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Cubbit Crowdsources Cloud Storage

Shared Hard Drives Rely on Peer-to-Peer File Sharing

“We have about 100 million cells interconnected in our brains. They communicate with one another through electrical signals.” – Miguel Nicolelis

It’s been said that if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product. While that’s true of certain social networks and search engines, not all free services come with the same depressing catch.

Normally, we trade away our privacy and personal information in exchange for a service. But a new startup is taking the opposite approach. It enhances privacy and it’s free. Sort of.

Cubbit is the company, and their product is a $349 box with a 1TB hard drive, some RAM, Ethernet, and USB. What do you do with it? Why, you plug it into your home network and enjoy 512GB of cloud-backed, always-on, secure storage. Any files you store on your Cubbit drive are available to you remotely, even if the unit is turned off or disconnected.

What sorcery is this? A local hard drive that makes data available remotely, and that doesn’t even need to be switched on to work? What’s going on here?

Cubbit works by using peer-to-peer filesharing (think BitTorrent) to make your “local” files available on other Cubbit boxes (called Cells) around the world. Any files you store are immediately broken up into shards and distributed amongst several other Cells. There’s enough redundancy built into the system that a large percentage of the Cells can be offline at any time – including yours – and your files will still be available.

It’s sort of like DropBox, OneDrive, Google Drive, or other cloud-storage services, but with a hardware component. Unlike those services, however, there is no server farm and no central repository for files. Everything is distributed, so there are no single points of failure. And, since everything is encrypted and file shards are useless in isolation, it’s also very private. Neither Cubbit nor anyone else can reassemble your files without your encryption key.

That’s not to say you can’t share files with other people; you can. It only adds a layer of privacy and security that the big-name cloud providers don’t offer. And once you buy the Cell box, the service is free for life.

Sharp-eyed readers may wonder why a box with a 1TB hard drive provides only 512GB of storage. This is where Cubbit’s business model gets interesting.

Customers can buy the Cell hardware and get free service for life, or they can skip the hardware completely and instead pay a monthly fee for file-sharing services. In essence, hardware buyers are renting out a portion of their hard drives to subsidize the cost of the service. Service customers, on the other hand, are paying for access to a distributed swarm of other people’s hardware. The user experience and features are the same either way: same encryption, same peer-to-peer sharing, same redundancy, and same high availability if Cells are offline. The only difference is how you choose to pay for it: upfront hardware purchase or recurring subscription.

Users with Cell boxes will have no idea, of course, who’s using their “extra” space, nor will they have any access to the encrypted data. Conversely, subscription users can’t tell where their files are physically stored. In either case, it doesn’t really matter. That’s the same with any cloud service.

Cubbit’s distributed file sharing protocol is like BitTorrent, but different. It uses Reed-Solomon error correction to get a 1.5x redundancy factor, so a file broken into 24 shards, for example, would have an additional 12 parity shards. Only 24 of those 36 shards are required to retrieve the file. Even so, Cubbit monitors the status of its installed base of Cells, and if any six shards are offline at the same time, management software steps in to redistribute the pieces to active Cells.  

You can increase the storage capacity of your Cell box by plugging in an external USB hard drive, up to a total of 4TB. The more storage you have, the more you share with subscription users, and with yourself.

On the surface, Cubbit is just another cloud-storage company, but one without any hardware. It crowdsources its infrastructure for others to purchase and maintain. There is no server farm to provision, no massive climate control system, no huge power bills, no fat pipe into the building, and no real-estate concerns. They’ve virtualized the cloud.

It’s not clear whether this is an environmental win or not. Server farms consume a lot of power and generate a lot of waste heat, so eliminating the big machines should be good for the planet. But that hardware still exists; it’s just distributed among thousands of unrelated users. For its part, Cubbit says its “impact per GB is 10 times smaller than data center racks.”

Economically, it’s a tricky call for consumers. DropBox, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google provide anywhere from 2GB to 15GB of online storage completely free. Paid versions from these and other companies run anywhere from $2/month to $25/month and up, with prices roughly correlated to capacity. A Cubbit Cell owner might amortize his purchase in a few years and enjoy free online storage after that.

You could also just buy a new disk. A 500GB USB hard drive costs between $50 and $150, depending on speed, brand, power source and (remarkably) color. That’s a lot cheaper than a Cell, but local hard drives don’t come with online cloud accessibility or crash-proofing, so it’s not really a fair comparison.

Obviously, neither Cubbit’s Cell box nor its file-sharing service is entirely free, but each product does leverage the other to reduce apparent costs. It’s a clever two-part strategy that also scales well. The more Cell boxes users buy, the more virtual storage becomes available to renters. There’s also safety in numbers. The more Cells you have online, the more robust the network becomes. Who would’ve thought that renting a hard drive could be so tricky?

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