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Install a cloud driver server of your very own

For many years, Peter and I have managed our shared Many Tricks files via Dropbox. To support Dropbox, we purchased an upgraded plan for $99 a year, which came with 1TB of space. We then used the same login to share the Dropbox folder. We didn’t need anywhere near 1TB (we have about 4GB of shared files), but felt it was right to support Dropbox.

While this worked well, and we had no issue paying for it, we had a few concerns—about space, third-party involvement, and something possibly unique to my usage scenario. You can read the details in the remainder of this post, but to make a long story short, I went looking for a replacement. And I found one in Nextcloud. Nextcloud has a commercial product, but it’s open source, so you can also install it on your own server, and via many hosting companies that have it preinstalled.

I was able to install it easily with our hosting provider; I had the basic install up and running in under 30 minutes. There are also native clients for Mac, as well as Windows, iOS, and Android. The Finder view with the Mac ap installed (it’s an official Finder extension) is very similar to Dropbox or OneDrive or any other cloud client with a Mac app:

For us, Nextcloud has every feature we need for sharing our Many Tricks’ files; read on for more detail on why we moved, install and admin, the Mac client, and some closing comments.

Why we moved

There were three main reasons for our move. First, we didn’t need anywhere near 1TB of space—we only have a few gigabytes of shared files. Second, we didn’t really like the fact that our files were controlled by a third party—if something were to happen to Dropbox, we’d be left scrambling. Third, for me personally, Dropbox was tricky because I also had a personal Dropbox account that was heavily used for syncing settings and personal files across my Macs. I didn’t want to load all of those tasks onto the Many Tricks’ Dropbox account, so I used Dropbox Encore to use two Dropbox accounts on one Mac.

Dropbox doesn’t officially support this, and I occasionally had issues with it not working properly. One recent day, I couldn’t get it going at all, so I looked into Dropbox Business, which does support multiple accounts on one machine. However, the Standard plan is $12.50 per month per user—with a minimum of three users. So for Peter and I, we’d be paying $450 a year to share a few gigabytes of files. That seemed more than a bit excessive. That was the proverbial straw that led me to find and install Nextcloud.

Installation and admin

Setup was relatively trivial—the main question is whether your hosting company supports Nextcloud or not—it’s my understanding that many do. Obviously, if you go with one of the providers listed on the Nextcloud site, you’ll have no troubles at all, because it will already be installed.

However, if you install it on a shared web server, and then share links to huge files with a lot of users, that may not go over well with your provider. I’m not going to go over the Unix-side setup process; it’s well documented and about the same as installing any other MySQL-PHP-Apache package.

Once installed, admin is done vai the web, with options listed down the edge of the screen (as seen at right). You can add and remove users, optionally encrypt stored files, connect with external sharing services, and much more. I’ve had no issues with the admin, other than maybe theming: If you’re out to fully customize the look of the web side, you’ll be doing a fair bit of work. But for us, it works well in nearly-stock form (we replaced a few images with Many Tricks’ variants).

The Mac client

As shown above, once installed, the Mac Nextcloud client performs much like those from any other cloud service with a native Mac app. You can enable and disable the extension in System Preferences > Extensions > Finder. When active, Nextcloud shows in your menu bar with either a color or monochrome icon. (I actually like the color one, not because it’s lovely—it’s not—but because it stands out from the sea of monochrome.)

Click the menu bar icon, and you’ll see a drop-down menu with some basic information, including recent sync activity. Open the app’s Settings panel, and you get four tabs for controlling how Nextcloud works. The first tab lets you control what’s synced locally, the second shows recent sync activity, the third, as shown below, offers a number of general settings, and the fourth lets you limit upload and download speed, and specify a proxy if one is required.

I’ve had no issues with the Mac client, and sync works as expected across my Macs; I’ve not heard any complaints from Peter’s side, either. Nextcloud does support sharing public links with others, just as you can do with Dropbox and OneDrive. You can also, though, disable this feature, which is how Peter and I have our Nextcloud set up—we don’t have a need to share anything on our cloud with anyone else. If we did, though, it’d be trivial to enable again.

In short, we’ve been thrilled with how well this has worked for us—all our data is now on our server, we have as much space as we need, and my personal Dropbox account is now the only one I’m using on my Mac.

Is this for everyone?

No, it’s not. To use Nextcloud, you need a web host that will let you install it (or switch to one that does). If it’s not installed, you need to be comfortable installing things from the command line. Once installed, you’re the admin, so it’s your job to make sure your installation is secure. Nextcloud provides a security scanner that will scan your site to check for certain security issues, and list things you should chagne to increase security.

The other big issue is that Nextcloud isn’t Dropbox. That means it’s not built into any apps that I’m aware of—not on the Mac, and not on iOS. If a Mac app lets you specify any cloud provider for sync, it’ll work fine, but if it’s expecting a Dropbox folder, then you’ll have issues. (Nextcloud can sync external cloud providers, so this should be possible, but I haven’t yet looked into it.) For many users, the lack of sync with iOS apps will be the show-stopper.

But if none of this bothers you, and you’re comfortable with command line installs of web apps, I highly recommend Nextcloud as a way to create your own cloud service.

2 Comments

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  1. Unfortunatelly NextCloud badly behave with symlinks and permissions as well (unlike Dropbox). This can be problematic with some kind of files (e.g. Mac apps). However this is not a NextCloud problem. It has to do with the underlying WebDAV protocol.

    1. Thanks for the heads-up; we don’t use either of those, so we hadn’t run into any problems.

      -rob.

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