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My Own Cloud with WebDAV

Written on:June 19, 2011
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Much has been written about Apple’s iCloud offering that will be soon with us. Personally, my own view about Cloud Computing, posted at the end of last year, has not changed. I still don’t have that warm and fuzzy feeling when it comes to the security related to the Cloud, especially for storing my own data in someone else’s system. I admit I use MobileMe’s Address book and Calendar for syncing for my desktop, iPhone and iPad. But I don’t use iDisk to store any documents to be retrievable by my iPhone or iPad. I just don’t trust any 3rd party with my important business documents.

For now, I will continue to use MM for my syncing, but that may change soon, especially when iCloud goes live since not all my “devices” will be able to run the latest OS X and iOS. BTW, there is a related article I posted outlining the problem with the iCloud eliminating the file system you may want to read.

I got my iPad2 to be used for content consumption, such as reading my emails, news and ebooks. However, based on my positive experience in usage, I decided to start using my iPad instead of my 17″ laptop when not in my office. I also plan to use it when attending a weeklong standards meeting in September. To ensure that the iPad will be up to the tasks I started to purchase a number of Office applications in order to test the workflow. More on that in another posting.

One issue that needed solving right away was access to all relevant documents, and there are hundreds. One solution would be to store them all on my iPad, I got enough space. The problem with that solution is the same reason for not using 3rd party Cloud solutions, such as iDisk or DropBox, security. Should I lose my iPad, someone will gain access to sensitive business documents.

So what solution did I come up with to have access, when needed, to my documents?

To review available options, it is important to understand how iPad apps store data. Each iOS app runs in an isolated runtime environment. Additionally, the part of the file system that the app has access to is isolated. An app can work only with data in its own app bundle (i.e. the app package that gets installed), or its isolated file system portion. One app cannot get access to another app’s file system portion, or to the device’s system portion. In summary, each app runs in its own sandbox.

One option mention on the internet is that of “screen sharing” since it is build into OS X. All that is required is a VNC type app on the iPad. However, this requires not only the Desktop to be left on 24/7, but also port mapping within the router since I have a number of Macs running. Actually I have three Macs that are always on. Two are servers that split the various services amongst them. The third is a G4 Mac Mini used with a array of external firewire drives for backup and time machine available to the rest of the Macs used by me and my family. I could use the latter, but in my view “screen sharing” is as the name implies good for that purpose. Regarding file sharing it just is not a simple, easy and friendly solution.

Since any solution must be able to allow access to the files by any of the relevant Office apps, the first step is to check how each app gets and saves its data, especially external data. One method they all have in common is to sync data with iTunes using the USB cable. Clearly not an option when being away from home. Most of the apps are using external 3rd Cloud solutions, besides the fact that is what I am trying to avoid, each supports only one of those 3rd party solutions. It would require to split up the data to be stored on multiple 3rd party systems.

One other option some apps provide is use FTP to connect to another systems. FTP provides functions to upload, download and delete files, create and delete directories, read directory contents. While FTP is very popular, it has certain disadvantages that make it harder to use. Even with deploying security, such as the SSL/TLS protocol for channel encryption, FTPS is not very popular with system administrators, including me, because of its hack-ability.

So what option is left?

With the latest release of the iWork apps for the iPad, sharing files across the internet (Cloud) is now possible by using WebDAV.

WebDAV stands for “Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning protocol”, and it works over HTTP. WebDAV was designed for read/write access on web servers, which is great, because every Mac ships with a web server built-in. When enabling “Web Sharing” in OS X’s System Preferences, the system starts a Apache web server. The problem is that while the necessary modules that support WebDAV have been installed, WebDAV isn’t configured by default on OS X. There are many good articles available on the Net that outline how to activate WebDAV on a standard OS X system. Therefore I will not go into details how on the regular OS X system WebDAV is setup. [UPDATE]Please read my new article how to setup Your own Mac Cloud (WebDAV) Service on a non-server Mac. In a later article I will outline how to setup WebDAV on an OS X server since I have not found a article on that subject, and there are some differences I do like to share in case someone likes to do the same.

Of the nine iPad apps I use for my work related activities, three don’t offer WebDAV connectivity. However, after trying some File Management apps, I chose iFiles to access the related files on my WebDAV server. It requires an extra step within iFiles, that step being “Open In…” which allows the document to be opened by those three apps that don’t have a direct WebDAV file option.

In summary, having my own WebDAV file server, I created my own Cloud Service that allows my iOS devices to have access to all my documents when needed. Most importantly, by not relying on 3rd-Party Cloud solution I don’t relinquish control over my data to someone else who may decide to take an interest in its content or allow others to have access without my knowledge.

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