The Next Challenge for Open Source: Federated Rich Collaboration


When over a decade ago the file sync and share movement was started by Dropbox and later joined by Google Drive, it became popular very fast. Having your data available, synced or via the web interface, no chance of forgetting to bring that important document or use USB sticks — it was a huge step forward. But more than having your own data at hand, it enabled sharing and collaboration. No longer emailing documents, no longer being unsure if you got feedback on the latest version of your draft or fixing errors that were already fixed before. Usage grew, not only among home users but also business users who often used the public cloud without the IT departments’ approval.

Problems would creep up quickly, too. Some high-profile data leaks showed what a big target the public clouds were. Having your data co-mingled with that of thousands of other home and business users means little control over it and exacerbates risks. The strong European privacy protection rules increased the cost of breaches and thus created awareness in Europe, while businesses in Asian countries especially in the tech sector disliked the risks with regards to trade secrets. Although there are stronger intellectual property protections — and less emphasis on privacy in the United States — control over data is becoming a concern there as well.

Open source, self-hosted solutions providing file sync and share began to be used by home, business and government users as a way to achieve this higher degree of privacy, security and control. I was at the center of these developments, having started the most popular open source file sync and share project, a vision I continue to push forward together with the early core contributors and the wider community at Nextcloud.

Open Source and Self Hosting
Hosting their own, open source solution gives business the typical benefits of open source:
* Customer driven development
* Long-term viability

Customer driven development
Open Source brings in contributions from a wide range of sources, advancing the interests of customers while accelerating innovation. The transparent development and its strict peer review process also ensures security and accountability, which are crucial for a component on which companies rely to protect their proprietary knowledge, critical customer data and more. The stewardship of the Nextcloud business, collaborating with a variety of partners and independent contributors, gives customers the piece of mind that they have access to a solid, enterprise-ready product.

Long-term viability
Where choosing proprietary solutions means betting on a single horse, open source allows customers to benefit from the race regardless of the outcome. Nextcloud features a large and quickly growing, healthy ecosystem with well over 300 contributors in the last 9 months and many dozens of third-party apps providing additional functionality. One can find hundreds of videos and blogs on the web talking about how to implement and optimize Nextcloud installations on various infrastructure setups and there are well over 6K people on our forums asking and answering questions. Besides us and our partners, many independent consultants and over 40 hosting providers all offer support and maintenance of Nextcloud systems. There is a healthy range of choices!

Forward looking
Having your data in a secure place, in alignment with IT policy, is thus possible and thousands of businesses already use our technology to stay in control over their data. Now the question becomes: What comes next?

The Internet and the world wide web were originally designed as distributed and federated networks. The centralized networks have lately enabled users to work together, to collaborate and share more easily. The disconnected, private networks you’d create with self-hosted technologies seem to not be able to match that. This is where Nextcloud’s Federated Cloud Sharing technology comes in. Developed by Bjoern Schliessle and myself some years ago, it enables users on one cloud server to transparently share data with users on another. To share a file to a user on another server, one can simply type in the ‘Federated Cloud ID’, a unique ID similar to an email address. The recipient will be notified and the two servers (if configured to do so) will even exchange address books to, in the future, auto-complete user names for their respective users. In our latest release, we improved integration to the point where users are even notified of any changes and access done by users on the other server, completing the seamless integration experience.

Next level of collaboration
This last feature is what efficient collaboration requires: context! People don’t only want files from other people popping up on their computer — or to have them changed in the background by other users.

Why do I have access to this file or folder? Who shared it with me and what are the recent changes? Maybe you want a way to directly chat with the person who changed the file? Maybe leave a comment or maybe directly call the person? And if you are discussing possible changes on a document, why not edit it together collaboratively? Maybe you’d like integration with your calendar to arrange a time to work on the document? Or maybe integration into your email to access the latest version you got by email. Maybe having a video call while working on that presentation deck together? Having a shared todo list with someone or who isn’t even working in the same organization as you?

Our latest release, Nextcloud 12, introduces a wide range of collaboration features and capabilities, functioning in a federated, decentralized way. Users can call each other through a secure, peer-to-peer audio/video conferencing technology; they can comment, edit documents in real time, and get push notifications when anything of note happens.

At the same time, their respective IT teams continue to be able to ensure company policies around security and privacy are fully enforced.

The open source community in a unique position to take the lead in this space because it is in our DNA. Open Source IS built in a collaborative way. Using the internet, using chat, version control, video calling, document sharing and so on. Basically all big open source communities are distributed over different continent, while working together in a very efficient way, creating great results. The Open Source movement is the child of the Internet using it as a collaborating tool. My own open source company, Nextcloud GmbH, has almost all its employees work from home or co-working places.

So we can and do build privacy aware and secure software for rich collaboration. Alternatives to the proprietary competitors. And successfully so!

If you want to join me, get involved at Nextcloud.