The real problem that my p2p/personal cloud wants to solve, and why it’s still necessary

Believe it or not, I only discovered arKos last Friday, through this Slashdot announcement: a project (apparently) very similar to the percloud, which is my own proposal for a Free Software alternative to Facebook, Gmail &C.

Following the links from Slashdot I discovered this interview to the arkOS developer and even more projects in the same space that I didn’t know: buddycloud, Personal Clouds and unhosted.

After a look at those projects and a few email and tweets exchanges, including the explicit question “why not just help the FreedomBox Foundation, instead”, I came to two conclusions.

First, I’m happy that all these projects exist. On one hand, they prove very well my point that now is THE moment for personal clouds. On the other hand, they make my own work much easier and more likely to succeed (if it does start, see below) because they are already doing parts of it.

In the second place, just because of what I read about those projects, I still believe that there is space and need for the percloud as a separate effort. Before explaining why, let’s deal with the FreedomBox question (which was already a FAQ anyway…):

Q: why not just help the FreedomBox Foundation, instead?

  • because @FreedomBoxFndn itself seems uninterested, and that’s PERFECTLY fine, of course!!
  • because it’s a bit like asking “why don’t help Debian to become Ubuntu, instead of forking it?”
  • I have no problem to help whoever is working towards certain goals. That’s why I explicitly said since the beginning that all my work would be “Free as in Freedom” code and documentation. However, at this point my only feasible way to help is to get paid to do the percloud “phase 1” myself

What about those other projects?

arkOS is “a Linux-based operating system… designed to run on a Raspberry Pi – a super-low-cost single board computer – and ultimately will let users, even of the non-technical variety, run from within their homes email, social networking, storage and other services”. It also seems a very flexible, general purpose environment, not a locked-down (=much simpler to use) one. Buddycloud is (emphasis mine) “a set of tools, open source software and protocols to help you build a completely new kind of social network.” Unhosted is about “serverless”, “client-side”, or “static” web apps. “Personal Clouds” is, if I understand correctly, a great, complete ecosystem of web apps, (tools to enforce) user-controlled Terms of Service agreements, network services etc…

The percloud, instead…

The percloud is just another GNU/Linux distribution, and this is a good thing. It will certainly be possible to run it also on a Raspberry Pi, or any other computer hosted at home, but I do not want to tie it to any specific hardware device. I want to build one single blob of software that can run on everything from data centers to home computers, with the smallest possible set of external constraints or dependences.

ICT experts will tell you that only a cloud running on computers you physically control can provide the greatest possible privacy, or that stuff like buddycloud or “Personal Clouds” could become much more complete and scalable than the percloud. Let me say one thing: they would all be right!

In my opinion, however, a really portable, software-only, relatively “quick and dirty” percloud as I am proposing shoud still be done and widely adopted for (at least) these reasons:

1. If somebody is sleeping in a burning house, you don’t wait until another house, at least as good as that one, is ready: you wake them up and tell them to get out NOW, to take shelter in whatever refuge you can set up in a hurry. PRISM and friends prove that we should really start to deploy realistic countermeasure soon. We can’t wait until greater but complex platforms or, even worse, actual alternative Internets like this are ready.

2: It is certainly not done on purpose, but ANY version of “running your cloud on some hardware you own and keep at home” is limited to minorities. We can celebrate Raspberry Pi for being “so cheap” (terribly relative term, don’t you think?) all day, but the reality is that only people with affordable and reliable electricity and flat rate broadband and reasonably high confidence that their home hardware wouldn’t be stolen or sequestrated could use arkOs as proposed. And that’s not even the biggest issue, because…

3: in my opinion the real, or at least the most urgent problem, is social and psychological, not technical. While the real solutions to PRISM-like issues are not technical, we can’t get there unless a lot of average Internet users are willing/prepared/able to get there. We need awareness and confidence much more than “platforms”.

Today, most average Internet users can’t see at all how replacing with something open the corporate walled gardens in which they currently live could ever be within their reach. Or why they should want it in the first place. I want to prove to how many of those users as possible, as soon as possible, that they can live online outside those walls. Why should they care if their first “refuge” may not be everybody’s ultimate, perfect digital home, since they could leave it whenever they wish for something better, without losing their data?

Let average Internet users get something that is really easy to use and, in many cases, perfectly adequate as-is for all their needs and skills. Do that, and they will all become both able and, often, willing to move to other, more complete solutions when they (both the solutions and the users…) are ready. But tell the same people that they have to either buy/configure/use extra hardware, or that they have to enter more than a handful of configuration parameters and they’ll NEVER get started.

This is why the percloud, by design, won’t be some ultra-flexible environment able to do whatever cloud computing you may want. It will, instead, be the simplest possible replacement for the main cloud activities that the majority of cloud users needs, with as little as possible initial configuration.

Final note for software hackers:

Software hackers who already run their own servers won’t need a percloud, but they should still recommend it to all their non-hackers friends. It would be the most realistic way to make sure that all email and other content they exchange with those friends does not end up on some centralized server that makes centralized, large scale surveillance much easier.

Of course, nothing of this will happen…

(not from me, at least) if you don’t whatever you can to fund phase 1 of the percloud. Thanks for your support!

5 Comments The real problem that my p2p/personal cloud wants to solve, and why it’s still necessary

  1. AvatarMatthew Slater

    I like what you are saying, and I don’t doubt that you could do some useful research, however starting a research project is not the strategy which best addresses the urgency you describe.
    If you just discovered 4 closely related projects, perhaps some of them already know a lot of what you propose to research.
    Have you heard of Cozycloud by the way?
    Perhaps you could work with them to document and coordinate between them to reduce duplication of efforts, build up common libraries, help determine use-cases, keep the social networks informed of their progress. You could do this as little or as much as you are able.

  2. AvatarMarco Fioretti

    Hi Matthew, and thanks for your comment. However:

    “Why not cozycloud?” was a FAQ since day 1. I also sent them a guest post for their blog 2 days ago to elaborate on that topic, now waiting for them to publish. Otherwise, I’ll publish it myself very soon, please follow @mfioretti_en on Twitter for the announcement.

    With respect to “Perhaps you could work with them to document…”, I have to suggest you to please re-read this post and the percloud roadmap.

    First, in order to do exactly what you suggest, I would still need funding. I simply cannot afford to do for free anything more than what I am already doing.

    Secondly, doing what you suggest with my approach would be very similar to working against those projects. They all have much more ambitions than me, and that’s fine, but if they had any interest in my approach they would have already done or said so. Again, that’s not an accusation or critique from me.

    Third, of course I will reuse as much as I can of their work, and they will be able to reuse whatever I produce. But if I did what you suggest I would not get anything done. Nothing I care about, that is. Which is to get something concretely usable, as quickly as possible, for the only use case I want to work on.

  3. AvatarTerence Fardner

    Sounds like there’s a lot with clouds going on, but maybe there are too many things? I mean, there are companies springing up with every new marketed aspects of clouds. You get stuff like I guess, but I bet that there are more than enough novelty cloud companies.

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