Canonical provices free, web-based, storage for every Ubuntu user - but is it any good and what other options are there for Linux users? Ashton Mills finds out.
Although the 'cloud' paradigm is still taking off and is far from mainstream, it's still common enough to be seen in all sorts of applications. One of the first of these, and before cloud even became a synonym, was online storage. Today there are numerous online storage service services available. Some are free, some cost money, some offer features like encryption, and others still provide client-side programs to make copying files to and from the service a seamless experience.
Like Ubuntu One. But how useful and reliable is it? And is it the only option under Linux for online storage that provides client-side support?
Lets find out. Viewing files stored on Ubuntu One online.
Canonical provides free 2GB storage for every Ubuntu user (well, every email address you want to use to be exact) and, to make it easier to use, has built into the system - Ubuntu One starts as a service by default, though it can be disabled if you don't wish to use it (see System --> Preferences --> Startup Applications). If you need more than 2GB, you can purchase an upgrade to 50GB for $US10 a month.
In Ubuntu 9.10 we had a nice system tray icon for Ubuntu One that showed connection status. For whatever reason this has been removed in Ubuntu 10.04, but here's hoping it returns. Either way Ubuntu One can be configured and launched by clicking System --> Preferences --> Ubuntu One or clicking on your login name in the top right. This will bring up the Ubuntu One preferences dialog with the option of launching your browser to one.ubuntu.com. If you don't have an account, you can make one here.
Once setup you can register multiple machines to the account, so you can share files with multiple devices. Sharing is just a matter of dropping files into the special Ubuntu One folder under your Home folder (click Places --> Home). If you're going to access it frequently, middle-click drag the folder to your desktop and select 'Make link'. Sharing is quite quick, meaning if you drop a file in it will be synced soon after, though you can also force a sync by selecting Restart in the preferences dialog.
Files on Ubuntu One, once you login to the website, can also be configured to be published publicly. This then provides a tiny URL you can send in emails, IMs etc to give people a link to the file. Alternatively, you can right-click on any file in the local Ubuntu One directory and select 'Publish via Ubuntu One'. Right clicking on a published file gives you options to copy the published URL, or stop publishing. It's all very easy to use.The Ubuntu One local client preferences.
You can also use the preferences dialog to add and remove machines, and limit bandwidth usage which is a good idea if you intend to use the service while doing other online tasks. Finally, you can also configure what to synchronise -- aside from files you can sync Firefox bookmarks, IM messages, Tomboy Notes and Contacts.
The latter is especially interesting: it allows you to store and retrieve contacts for your phone, but does so using the open-source Funambol application. Funambol serves as a platform for a commercial product that offers a paid service (with free 90-day trial) for mobile phone syncing services hosted on its servers. However Canonical is using the Funambol application to host your contacts on Ubuntu One, where the service is completely free. This is an excellent use of the open-source application.Using the iPhone Funambol client to sync with Ubuntu One.
If you choose to do this, clicking on Contacts on the Ubuntu One site will allow you to select pretty much any phone in existence, and provide instructions on how to setup syncing. I tested it on the iPhone and it's just a matter of downloading the Funambol app from the App Store, and substituting Funambol's default server with that provided by Ubuntu One. Works like a charm.
All this said Ubuntu One is not without its bugs. It has been plagued by drop-outs from the local service, which I encountered even while writing this (including initiating a sync manually that caused Nautilus to crash and restart), but it's gotten better with time. The new Contacts service is currently in beta, but works fine so far. And it's certainly an easier means of backing up contacts that fumbling about with iTunes, especially for Linux users.The DropBox tray app integrates seamlessly...
DropBox is one of the most popular cloud storage services, and comes with clients for Windows, Mac and of course Linux (though only Ubuntu and Fedora). It comes with a package for both 32-bit and 64-bit Ubuntu and, as with Ubuntu One, comes with Nautilus integration. This is actually the first file you install, and which will then prompt to install the DropBox service and setup an account. Installation is a breeze.
Once installed a 'DropBox' folder under your user directory allows you to drag and drop files to the service through Nautilus. To publish files publicly, DropBox uses a 'Public' folder within the DropBox folder, so it's easy to mix private and published files. There is also a special folder type for photos, so you can create an online gallery that is shareable.
Just as with Ubuntu One you can right-click on any file in the Public directory and get a direct URL you can pass on. Unlike Ubuntu One, however, DropBox comes with a neat little tray application that allows you to see activity (including upload speed), set preferences, launch the DropBox website and simplest of all: clicking on the icon brings up your local DropBox folder. The preferences dialog allows you to, among other things, move the DropBox folder and set bandwidth limits, too.
Compared to the current less-than-stable synchronisation of Ubuntu One, DropBox works like a charm. It has a similar cost structure with the first 2GB being free (though you can get another 250MB if you invite friends), $US10 a month for 50GB and $US20 for 100GB.
DropBox focuses just on files, unlike Ubuntu One, but as you'd expect for one of the more popular online services it's very mature and works seamlessly....including utilising Ubuntu's message queue.Managing files through the DropBox web inteface.
Spider Oak is another online storage service that provides native Linux client-side support. Quite a lot of it, in fact: there are clients for last three Ubuntu versions, OpenSUSE, Debian, Fedora, CentOS and Slackware among others in both 32-bit and 64-bit flavours.
Once installed Spider Oak can be launched from Applications --> Internet, and the client allows you to setup a new account and a backup regime including scheduled backups. This is different to Ubuntu One and DropBox in the sense there is no 'hot folder' that's automatically synchronised with the cloud, however Spider Oak can still be setup to watch for changes and automatically initiate another sync when your chosen directories change.
As it's primarily intended as a backup tool -- though you can still setup public sharing (and a public login for your files too) just like Ubuntu One and DropBox -- Spider Oak offers one other useful feature: encryption. All data sent, stored, and retrieved is encrypted using a password you setup when an account is created. The program makes it known that not even Spider Oak can get into or retrieve your data, so if you lose or forget your password, it's gone for good. At least you know the encryption is strong!
The client itself has many more options than Ubuntu One or DropBox, though to be fair it's also a flexible backup tool. You can set backup schedules, browse cloud-stored files, synchronise data between multiple machines, view activity status, set bandwidth limits and, of course, publish files publicly.
As with Ubuntu One and DropBox, 2GB of storage comes free. The next level up if you want more is a jump to 100GB at $US10 a month (half the price of DropBox) and has plans that range up to a massive 5TB of storage (at $US500 a month). Spider Oak makes it simple to backup common local user directories. Along with encryption, Spider Oak also makes it easy to sync contents across multiple machines.
Each of these solutions has their own advantages - Ubuntu One promises a more comprehensive synchronisation service beyond just data, but is still rough around the edges. DropBox is simple, effective and mature while SpiderOak has an excellent client and offers encryption.
Of course there are other cloud storage services available that, while they don't have native Linux clients, are still usable through a browser. And, if you want to save money but don't mind some extra effort, you could always sign up to multiple services and take advantage of the free storage - there's 6GB on offer here just with these three services. If you so far haven't explored cloud storage for Linux, these are all good options.