The choice of a cloud storage solution can be a challenging task given the wealth of options available on the market. Proprietary platforms are feature rich, reliable, and robust, but they come for a price, and their code bases are obscured. Options exist for those who prefer the transparency of open source software, but in recent years only one has become a formidable contender. Nextcloud is a free and open source software (FOSS) cloud storage solution with a variety of applications at its disposal, but how does it stack up against offerings from tech giants like Amazon, Google, or Microsoft?
Nextcloud: Jack of All Trades
Nextcloud bills itself as a “collaboration platform,” thanks to its embedded Collabora Online Office products. Collabora seeks to directly compete with major online office suites like Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365. While it offers many of the same features of its competitors — online document editing, support for DOC, DOCX, PPTX; commenting, versioning, multiple editors, etc. — Collabora lacks that final layer of polish and maturity that Office 365 and Google Docs bring to the table.
That hasn’t stopped large organizations like the Technical University of Berlin (Nextcloud is a German product) or North-West University of South Africa from adopting Nextcloud for their enterprise purposes.
“A partnership with Nextcloud gives us the opportunity to re-adjust our service to a more collaborative vision,” a member of TU Berlin’s IT team commented in a Nextcloud whitepaper regarding their transition to the service. Nextcloud’s Enterprise Edition now serves 22,000 users at the university, with more than 80,000 files being managed daily.
Nextcloud also offers email services, calendars, contact management, task management, and group chat. Each of these applications are highly functional, but just like the office suite they lack polish. Nextcloud’s mobile apps for iOS and Android fare even worse, struggling to maintain stability when accessing directories with hundreds of files. However, improvements are being made all the time, and the developers are striving for a first-class product.
Taking aim at video conferencing softwares that have grown massively popular during the pandemic, Nextcloud developed its own video chat platform, Nextcloud Talk. Its primary distinction over its rivals is built-in security, encryption, and localized control over data. This ethos runs throughout all of Nextcloud’s development, and drives the software to maintain compliance with the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), the CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018), and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).
Taking Back the Cloud
Unlike the proprietary alternatives, Nextcloud gives users the opportunity to run their own software instances on local servers, keeping their data close versus uploading it to the cloud and trusting that the storage provider won’t pry (Dropbox, for instance, discloses in its own terms of service that data on their servers is subject to the occasional inspection).
In NWU’s case, Nextcloud with Collabora was chosen over Google Docs specifically to give the university local control over documents and to stay in line with data privacy laws. “…Some laws prohibit us from keeping certain types of data in ‘the cloud.’ It is not allowed outside the boundaries of our country,” NWU’s head of IT, Hans Erasmus said. “Data security is therefore key. We needed a solution which could be hosted on premises, where we have total control of the data.”
This puts the user in complete control, but comes with the responsibility of setting up and managing the server software. Fortunately, setup is simple, and any IT team worth its salt should have it up and running in no time. Paid enterprise customers also receive support directly from Nextcloud to assist with setup, upgrades, and troubleshooting.
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Establishing Safety and Security
Nextcloud supports end-to-end file encryption, keeping all of your files protected from prying eyes. It also supports popular two-factor authentication protocols, such as FIDO, FIDO2, and TOTP. Sessions can be made non-persistent, requiring users to regularly re-log into the system to more tightly control access. The server can be set up with Fail2ban, a service that prevents dictionary-based attacks that attempt to bruteforce login credentials. And of course, Nextcloud supports HTTPS encrypted connections.
The developers have also instituted a bug bounty, paying rewards as high as $10,000 for hackers that discover critical vulnerabilities that could compromise server security. At the time of this writing, nearly $50,000 worth of bounties have been paid out through the program.
Nextcloud is an attractive option for those who desire localized control over their data, and those who prefer FOSS products over proprietary ones. The learning curve for its office suite is low, and an office can run capably off of Nextcloud products alone. Development has come a long way, making significant under-the-hood improvements to speed and stability, while constantly adding new features.
However, Nextcloud lacks the polish of best-in-class products like Office 365 and Google Docs, and cannot contend directly with multi-billion dollar cloud providers like AWS or Microsoft Azure. For large enterprises with extreme cloud computing demands, Nextcloud is not going to be an ideal choice. But for small-to-medium size organizations, Nextcloud is a viable, and highly affordable option for most data storage needs.