OwnCloud Makes Personal Cloud Easy & Affordable for SMBs

by Carla Schroder

The free, open source OwnCloud personal cloud server makes setting up file sharing and shared calendaring as easy as falling over.

OwnCloud is the amazing new open source cloud upstart that makes it easy to set up your own private cloud server. This lets you and your employees share files and calendars -- and access the data files from anywhere -- while you maintain control over the server upon which the data resides. This is the cloud implementation to watch because of its ease and user-friendliness.

OwnCloud includes a lot of other services such as shared contacts, integration with external cloud storage vendors such as Amazon, Dropbox and Google, and integration with internal storage servers and devices. OwnCloud is still young (2 years old), and some of these features are not quite mature yet, but development is progressing at a fast pace. Its most developed features are file sharing and synchronization, and calendaring. These are essential tools for most small businesses, so we'll look at how to use OwnCloud for these services.

Cloud? What is this Cloud?

"Cloud" is a deliberately vague marketing term, so let's take a moment to get specific. It's just client-server computing, like we've been using for decades. We use Web servers, file servers, and mail servers every day. We complain to our help desks that "the server is too slow." A cloud is a collection of advanced server technologies that provide a lot of flexibility in managing and allocating server resources. Amazon's cloud services, for one example, take advantage of this by letting customers purchase storage and services on demand: they are able to scale up and down almost instantly. So customers do not need to purchase fixed amounts of services, but pay only for what they actually use.

OwnCloud doesn't match Amazon's level of sophistication, of course, but it does enable a useful assortment of services and flexibility without requiring a computer science degree to use it.

Getting OwnCloud

OwnCloud comes in Community, Business, Enterprise, and Service Provider editions. The Community version is free of cost. The other editions cost money and come with support and advanced features. You can download the Community edition for free and install it on your own server.

The Documentation Centre includes installation instructions for Windows server and Linux servers. OwnCloud is Web-based, which makes it easy on your users because all they need to access your OwnCloud server is a plain-old ordinary Web browser. But Web servers are moderately complex to set up, so the hardest part of using OwnCloud is installing it. Installation is a simple task for any moderately experienced server administrator, so if you need to hire help it won't cost more than a couple hours of their time.

After installation, OwnCloud is a breeze to administer, so let's take a quick tour. Figure 1 shows the main administration panel.

OwnCloud Web admin

Figure 1: The OwnCloud Web administration panel.

The OwnCloud Web administration page features an elegantly simple lay out. There are no complicated menu trees, because nothing goes beyond the top level; when you click any tab, all the information you need is right in front of you -- no clicking-and-hunting to find things.

How to Create OwnCloud Users

Let's create a few OwnCloud users and groups so we have something to play with. These are independent of the operating system users and don't need system accounts on your server, which is good for your server security (figure 2.)

Creating new OwnCloud users

Figure 2: Creating new OwnCloud users.

Always set a storage quota for your users, so they can't hog all your disk space. Users can belong to multiple groups or no groups at all.

Shared Files

To set up file-sharing, go to the Files tab. You can upload files from your computer by clicking the Up-arrow, and create new folders by clicking on the New button. You can share a whole folder (figure 3), or configure sharing per-file.

Upload and share files in OwnCloud

Figure 3: Uploading and sharing files on the File tab.

There are sync clients for the major operating systems, so your OwnCloud server can share and synchronize files with any Windows, Mac or Linux PC. The sync-client program creates a special directory, and then any files you put in this directory are automatically uploaded to the server. Any future changes that you make are automatically synchronized. You can share any directory on the client machine, including network shares (figure 4).

OwnCloud syncs files on Win, Mac, and Linux

Figure 4: The OwnCloud sync client shares any file you want with the server.

There are also sync clients for the iPhone, iPad and Android devices.

OwnCloud provides automatic file versioning. When you change a file, it automatically saves the older versions, and then if you want to rollback to an earlier version you pick it from a list. Another nice feature is file preview, so you can see files right in your OwnCloud page (figure 5):

Deer that ate the author's garden

Figure 5: File preview in OwnCloud.

That is a photo of the dratted deer that ate my garden.

Creating Shared Calendars in OwnCloud

Let's create a shared calendar event by clicking on the Calendar tab. The first time you create a calendar, it will ask you for your current location. It uses your location to automatically correct for different time zones. There isn't a Share option until after you create a new event. Then re-open it, click the Share tab, and choose the users or groups you want to share the event with (figure 6).

Create shared calendars in OwnCloud

Figure 6: Creating a shared calendar event.

You can also create multiple calendars. This is a bit confusing because they all display on the same calendar. The trick is to give each calendar you create a different color. To create multiple calendars click the Calendar button on the top right. Configure who, if anyone, shares this calendar, and pick a color for it. Figure 7 shows what events from three different calendars look like when they're scheduled for the same day.

Create multiple calendars in OwnCloud

Figure 7: Each color represents a different calendar.

The Week and List views show more details on your scheduled items. The Week view is best for spotting conflicts.

There are many more things that OwnCloud can do, and you won't even need a tech-guru degree to do them, like manage networked storage, share files via Web browser without installing special software, put your music collection in a personal cloud and have your music anywhere you go, and much more. Visit the Documentation Centre for more how-tos.

Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook,and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She's the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.

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This article was originally published on Monday Oct 8th 2012
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