ownCloud logoThere's no shortage of cloud-based file sharing services out there these days, but many have flaws: Dropbox has suffered embarrassing security holes, Ubuntu One isn't as cross-platform as one might like, and iCloud -- like most Apple products -- is buried in proprietary nonsense. But there's a new cloud-based service on the horizon: ownCloud has announced a new commercial initiative that, based on open source code, promises flexibility and accountability without lock-in or security headaches. It's an interesting move with fascinating possibilities for the open source channel, and I recently got a chance to speak with one of the founders behind it.

On Dec. 14, 2011, ownCloud, the open source project that already offers free, community-developed software for building cloud-based storage infrastructure, announced the creation of a commercial entity headed by Markus Rex, formerly of SUSE, and Frank Karlitschek, founder of ownCloud. Rex will begin immediately as CEO and CTO.

In an interview, Rex explained the venture will adopt a "relatively standard open source business model, with an open source core product" available for free, and commercial services built around it. He also mentioned the possibility of offering licensed extensions to the core ownCloud code, although for the time being there are no specific plans in that regard.

The organization will be based in Boston and is raising funds under the direction of General Catalyst.

ownCloud and Its Competitors

Again, the cloud-storage channel is already pretty saturated. But ownCloud stands out not only as one of the only fully open source offerings in this space, but also because (unlike competitors such as Dropbox) it's not a hosted service and has no plans to become one.

"The big difference" between ownCloud and similar products, Rex said, "is that we provide the same ease of use, but we allow the customer to pick and choose where they want to store the data." That can be on a customer's own servers or with an independent storage provider.

And that freedom to choose where to keep data not only ensures flexibility, but also enhances security. Organizations that choose the ownCloud route don't have to entrust their data to a third party if they don't want to. Nor do they have to worry about complicated schemes for encrypting data stored on someone else's servers to ensure privacy.

At the same time, ownCloud's agnosticism regarding where the data lives means pricing for the new commercial services will not be linked to the amount of data stored. This is another major distinction between ownCloud and Dropbox-esque hosted services, almost all of which charge by the gigabyte.

Going Forward

Currently, ownCloud counts about 350,000 users who, Rex noted, are "very much all over the map" with regard to the size of their organizations and how they're using the software. But from an early following among geeks and tech-savvy users, he said, there's been a trend more recently toward increased use of the product in corporate settings, which he hopes to build on as part of the new commercial venture.

At the same time, while Rex expects open source contributions from the ownCloud community to remain key to the project's growth, he also emphasized the importance of acquiring channel partners of a variety of different types, from systems integrators to VARs. On this front, ownCloud is already in talks with some potential organizations, he said, and the project expects to make public announcements on this topic beginning in the first quarter of 2012.