MyKolab.com: Building the Open Source Cloud service that was missing

In January this year we started the MyKolab beta phase and last week we finally moved it to its production environment, just in time for the Swiss national day. This seemed oddly fitting since the Swiss national day celebrates its independence and self-determination, as they were liberating themselves from the feudal system. So when Bruce Schneier wrote about how the Internet right now resembles a feudal system, it was too tempting an opportunity to miss. And of course PRISM and Tempora played their part in the timing, as well, although we obviously had no idea this leak was coming when we started the beta in January.

Anyhow. So now MyKolab.com has its new home.

Step 1: Hardware & Legislation

It should be highlighted that we actually run this on our own hardware, in a trustworthy, secure data centre, in a rack which we physically control. Because that is where security starts, really. Also, we run this in Switzerland, with a Swiss company, and for a reason. Most people do not seem to realize the level of protection data enjoys in Switzerland. We tried to explain it in the FAQ, and the privacy information. But it seems that too many people still don’t get it.

Put frankly, in these matters, legislation trumps technology and even cryptography.

Because when push comes to shove, people would rather not go to jail. So no matter what snake oil someone may be trying to sell you about your data being secure because “it is encrypted on our server with your passphrase, so even we don’t have access” – choice of country and legislation trumps it all.

As long as server-side cryptography is involved a provider can of course access your data even when it is encrypted. Especially when the secret is as simple as your password which all your devices submit to the server every time you check mail. Better yet, when you have push activated, your devices even keep the connection open. And if the provider happens to be subject to a requirement to cooperate and hand over your data, of course they will. Quite often they don’t even necessarily know that this is going on if they do not control the physical machines.

XKCD 538: Security

XKCD 538: Security

So whenever someone tries to serve you that kind of snake oil, you should avoid that service at all cost, because you do not know which lies you are not catching them in the act with. And yes, it is a true example, unfortunately. The romantic picture of the internet as a third place above nation states has never had much evidence on its side. Whoever was harbouring these notions and missed XKCDs take on the matter should definitely have received their wakeup call by Lavabit and Silent Circle.

The reality of the matter is:

  1. There is no digital security without physical security, and
  2. Country and applicable legislation always win.

Step 2: Terms of Service & Pricing

So legislation, hardware. What else? Terms of Service come to mind. Too often they are deliberately written to obfuscate or frankly turn you into the product. Because writing software, buying hardware, physical security, maintaining systems, staffing help desks, electricity: All these things cost money. If you do not pay for it, make sure you know who does. Because otherwise it’s like this old poker adage: If you cannot tell who is the weakest player at the table, it’s you. Likewise for any on-line service: if you cannot tell who is paying for this, it’s probably you.

Sometimes this may just in ways you did not expect, or may not have been aware of. So while most people only look for the lowest price, the question you actually should be asking yourself is: Am I paying enough for this service that I think it can be profitable even when it does everything right and pays all its employees fairly even if they have families and perhaps even mortgages?

The alternative are services that are run by enthusiasts for the common good, or subsidized by third parties – sometimes for marketing purposes. If it is run by an enthusiast, the question is how long they can afford to run this service well, and what will happen if their priorities or interests change. Plus few enthusiasts are willing to dish out the kind of cash that comes with a physically controlled, secure system in a data centre. So more often than not, this is either a box in someone’s basement where pretty much anyone has access while they go out for a pizza or cinema, or – at least as problematic – a cheap VM at some provider with unknown physical, legislative and technical security.

If it is a subsidized service, it’s worse. Just like subsidies on food in Europe destroy the farming economy in Africa, making almost a whole continent dependent on charity, subsidized services cannibalize those that are run for professional interest.

In this case that means they damage the professional development community around Open Source, leading to less Free Software being developed. Why is that? Because such subsidized services typically do not bother with contributing upstream – which is a pure cost factor and this is already charity, so no-one feels there is a problem not to support the upstream – and they are destroying the value proposition of those services that contribute upstream. So the developers of the upstream technologies need to find other ways to support their work on Open Source, which typically means they get to spend less time on Free Software development.

This is the well-meaning counterpart to providers who simply take the software, do not bother to contribute upstream, but use it to provide a commercial service that near-automatically comes in below the price if you were to price it sustainably by factoring in the upstream contribution and ongoing development. The road to hell and all that.

None of this is anything we wanted to contribute to with MyKolab.com.

So we made sure to write Terms of Service that were as good, honest and clear as we could make them, discussed them with the people behind the important Terms of Service; Didn’t Read project, and even link to that project from our own Terms of Service so people have a fair chance to compare them without being lawyers or even reading them.

Step 3: Contributing to the Commons

Kolab Web Client - Roundcube++

Roundcube++ - The Kolab Web Client

We also were careful to not choose a pricing point that would cannibalize anything but proprietary software. Because we pay the developers. All of who write Open Source exclusively. This has made sure that we have been the largest main contributor to the Roundcube web mailer by some margin, for instance. In doing so, we deliberately made sure to keep the project independent and did not interfere with its internal management. Feel free to read the account of Thomas Brüderli on that front.

So while hundreds of thousands of sites use Roundcube world wide, and it is popular with millions of users, only a handful of companies bother to contribute to its development, and none as much as Kolab Systems AG, which is the largest contributor by orders of magnitude. Don’t get me wrong. That’s all fine. We are happy about everyone who makes use of the software we develop, and we firmly believe there is a greater good achieved through Free Software.

But the economics are nonetheless the same: The developers working on Roundcube have lives, families even, monthly bills to pay, and we pay them every month to continue working on the technology for everyone’s good. Within our company group, similar things can probably be said for more than 60 people. And of course there are other parts of our stack that we do not contribute as much to, in some cases we are primarily the beneficiary of others doing the same.

It’s a give and take among companies who operate in this way that works extremely well. But there are some who almost never contribute. And if, as a customer, you choose them over those that are part of the developer community, you are choosing to have less Open Source Software developed.

So looking at contribution to Free Software as one essential criterion for whether the company you are about to choose is acting sustainably or trying to work towards a tragedy of the commons is something I would certainly suggest you do.

This now brings us to an almost complete list of items you want to check

  • Physical control, including hardware
  • Legal control, choice of applicable legislation
  • Terms of Service that are honest and fair
  • Contribution to Open Source / Free Software

and you want to make sure you pay enough for all of these to meet the criteria you expect.

Bringing it all together

On all these counts simultaneously, we made sure to put MyKolab.com into the top 10%. Perhaps even the top 5%, because we develop, maintain and publish the entire stack, as a solution, fully Open Source and more radically Open Standards based than any other solution in this area. So in fact you never need to rely upon MyKolab.com continuing to provide the service you want.

You can always continue to use the exact same solution, on your own server, in your own hands.

That is a claim that is unique, as far as I am aware. And you know that whatever you pay for the service never contributes to the development of proprietary software, but contributes to the state of the art in Free Software, available for everyone to take control of their own computing needs, as well as also improving the service itself.

For me, it’s this part that truly makes MyKolab.com special. Because if you ever need to break out of MyKolab.com, your path to self-reliance and control is already built into the system, delivered with and supported by the service itself: It’s called Kolab.

 

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