in the coming years, introducing the concept of federated clouds as the next generation technology.

The rise of first generation consumer cloud file sync and share

generation 1In the last decade we saw the rise of consumer cloud file sync and share services. Examples are Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, OneDrive and others. They are very attractive for users because they are very easy to use, cross platform and require no server administration or maintenance. The key success factor here is the user experience for the end users.

The users’ data is stored in a centralized cloud infrastructure. The server side software runs exclusively on the cloud infrastructure of the vendor and can’t be installed somewhere else.

These cloud-based file sync and share services are often bundled with specific mobile or desktop operating systems or other services. The reason for that is that the business models of this vendors often require a customer lock-in. Cloud-based file sync and share services are a very good way to lock a customer into specific services.

But the consumer cloud-based file sync and share services create challenges for users, enterprises and other organizations.

  • The storage location of the files can´t be changed. This often creates legal problems for enterprises.
  • The software can´t be inspected or audited. This means that users, enterprises or universities can’t be sure that there are no back doors into the service.
  • The user can’t integrate existing storage or file servers into the service. Data migration is hard if there is a lot of data.
  • The administrators can´t integrate existing user accounts that might exist in the enterprise or university. Examples are LDAP or Active Directory
  • The software can’t be extended or integrated into other systems.
  • Users, enterprises and universities are locked into these consumer services and switching to a different vendor is close to impossible.
  • The enforcement of sharing policies and applying auditing processes is very difficult. These are requirements for many industries.

All of these limitations of the consumer-grade services have lead to a second generation of cloud-based file sync and share services.

Arrival of second generation, on-premise file sync and share

generation 2All of these limitations can be solved by using an on-premise file sync and share service. Here the software is installed on infrastructure that is owned and controlled by the user, enterprise or university. This has the benefit of being integrated into existing services like backup, monitoring, auditing, SSO, storage and more. If the software is open source, then the code can also be audited and easily extended and adapted to the needs of the users.

On-premise file sync and share services also make it possible to implement a concept called Universal File Access. The idea here is that the file sync and share service doesn’t use only one single local data storage back end, but rather integrates with every data source within the company. So the solution can handle data from all the local data buckets including Windows Network Drives, SharePoint, FTP, NFS, WebDAV and more. This provides users with one unified view over all of their data sources and gives IT the flexibility for the handling and following of various local laws and regulations, all without burdening users with the associated complexity.

On-premise file sync and share with Universal File Access solutions are a very powerful, flexible and secure concept, and ownCloud has been hugely successful in this market, servicing a growing and impressive list of customers.

The obvious limitation to this concept is that collaboration and sharing data outside of a specific enterprise or university running one of these private clouds is difficult. This brings us to the third generation of file sync and share services: federated cloud file sync and share. I will explain what this is in my next blog.

This Blog post is part one of our Federated Cloud series. You can find the other parts here:
Part 2: The Federated Architecture of Next Generation File Sync and Share
Part 3: Announcing the Federated Cloud Sharing API

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