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OwnCloud Server 8.0 review

Elegant cloud storage from your own Linux server

A hand holding up a tablet computer that is projecting a cloud hologram.
  • Provides direct control over and access to your data; Elegant, cross-platform interfaces; Wide range of apps to add productivity features
  • None

Cloud storage is a requirement for many businesses, providing easy document access and sharing between staff and contractors. However, online Software as a Service (SaaS) storage solutions such as Dropbox and Google Drive for Work present a number of potential downsides. You don’t have physical access to the servers on which your data is stored, nor can you control where those servers are. While the Safe Harbor regulatory framework means that many US-based cloud storage services conform to European Data Protection regulations, not all companies will find this sufficient.  

OwnCloud aims to provide a best-of-all-worlds solution, giving you polished cloud storage for desktop operating systems, browsers, and mobile devices, while still leaving you in complete control of your own data. OwnCloud will run on almost any Linux server, but exact hardware requirements depend on the number of users. Guidance on appropriate hardware sizing and optional redundant server configurations is provided in whitepapers.

Installation and Configuration

OwnCloud’s installation process is gratifyingly simple, and detailed installation instructions are provided. We added the required repository to a vanilla installation of Ubuntu server 14.04.1 and installed OwnCloud via apt-get. We then enabled the SSL module for Apache, and activated the default https server. You’ll have to make sure that mod_socache_shmcb is also enabled to get everything working smoothly at this stage, and if you want the option of LDAP support later, you’ll have to install php5-ldap. OwnCloud works perfectly well with a self-signed certificate for secure data transfer, as well as supporting certificates signed by an external Certificate Authority.

Primary configuration is handled by an installation wizard that you access via a web browser. The initial config screen asks you to set up an admin user and warns that SQLite is the default database option, but that it isn’t recommended. Clicking the small down arrow by “storage and database” in the middle provides the option to switch to MySQL/MariaDB or PostgreSQL. We opted for MySQL. 

To create the database itself, this screen requires you to enter the MySQL root login details. It’s best practice to avoid using MySQL root, and instead give any service that needs database access its own login to the database server, restricted to the rights and databases it needs. For this reason, we created a database called OwnCloud on the server, and added a user called OwnCloud with full access rights to that database. When prompted, we put these values into the database fields in the OwnCloud configuration wizard, and continued on.

During initial configuration, the install wizard adds the host part of the URL used to access it (probably an internal IP address) to a list of trusted domains. In order for anyone to access the server, the Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN) or IP address they use must be listed in the trusted domains list, or else the server will reject the connection. Details of how to add the server’s final IP address or FQDN to the list are included in the install documentation. 

Interface

The web interface is reminiscent of Google Drive. The main area of the screen shows your files and folders and allows you to drag in files from your hard disk to upload them. A bar on the left allows you to quickly access your favourite and shared files, and the New button lets you create text files, add a new folder, or copy a file from a specified URL. Using OwnCloud’s default configuration, uploads are limited to 512MB in size, but this can be easily altered. Finally, at top left, the pull-down menu gives users access to their activity log, a gallery view of their images, and any apps that you may choose to install. 

The first time a user connects to OwnCloud, they’ll be presented with a first run splash screen showing links to the desktop and mobile apps for OwnCloud.  Although the interface is the same for all users, if you’re logged in as admin you’ll have a few additional options on the user dropdown menu at the top right, allowing you to manage the server and its users.

Users and groups can be set up on the server itself, but the server can also integrate with LDAP systems, including Active Directory. This means that your existing network accounts can be used to access your OwnCloud server, thus avoiding the need for your users to learn another login. You can also set quotas for each user and give individual users Group Admin status, which allows them to add users to their group without having full admin access. Groups can be used to share files with multiple users, restrict users to only sharing with their group, and disable sharing entirely for a given group. Further administration settings allow you to configure OwnCloud’s email alert settings and view its error logs. 

Desktop clients are available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, while mobile apps – which you’ll have to pay for individually unless you subscribe to OwnCloud’s Enterprise package – are available for Android and iOS.

Windows client installation is a simple, click-through affair. When the client first starts up, it asks for the server’s URL and your login details. The Windows client integrates the OwnCloud folder with Explorer, adding a shortcut to your Favourites and a Share via OwnCloud option to the right click menu. The latter automatically generates a link that you can send to a recipient of your choice, as well as allowing you to set a password and link expiration date. Additional file sharing options, such as selecting specific OwnCloud users to share a file or folder with, can be found in the web interface. The mobile app is just as simple to install and work with. Users have to buy it from their relevant app store, or you can use the app store’s corporate volume purchase programs for your staff where applicable. When configuring the Android client, we found that we had to add the /owncloud directory to the server path we gave it, rather than just the main URL, but it otherwise was configured similarly to the desktop applications. The mobile apps give you access to all your files and folders, and all those shared with you, as well as providing you with configuration options such as the ability to add multiple accounts and secure the app with a PIN.

OwnCloud has an open API, which means that not only can you develop in-house apps for it, but that there’s also a wide app ecosystem already in place. Available apps include a calendar, contacts directory, an EverNote style journal, document editors, and even RoundCube webmail. This adds a great deal of flexibility to your OwnCloud installation, allowing it to replace popular cloud services that go well beyond simple storage.

Pricing

As Open Source software, OwnCloud Server is free to use on your own Linux servers. You’ll have to pay for mobile apps for your users, but that’s the only software cost. Available via the Android Play Store, Apple App Store and Amazon Appstore, the apps are priced at 63p. 

If you’re not comfortable handling your own deployment and require support, then OwnCloud can provide this service via its Standard Subscription, priced at $3,600 (£2,410) per year for a company with 50 users. An Enterprise Edition is also available, providing you with a fully configured VM image, email and phone support, as well as options such as custom branding, SharePoint integration, advanced logging and the ability to make your own changes to the OwnCloud code without being required to Open Source them. Pricing on the Enterprise Edition is dependent on your company’s individual requirements. 

Verdict

For most small-to-medium enterprises, the standard Open Source edition of OwnCloud provides a simple, secure and easily scalable method of keeping your cloud under your own control. The web and mobile interfaces are excellent, and desktop integration worked seamlessly.

If your business has only a handful of users, services such as Google Drive for Work are likely to work out cheaper than the cost of hardware maintenance over time, but once you get to larger numbers, cost benefits are also likely, given the service’s relatively modest hardware requirements. Another point worth considering is the quality of your internet connection. If you’re only dealing with a handful of small, sub-10MB files, then almost any internet connection will suffice, but if you’re a design company working with file sizes into the hundreds of megabytes, then you’ll need fast up- and download speeds from your ISP. 

Running your own cloud makes you responsible for backing up the server and adding features such as local data encryption at OS level, but it also gives you far more control over your data. This is a massive advantage when it comes to ensuring compliance to data handling regulations, as well as a benefit to any company that would rather not be subject to the business decisions of a third-party service provider.

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