Let me preface this with the fact that I really dont like this term "Cloud". For me its just another Buzz word to reinvigorate something that really isnt that new.
For a while now the Dean has been on me to work on a good solution for file access for our iPads. Something that works well both on the iPad but also on the PC.
The simplest solution would be to tell everyone to go use Dropbox or something similar. However you then run into issues of our data/content living on someone else’s server. This never really bodes well with me. Some things should be kept in house.
So I started looking at solutions out there for this. It had to be accessible both from our work PC’s, from our iPads (and Android tablets), with being accessible from home a bonus.
My initial attempts were around simply setting up WebDAV folders on a IIS webserver. With its built in ability to leverage authentication from Active Directory, it seems like a great and easily solution. However it wasn’t to be.
Ever since Win 7 (there was a fix for Vista), Windows will not authenticate properly using Basic Authentication over HTTPS. The obvious solution for the work PCs was to use either Digest or Windows authentication. Problem: I’ve yet to find an iPad Office Suite that supports these. Yes, I could have used a separate WebDAV client on the iPad (WebNav Navigator worked), but again I couldn’t find an Office Suite that truly integrated back to a client. Apples own ‘Pages’ came close, but even then it’s methods of uploading had a lot to be desired. A lot of others work ok with Dropbox etc, but that’s not what we/I was after. The best Office Suite with WebDAV integration I found is Office2 HD from Bytes Squared. The applications ability to seamlessly work with files on a remote server is second to none. But guess what – it doesn’t work with either Digest or Windows authentication over WebDAV *sigh*.
So I had to go looking elsewhere. With Windows 7’s “broken” WebDAV support (yes, there are “fixes” but they are very hit and miss) I had to think about other solutions. I could have simply shared via SMB the folders from the IIS webserver but this simply adds another level of complexity that I wasn’t happy with. Also, all these configurations for IIS require each folder to be set up manually. Again we come back to the ‘more moving parts’ rule or something bound to go wrong.
I tried several other web-server based file management applications (including MS’s SharePoint, but don’t ask me about that experience…). However with WebDAV being broken, my choices became limited. Following some serious internet trawling I came across OwnCloud.
OwnCloud is an open-source “cloud” web file storage application that runs on Apache, PHP, and MySQL. It gives users a Web interface to manage versioning (history) and sharing amongst other users. File access is either via the web interface, WebDAV, or a local sync client. It seems to be the only open source application like it that supports its own local client as well.
Please note that I *hate* “sync” clients with a passion. Too many years of arguing with Windows ‘offline files’ I think. If there has ever been a weak link in the chain, its from this. But with my choices looking so limited; I continued on.
After a day of arguing, I got the application up and running. OwnCloud has a high dependency on specific PHP modules and you have to get them just right. Number one rule here is RTFM.
OwnCloud can also authenticate back to Active Directory, which again was an interesting experience setting up. However I managed to get it to talk to the University's Active Directory and limit access to just the Faculty. I always struggle with proper LDAP syntax.
We’re running the latest v4.0.0 of OwnCloud and although it has been released as a ‘stable’ version, there are still bugs to be had. For instance sharing amongst LDAP configured users doesn’t work yet (I’ve filed a bug report). The sync client is *very* finicky about time differences between the server and the client. And finally, some of the 3rd party plugins don’t work yet for version 4. EG, a plugin called 'Quota Bar' crashed the entire install.
However it is still the best product out there for what I wanted to achieve. From Office2 HD on the iPad, the WebDAV connection works flawlessly, and after some playing around with time settings on the server, the local sync clients seems to be behaving themselves both here on the local network, but also from home systems across the internet.
Things still to work on:
· Sharing amongst users (can share with a group, but not individually)
· File encryption on the server side (however we are at least running over HTTPS, even if it is with an ugly self-assigned certificate)
Finish re-branding the web interface. Done · I would like to be able to share files publically, so that users can email a link to a file to someone outside the organisation. Done
· I need to look at back-up options, however it is currently running in Virtual Machine and that entire Virtual Machine is already being backed up.
· I also need to look at the Android side of things and work out the best solution for that platform.
In regards to the ongoing issues with WebDav in Win7, I found a nifty little application that seems to work well and is free for personal use: