Interview with Markus Rex, CEO of ownCloud
If you're not familiar with ownCloud, well, you should be! ownCloud is a fantastic tool for businesses that need to access data across multiple locations. We dive into exactly what this means when we sat down with ownCloud's CEO and founder, Markus Rex, who tells us why ownCloud is in a class of its own (and nope, it's not competitive with other cloud storage tools).
Can you tell our readers what ownCloud does?
ownCloud allows you to access your files wherever you have them. That is a very simple sounding statement but in reality is a very complicated problem because it involves both on-premises and off-premises connectors that let you get to data in EMC storage, SharePoint, Amazon S3, etc.
Access is the key word – for example, if you have a SharePoint library that contains 50,000 or 75,000 files, you shouldn't have to copy them to another location, you just want to access them where they are.
With the IT complexity that you have inside medium or larger companies, it is really tough to wrap your head and arms around providing your employees and partners access to the files they need. Yet that is exactly what we do.
How did the company begin?
We are built around an open source project that my co-founder and our CTO, Frank Karlitschek, created over 6 years ago. Frank's original vision was based around "hey, there has to be an easy way to access files and share files that I store in a location that I want." He started to write version 1.0 and there was immediate traction, and then more people came and joined the effort. After about a year, we had 30-40k downloads and inquiries for support, so we created a commercial version of it - it was fueled by a great vision and market demand.
Can you tell us about your open source experience, working on SUSE Linux and partnering up with the team to build out ownCloud?
I've been involved in open source since the early 90s. For me, open source is a great way to harness a number of very powerful forces.
One is the force of a joint goal: people come together and try to solve a single problem. At the same time, having a wide diversity of backgrounds and experience makes sure you're not narrowing yourself too much.
Getting the reach and the word out is the second powerful force around open source. Getting reach in the market is significantly easier when you have a software that can just be downloaded and used as-is and where people can utilize their own experience to modify, tinker, tweak and contribute back to be in the product.
The third one is that you have people at the bleeding edge of technology – folks are solving problems in the most powerful way known today. It's alluring to be in an environment like that.
Linux is an open source operating system and the open source aspect is the same with ownCloud, which is great. You learn many things over a long time so if you don't have to make the same mistakes again … that is just awesome.
What is ownCloud's target customer?
On the company side, our target customer is medium to large companies. It can also be a department of a larger company. It is important to understand that we provide access to existing files and don't host any files for storage on our servers. We provide the customers with software that is installed and run wherever they want. This really only makes sense when you have files in different locations that you need access to, hence the focus on medium to large companies.
On the community side, our typical user is somebody who is a more technologically savvy person and has existing storage somewhere to use, or has privacy concerns around entrusting their most important files to someone else. ownCloud also gives you a great user experience comparable with other cloud services but you can build your own cloud - that's where the name came from by the way.
Where are your offices located and how many employees do you have?
We are at almost 60 people, and our global headquarters are in Lexington, MA, just outside Boston. Our European office is in Nuremberg, Germany.
How does your commitment to the open source foundation play a role in the initiatives supported by the company?
We are really an open source company and we did not just consider open source as an afterthought. It's one of the core roots of what we do and how we think.
How do you differentiate yourself from Dropbox and Box?
There are a number of areas where we differentiate:
- We don't rent out gigabytes. We provide software.
- We provide you a single pane of glass to access files where they are and we provide you with the tools that support you within your ecosystem with flexibility and extensibility. If you want to leave your data where it is—in the secure environment you created--this solution meets your needs.
- And lastly, we think the whole flexibility aspect is very important. By taking up this complex problem, we are not trying to force a one-size-fits-all down your throat which is a typical approach by cloud providers.
I see you went to Harvard Business School. What takeaways from getting your MBA do you feel are utilized most heavily in your own company leadership?
I totally enjoyed my time there. I did one of the executive education programs which was probably one of the most insanely busy times of my whole life. I don't think before or after I was ever as stressed out. What I really took away from it was: constant critical thinking. Never accept the status quo. What we do might not be wrong, but don't assume that it's correct just because it was correct previously.
The other thing is … it was fascinating to come in contact with very different businesses, being in software for 15 years. At HBS, I spoke to people who were from a very different world. I met people who were not just in IT, like a guy at Northrop Grumman who works in a defense program or a woman from a municipal water supply.
What have you learned from being CTO of the Linux Foundation that is now impacts the service offered by ownCloud?
The Linux Foundation has the charter to foster the innovation and growth of Linux. I could talk to a lot of people who did a lot of different things in areas where Linux played a role. That opened my eyes to a very wide array of different use cases that you wouldn't normally associate with Linux. I think the transfer to ownCloud is that we find ourselves in very diverse use cases, from a simple file sharing deployment via a way of software distribution to supercomputer control-data. That breadth we honestly never thought about when we started. We would have never have imagined people using ownCloud for software distribution. My learning is: always expect the unexpected in terms of how people are using software – people have such creative uses of the software. Just be ready for it.
What would you tell someone who wants to maintain secure cloud data storage, but is very unfamiliar with why they should bother? How do you convince people to utilize the technology offered by ownCloud?
The most important thing is to make educated decisions. You have to really understand the impact of what you are doing. What that means is that if you sign up for a cloud hosted service, ask questions:
- For data that you put on there, what degree of ownership do you have or require?
- What degree of security do you need with those files?
- Who runs that service?
- Who might get access?
- Do you even care?
To give you an example, if you are a car manufacturer, you probably really want to protect your construction drawings so nobody else can easily copy them. Plus you care a lot about who might potentially gain access. If you are a PR agency, with most of the stuff eventually becoming public anyway, you probably care less. There is a wide spectrum of use cases, and if you don't fully understand that, you really cannot make an educated decision.
The second important point is “your encryption keys really matter!” Whoever has access to your encryption keys has access to your data. ownCloud lets you decide who controls your encryption keys and this is very important.
It doesn't matter where you store your files – you just need to understand what it all implies.
What do you tell someone who is worried about security when trying to store their files on the cloud?
Keys matter. If you are concerned about security, don't put things in the cloud. There are enough other ways to put the files elsewhere and share with the rest of the world without putting them on the cloud. If you're not comfortable and confident, don't move. At ownCloud, you can put the content on the cloud and on-premises. There's nothing wrong with leaving files in places other than the cloud.
Your revenue tripled last year and you doubled your customer base. Are you finding a heavy need for your services, and if so, why is that?
There are two fundamental drivers. You want to make sure you are really in compliance with all the regulations and restrictions that are put on user data, which is one big reason for people to use ownCloud. If you are limited by some sort of restrictive government or industry regulations about where your files can be stored or how they can be moved, ownCloud lets you control where your data is stored. There is never a question about location, and you can prove you are in compliance.
The other driver is the concern for privacy. There's increasing concern from individuals about data privacy. What better solution is there than to use something that is open source to check that nothing nefarious is going on? If you are concerned about privacy, you can leave the files where you have them and where you control the location of the files and where you can control who has access to your encryption keys. We are unique in this ability.
Are you finding the need to innovate the product, with the recent announcement that you will be offering a mail app? Can you tell us how that came to be?
ownCloud is an open source application that serves as a platform on which people create plugins (we call them apps). Apps are built by community members as well as us. Mail is one of the apps built by the community – we think it’s awesome people do that because it enhances the capabilities of ownCloud as a platform. Today there are almost 250 plugins at apps.owncloud.com. Mail is not, at this point in time, a commercially supported part of the offering but a very welcomed community app.
One of the drivers for innovation is the constant competition between an on-premises solution like ownCloud and cloud solutions like Box. We do something first, and then they follow, and vice versa. You can never rest on your laurels, you always have to keep up. The second aspect is that with an open source community such as ours, there's innovation happening like crazy. It creates a very healthy innovative spirit within the company and the community to find the next “thing” to solve. Not all ideas turn out to be perfect, but there are some really cool ideas that come out of this, the mail being one of them.
What other innovations are planned for the company in the next 12-24 months?
We are all about file access, so anything that provides access to other data sources is a great thing to build. Expect more and more data sources to be available. Stay tuned.