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We've been thinking about collaboration wrong this whole time

remote working
(Image credit: Shutterstock / GoodStudio)

With the widespread transition to remote working, communication and collaboration has become all the more important.

A problem many businesses face, however, is that they are required to juggle an impractical number of tools to benefit from all functionality needed to support remote work: text chat, email, video calling, file-sharing, cloud storage etc.

We caught up with Frank Karlitschek, founder and CEO at Nextcloud, to find out why doing all this in a secure and simple manner might require a different approach to that of traditional SaaS providers.

In Nextcloud 20, you announced integration with over a dozen third party platforms and the move was dubbed “a major shift”. What changed, and is integration the next major focus area for Nextcloud?

Since its founding, Nextcloud has aimed to provide a complete collaboration platform for the average office, with the difference to competitors that it should be self-hosted and open source. We introduced video chat, document collaboration and more recently tools like Forms and task management capabilities like Deck. Of course, you can't do everything. We generally look at a function and say, hey, is this something most users use? Then they would benefit from it being part of a consistent, predictable work flow, integrated in Nextcloud.

But, some things are simply only used by a small sub-set of employees in a company. Or only by a small sub set of organizations. For example, the HR department has its specialized tools to handle taxes, and schools have specialized software for e-learning. We can not provide all those, of course. Yet those applications can still benefit from integration! Having a work flow that goes across applications can make a big difference in productivity. Think of at school, where you get your assignment via a e-learning tool, then work in it with your class mates using Nextcloud's document editing and chat tools, and then turn in the resulting paper in the e-learning platform! Thanks to Moodle integration in Nextcloud, this process is much more seamless. Perhaps not as seamless as it were if Moodle were a true Nextcloud component, of course, but a lot better thanks to our collaboration.

When it comes to components like Slack and Teams, for which Nextcloud has a native alternative in Talk, the benefits of integration are slightly different. Organizations often face a need to interface with other applications than what they opted to use in-house, or in one department. It can be that, for compliance and security reasons, the European division of a company uses Nextcloud Talk, while the US division is on Microsoft Teams. Thanks to our integration efforts, common chat rooms can be set up so employees don't need to have both tools running.

As we also can't integrate every possible tool under the sun into Nextcloud ourselves, we've made sure our documentation on using our integration capabilities is easy to find, helping third parties integrate their apps in Nextcloud.

NextCloud

Frank Karlitschek, founder and CEO at Nextcloud (Image credit: Nextcloud)

You’ve recently introduced the one-click migration tool to ferry over data encapsulated within several online services. How is this different from the Simple Signup program you introduced a couple of years back?

It is more of a complement, I would say. Simple Signup allows users to sign up with a hosting provider as quickly and as easily as they would using a centralized service like Google, Microsoft or Dropbox: install an app, click 'sign up', enter an email and password, and you're logged in. But, unlike with typical public cloud solutions, you would not have signed up at a single, global hosting provider. Instead, through these steps, you will have signed up with a local provider! Nextcloud will have pre-selected a provider for you based on your location. Of course, you can choose another if you prefer, as well. But with every provider, you'll get a free account with 2 to 5 gigabyte of storage for an unlimited time - and very affordable upgrade options in case you'd like more storage!

But once you have a Nextcloud account at a provider you can trust, you still are likely to have much data at one of the big cloud vendors. And that is where the migration tool comes in - it offers an easy way to move over data from one of those cloud monopolists to your local hosting provider! We support Google, Dropbox and OneDrive, migrating over calendars, contact data and more when we can. Unfortunately, Google and OneDrive don't make this easy and require the administrator to first go through some complicated steps before users can use the migration. They are clearly not interested in making it easy for our distributed platform model to help users move!

The new dashboard (and unified search) were welcome additions in the latest release. What are the other major items in Nextcloud’s to do list?

Communication is becoming more and more 'real time', so we invest in making collaboration round-trip times shorter. That is a matter of performance and UI optimizations, but also features in Talk and our document collaboration tools. For example, we will soon introduce an addition to the collaboration tools you have available during a video call.

Another area of attention over the coming year will be in automating and supporting a variety of workflows. We will continue to expand Nextcloud Flow, and also work on integrating it more with third party tools. Being able to, for example, act on data when a form in Nextcloud Forms is filled in could be very powerful.

video conferencing

(Image credit: Shutterstock / fizkes)

Nextcloud Hub has been one of the most revolutionary changes for Nextcloud. What kinds of Nextcloud Hub features particularly stand out against the offerings of your proprietary peers?

Of course, in the end the most compelling advantage of Nextcloud is the control you have over it as you deploy it on your own infrastructure or at a local provider you can trust. It's open source nature and self-hosting are key here.

We pride ourselves particularly in a consistent user experience. Rather than buying up companies and integrating their technology, which can create a jarring and disjointed experience, we focus on building as much of the front-end ourselves while using common open source technology on our back-end.

Could you explain some of the features that help make Nextcloud useful for setups that work with highly sensitive data?

For Nextcloud, Virtual Data Room is kind of a 'meta feature'. As Nextcloud is itself an on-premises digital file exchange platform with many collaboration and communication features built in, it can be configured in a very secure way and thus function as a VDR.

A few key features here are the ability to block downloading of any documents for guests, only providing them access to a watermarked browser view of documents; the ability to use the Nextcloud Outlook add-in to send emails and documents to guests via Nextcloud without any leaking of email content; and a few powerful security features. Of those security features, let me mention Video Verification, where access to a share is granted only after the identity of the recipient is verified through a video call.

security

(Image credit: Shutterstock / La1n)

What is the Private Cloud Security scan, and how much does it cost?

It is free! It is a scan we built some years ago in response to the large numbers of badly secured private clouds at the time. It probes the URL of a private cloud server, determining a number of security features as well as whether the version running there is up to date.

What are the benefits of Nextcloud Enterprise, given the fact that it runs the same open source Nextcloud version? Is it just about priority support?

Just like Red Hat Enterprise Linux vs Fedora, this is the enterprise-optimized version of Nextcloud. It comes with long term support, features come a bit slower as it gets more testing. It does get critical security and stability updates before the community version and we optimize it for large scale installations. We help customers deploy and scale it up, provide help with security audits and training and so on. In short, Nextcloud Enterprise is all you need to run Nextcloud in production for a large number of users.

The Nextcloud Box was a wonderful all-in-one solution to deploy your own cloud. Any plans to reintroduce it or another similar device given the popularity on SBCs like the Raspberry Pi?

The Nextcloud Box was indeed a great project. Our purpose was never to become a hardware company, but to inspire others and that succeeded! There are now a half dozen dedicated Nextcloud devices you can find on our website (nextcloud.com/devices) and new ones regularly pop up. Just as we do not provide hosting ourselves but work with and support a wide range of hosting options for Nextcloud, we have no plans to directly develop hardware ourselves but we continue to work with partners.

A couple of years back, there was news that you were working with NEC to equip their routers with Nextcloud. What’s the latest on that front? Are you working with other device manufacturers as well?

This is an ongoing project and we are happy to see that there are now also other hardware router manufacturers looking at Nextcloud devices.

You’re working with Open-Xchange and Univention to create the Sovereign Productivity suite for the German government. Will some of the work trickle down to the open source Nextcloud?

These three solutions are already widely deployed in government organizations and with an integrated platform, a government organization does not have to mix and match vendors but have a single SLA and can just purchase them in one place. The fast movement in the IT market makes it harder for government organizations which require stable, reviewed and certified products from known and approved vendors, and that is exactly what we aim to provide here. Our plan is to integrate the products from the three companies, with OX providing their groupware solution with mail and calendar and the collaboration platform from Nextcloud. Univention adds their identity management.

The integration features we develop will certainly become a part of Nextcloud and the OX and Univention products. An Open Exchange integration app, for example, is likely to appear in our app store.

You’ve just announced the use of Nextcloud by Harvard Medical School and Kiel University of Applied Sciences. What are some of the biggest Nextcloud deployments that you are aware of?

There are large customers in various areas. We have a large telecommunications company mostly active in the Middle and South Americas which scales up to 20 million users, split across four continents thanks to our Global Scale architecture. Additionally we work with some of the biggest telecom providers in Europe including Deutsche Telekom, IONOS and several others that could grow to similar numbers.

The way this hosting is done varies wildly - some create a single, massive, cross-continent Nextcloud instance, others create one instance for each of their customers.

Another important group of customers tend to be nation-states, like the German and French federal governments with each over 300.000 users on contract. There are some others in this size range, but we are not yet at liberty to talk about them.

Among our customers are many dozens of universities, often in the 20-80K user range, like the university of Kyoto in Japan, TU Berlin in Germany or North West University in South Africa. Then there are the NREN's, National Research and Education Networks, several of which are customers - like in Sweden and France. Those offer their services to all the universities and research institutes in their countries, reaching up to millions of students.

A recent project we hope to talk about soon in public (we are working on a case study) is a migration of 40.000 users at a German university from a competitor to Nextcloud, consisting of over 60 Terrabyte of data. We managed the migration without any data or meta-data loss.