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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Can Bitcasa Challenge Dropbox?

I think I must be slowing down in my “old” age, because I managed to completely miss an announcement last year on the new cloud storage service Bitcasa. At the time, the small start-up had recently started accepting public beta testers. It wasn't until they came out of beta and formally launched the service a couple of weeks ago, that I realized Dropbox may have some serious heat to contend with.

Bitcasa is similar to Dropbox in many ways, but dissimilar in one very important way; infinite storage. If you've read my Dropbox post, you’ll know that I absolutely love Dropbox, but ultimately that loves comes at a price.  Currently I’m paying $100 a year for 100GB of Dropbox storage (not counting referrals). If I want more space, I’m forced to spend an additional $100 a year for 200GB. With Bitcasa, that same $100 gets me unlimited amounts of space. Done deal right? Cancel Dropbox and make the switch? If only life in the cloud were so simple.

The Infinite Drive

So why not replace Dropbox? Well the crux of the issue for me is how Bitcasa accomplishes offering unlimited space. See if you can spot the problem below. 

When you first install Bitcasa, you’ll immediately be presented with your shiny new “Infinite Drive.” This is actually pretty damn cool, and it is the feature that really differentiates Bitcasa from any other cloud storage provider on the market.

The Bitcasa Infinite Drive is a virtual drive that appears to your operating system just like any other physical disk that you may have installed. I say "virtual" as no actual space is being occupied on your physical hard drive by the files stored in the Infinite Drive. Instead, files are stored solely in the cloud. When you click on a file, it is either streamed in real-time, or retrieved from an intelligent local caching system. The caching algorithm attempts to predict what files you will want next (okay so some data is stored locally but is deleted as needed). The operating system has no idea that it is opening a file that isn't stored locally.

You might think this would be slow, but in practice I found it to be very quick. The delay when opening a file was noticeable, but not unreasonable. Opening a 4GB HD video took maybe seven seconds to open instead of the one or two seconds I’d expect from a file stored locally. This was a file that I had never opened before on the machine, so I doubt Bitcasa had it cached. I was then able to easily click forward to any point in the video with only the slightest hint of a seek delay.

On my Windows 8 system, the Infinite Drive manifests itself as a separate “F” drive with 7.99 EB of storage. Why 7.99? Well because the Infinite Drive is impersonating a physical disk, Windows sees “infinite” as the largest possible hard drive size it is capable of displaying. In this case, that means 7.99 exabytes of storage (which translates to nearly 8 BILLION gigabytes). That should be enough to store the slightly less than 8 billion pictures I have taken of my children.

The Infinite Drive might still be a hard concept to grasp, so take a look at this video from the 2011 Techcrunch Disrupt conference that really clarified things for me:

Are you seeing the problem yet? Despite my love of the cloud, I still like to have local copies of my important data for cases when I don’t have a reliable and fast network connection. I’m not quite ready to go all-in with the cloud (ala the Google Chromebook) and have my only copy of certain files be online. The way Dropbox works, my files are both stored locally on my hard drive, and synced to the cloud as a backup.

Bitcasa has some seriously awesome potential, but it can’t quite replace Dropbox. Instead, I am using Bitcasa to augment Dropbox. For example, I find it very handy to place large video files on Bitcasa that I don’t need all of the time, and also don’t want consuming the limited space of my SSD. I also find it handy for saving large files that I’d like to keep a copy of just in case, but don’t know if I’ll ever really need.

Folder Mirroring

Despite still needing Dropbox, I have managed to replace CrashPlan. I had been using that service for offsite backup of large files, and for augmenting my local Windows image backup. Bitcasa allows me to accomplish the same backups through the folder mirroring feature. This feature allows me to take folders of data that exist on any of my physical hard drives and “mirror” them to the cloud. Anytime files in the folders change, the Bitcasa client will upload them to the cloud. These folders then also show up in a “Mirrored Folders” directory on my Infinite Drive that I can view from other PCs, or from the Bitcasa web client.

I am sure there is a lot more I could have done with CrashPlan, but that is all I was doing with it. Bitcasa saves me money by doing it from multiple PCs for $50 less than what CrashPlan charges for their family plan (limited to 10 PCs vs. Bitcasa’s unlimited PCs).  

Wait a second, didn't I just say that I didn't want to use Bitcasa over Dropbox because it couldn't store data locally, and sync it to the cloud? Well, the reason it can’t fill that need for me is that the mirrored folders can only be viewed from other PCs. I can’t change a file on a PC that it wasn't originally mirrored from without first copying it to a folder elsewhere on the Infinite Drive, changing it, and then later replacing the original file on the mirrored PC. Doable, but certainly nowhere near as slick as the automatic syncing that Dropbox does so well.

The odd part is that Bitcasa originally had Dropbox-like syncing when it was in beta and then removed it. They claim that users weren't really using this feature and it isn't the core problem they are trying to solve. In lengthy forum on their support page, they even ask why people don’t continue to use sync services like Dropbox for that purpose (see December 24th post from Luke Behnke of Bitcasa).  In that same post, they do indicate that they will soon offer a way to edit files from other PCs, but not with true offline syncing to each PC.

Other Cool Features

Version History: One of the things I love so much about Dropbox is their Packrat feature that lets me undelete any file I have ever deleted in the past. The downside is that Dropbox charges an extra $40 a year for retaining these files for longer than 30 days. Bitcasa on the other hand, includes this at no extra cost. Through the Bitcasa web portal, I can move sliders around to view my Infinite Drive at any point in the past (right down to the specific hour and minute). Update 11-19-13, this has now been reduced to 180 days of file version retention rather than unlimited.

Mobile Apps: Bitcasa has mobile apps for iOS, Android, or Windows 8 devices. So far, the iOS app still needs a bit of polish, but I really like that it lets me stream any of my video files from either my mirrored folders, or from elsewhere on my Infinite Drive.

Global Data De-duplication:  This is a cool feature that saves time by eliminating the need to upload your file if someone has already uploaded the same file to Bitcasa. Instead of lengthy uploads, the files appear in your Infinite Drive in seconds. Other services have this, but Bitcasa seems to do it in a unique and secure way by using convergent encryption. This method allows Bitcasa to see if someone has uploaded the same file as you have without needing to see the contents of your file for comparison. Files are encrypted locally prior to upload using convergent encryption, and Bitcasa is unable to see the contents of your files once uploaded.

Dropbox used to have global data de-duplication but famously had to turn it off after it was discovered that they used the same encryption key for all users on the server side to allow them to decrypt and compare files for de-duplication. A major risk of that is that Dropbox employees (or hackers breaking into Dropbox servers) had the ability to see your files without your knowledge if they had malicious intent. Today, Dropbox de-duplicates your data if you happen to upload the same file to your own Dropbox in two places, but it can’t do so if the file was uploaded by someone else.

Bitcasa Everywhere: This is a cool extension for the Google Chrome web browser that I stumbled upon as I was writing this post. This allows me to take a download URL from a website and download it straight to the Infinite Drive without having to first download it locally and then upload it. Icons also appear next to download links on web pages allowing me to do this with a single click. This seems to be very buggy though. Keep an eye on it, but don’t expect too much just yet.

Major Downsides

I wish I didn’t have to end many of my posts with downsides, but they are always there and I think you should be aware of the big ones before dropping some of your other cloud services.

Single Copy of Data: Because the main aim of the Infinite Drive is to store files in the cloud without eating up hard drive space, you may end up in situations where the only copy of your data is in the cloud. For some files, that may not be a big deal to you, but other files may be irreplaceable. You may want to mirror folders containing such files, or use other services like Dropbox for those purposes. Also, remember the lesson of Megaupload where authorities seized all of the assets of the company and users were unable to access their data.

Folder Sharing Annoyances: One of the best features of most cloud storage services is the ability to easily share files with anyone else. Bitcasa can certainly do that, but if I want to share a folder with someone, I can’t share the whole folder while still allowing them to just download the individual files that they want. Instead they only get the option to download the entire folder as a .zip file. 

Slow Uploads: The Windows Bitcasa client seems to be very slow sometimes to detect changes to a mirrored folder. It usually picks them up within a few minutes, but not nearly as instantaneously as what I have seen with Dropbox. Also while file uploads seem to transfer very quickly, the client sometimes hangs for a bit while finalizing the upload.

Bugs Galore: I can’t be too harsh on Bitcasa here as they only just launched publicly on February 5, 2013. However, do know that there are quite a few bugs with the Windows client at the moment (can’t speak for other operating systems). Examples include the upload issues just mentioned, times when I have seen the client consume many gigabytes of RAM until exited and restarted, as well as a barrage of odd popup boxes if I am connected to a VPN. I don’t doubt that you’ll find many others, but I trust that they’ll get them figured out soon enough. However, the bugs extend to their mobile app, web portal, and even their referral system. I am still waiting to see actual evidence that I've received the free month of service they promise for each referral (a support rep tells me that they have not finalized their referral program but they are “very close”).

Very Small Startup: Yes, even Dropbox was a small startup not all that long ago, and they have since grown to 100 million users. As best as I can tell, Bitcasa has just over 50 employees at the moment. There is nothing to suggest that they won’t be enormously successful one day, but it’s also possible they could fold at any moment and you’ll have to move all of your data.

Ready to Sign Up?

If Bitcasa sounds like a cool service that you’d like to try out, they do offer a free account that provides 10GB 5GB of space. You’ll still see an Infinite Drive in the operating system, but you’ll get warning emails if you reach your threshold. 

Please do me a favor if you liked this post by signing up using this referral link. If you do, we should each get one free month of Infinite service (when they fix their referral program).

Update June 6, 2013: I decided to contact Bitcasa about their referral program. The support rep I spoke to informed me that "the referrals will only work if your referral signs up for a monthly paid account and you are on a monthly account." So, it seems there is little incentive to refer anyone if you are on a yearly billing plan. That's disappointing as I think that part of Dropbox's explosive growth was due to them rewarding both parties equally for a referral regardless of billing plan choices.

Even if you are on a monthly plan, I'm not so sure you'll see any additional free months as Bitcasa's referral page now says, "Every friend that signs up through your invite link will get a free month of infinite storage." It makes no mention of the referrer getting any free months. That said, I'm happy to have people use the referral link above to get themselves a free month. Let me know if anyone knows more details on how this is supposed to work!

Update 11-19-13: It seems that referrals are now only beneficial if you are on a free plan. As of today, they allow you to upgrade from 5GB of free space up to 20GB. I don't see any benefit for those who are on a paid subscription. That doesn't seem like a wise move for Bitcasa. I know referrals are supposed to help grow their customer base in hopes that those referrals sign up for accounts, but why not reward your most passionate customers in some way?

Final Thoughts

I really like what Bitcasa has to offer and they are doing some really innovative things. That said, I am not ready to set aside Dropbox, and it seems that even Bitcasa doesn't want me to. I’d really like to have just one cloud storage service to save on costs and remove some complexity from my life, but perhaps it’s better not to put all my bits in one basket. Maybe Bitcasa isn't for you just yet, but I really see a lot of potential and I urge you to try out the free service. At the very least, keep an eye on what they are doing because I think there are some really cool things yet to come from the Bitcasa team.

Update 11-19-13

Big changes coming to Bitcasa! They are now MUCH more expensive if you want unlimited storage. As of today, $99 a year "only" gets you 1TB of storage with a max of 5 devices and 180 day version retention. The unlimited storage plan will run you a heart attack-inducing $999 a year! Users already subscribed prior to the price change will be grandfathered in with unlimited storage, devices, and retention. However, there are rumblings that existing users won't get access to new features like the upcoming Linux client.

I can't say I'm too surprised. Unlimited storage always seemed too good to be true. This is very much like what mobile phone carriers eventually did with unlimited data plans once users began to use data more heavily. I'll acknowledge that most won't use more than 1TB of data anytime soon (I'm only at 150GB), but it would have been nice to see the new 5TB tier priced at $99 so there would have been more room to grow, and the low-usage customers wouldn't have been punished as heavily for the extreme utilization by a small number of customers. Also, $999 for unlimited, is a bit out of control for a price increase.

It's not all bad though. Bitcasa is promising "a series of new product enhancements," higher max limit for free accounts (20GB through referrals), as well as a new Secure Storage API that developers can make use of to extend Bitcasa connectivity to third-party apps. It is APIs like that which have made Dropbox so popular. More features inevitably means more costs. Also, if you think about it, 1TB of cloud storage for $100 a year is still WAY cheaper than many of their competitors, and Bitcasa does still have the edge of their streaming drive and convergent encryption tech.

I do wonder though if this was Bitcasa's plan all along, or did they make the classic start-up mistake of trying to do too much for too low of a price? Is it all the fault of the new CEO? What do you think? Does Bitcasa still appeal to you now? Would you have thought they were equally as interesting if they had launched with the 1TB tier instead of initially offering unlimited storage?

Update 10-24-14

Well sadly, this update is to let you know that I have decided to close my account and can no longer recommend the service. Their most recent announcement proves to me that Bitcasa has lost their way, and can no longer fulfill the promise they initially made for their service. While they still have a small handful of unique features (like their file encryption and streaming storage) it's no longer enough for me to risk my data with a small company that seems to have little regard for their loyal users. I guess I finally have an answer to my initial question. Can Bitcasa challenge Dropbox? In a word: No.