When we talk about competition in the cloud services marketplace, we’re usually thinking of Google’s services, Amazon’s AWS, Dropbox’s storage, or VMWare’s large-scale virtualizations. But those types of cloud offerings are coming up against some unique competition lately: personal cloud offerings that are open source and meant to be run from inexpensive computers within the home such as the credit-card-sized $40 Raspberry Pi. For online services that are aimed at consumers, such as web mail, document storage, calendaring, and others, these personal cloud projects aim to help give users a privacy protective alternative if they want one. How well do they work? I spent my free time over the past week setting one up for myself and it turns out the biggest challenge actually comes from the broadband providers.
I started out by buying a Raspberry Pi computer and a 16GB SD card off Amazon and installing ArkOS on the SD card. ArkOS is an open source linux server management console that, once installed, gives the user the ability to install web, mail, file storage, and other services with the click of a mouse. At least, that’s the idea. ArkOS is still very much in alpha, and there isn’t yet a plugin to run an email server (though plans for such are very much on the todo list). Fortunately for me, however, I have a little bit of experience in Linux administration and I managed to get email up and running. ArkOS does have a personal file storage and sync plug in, called OwnCloud, which I also set up.
The most immediate problem facing a personal cloud user, however, isn’t the alpha nature of the software or a lack of familiarity with the arcane inner workings of Linux; it’s a domain name. Or, more specifically, the IP address connected to the domain name. The domain name system is one of the magical underpinnings of the Internet that turns the URL you know, like facebook.com, into the series of numbers that the routers and switches use to let you communicate with a server far away.
It’s those numbers that are the problem. Called IP addresses, each ISP has a certain number of them to hand out to their users. Without one, you’re not on the Internet. Oh, and we’re running out of them as more and more people bring more and more devices online (a point that I’ll come back to in just a second). Getting all of their users to properly configure their computers to use an assigned IP address is a hassle, so ISPs generally use Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) to automatically assign computers to an IP address.
All well and good, except that with DHCP you can’t guarantee that you’re going to get the same IP address every time you start up (in practice, with most ISPs, you actually do, but you can’t be sure). Without static IP address, it is hard to set up a domain name to point to your brand new server, as you would have to notice that the address had changed then update the DNS every time. While the use of DHCP is a matter of convenience for most ISP customers, some ISPs do provide users with the option of getting a static IP. My Internet access is through Verizon FiOS, who will let their business customers purchase a static IP for a monthly fee. In the end it would have ended up costing me around $50 additional per month. Fortunately there are technological solutions, including running a program every once in a while that will check to see if your address has changed and automatically update your DNS records.