As NSA Worries Cloud Dropbox, Tonido Offers its “Personal Cloud”

With the revelation that the National Security Agency’s PRISM program accesses user data at nine U.S. Internet companies, many presumed that Dropbox would be the tenth. The public cloud storage company denied that, but the mere idea should get one thinking about “personal clouds.” At least that’s what Madhan Kanagavel, founder of Austin-based CodeLathe and its Tonido storage service, is counting on. He says his “personal cloud” software and service product was inspired not by privacy concerns, but by the worry that he could lose content if his public cloud provider went out of business. The surveillance scandal, however, underscores his pitch: “Personal data is no longer safe, and hasn’t been for a long time.”

iStock_000025672685XSmallWith the revelation that the National Security Agency’s PRISM program accesses user data at nine U.S. Internet companies, many presumed that Dropbox would be the tenth. The public cloud storage company denied that, but the mere idea should get one thinking about “personal clouds.” At least that’s what Madhan Kanagavel, founder of Austin-based CodeLathe and its Tonido storage service, is counting on.

He says his “personal cloud” software and service product was inspired not by privacy concerns, but by the worry that he could lose content if his public cloud provider went out of business. The surveillance scandal, however, underscores his pitch: “Personal data is no longer safe, and hasn’t been for a long time.”

A control systems expert who previously developed game server technology and high-speed video acquisition systems, Kanagavel says his “aha!” moment was in 2008 when Google pulled the plug on its Picasa Hello peer-to-peer photo-sharing service. “If you’re going to store your personal data on a third-party business, there’s no guarantee it will last forever,” says the “Chief Hacker,” who claims to have coined the term “personal cloud.”

So he developed Tonido to let companies and individuals create their own clouds at home or the office and access, share, and sync content from anywhere without worrying about storage limits or privacy. Users install Tonido software on a primary computer or run it on a standalone, low-cost home server called the TonidoPlug. And they install client software on other devices to sync them with the primary computer.

Kanagavel says setup takes a matter of minutes because the company’s global relay infrastructure takes the guesswork out of network configuration and “auto-magically” makes things “just work.” Then, instead of accessing files on a public cloud-based file-sharing service while away from home, personal cloud users log into their own desktop computer or server through a browser or with any one of their own synced devices. “Tonido essentially removes any local storage limits on your mobile devices,” Kanagavel says.

As more regular folks accumulate massive banks of their own data, Kanagavel sees this type of service becoming more popular: “If you only want to store 10 or 100 gigabytes, then the public cloud might be the right solution. But if you have terabytes it’s difficult from a cost or bandwidth perspective to upload that to the cloud—it’s going to take a month.”

His typical customer, he says, is a household with a home computer that has one or two terabytes of storage along with added external storage. “If you think about it, nowadays, all families have cameras where each photo can be 15 megabytes. It’s not uncommon to see a family that needs to store terabytes of data,” he says.

Already, Tonido boasts more than 1 million registered customers. Kanagavel says close to a quarter of those are active consumer users, and more than 100 businesses have installed the service. The product has gotten a fair amount of press and good reviews since going live in 2010, but “the real traction has been in the last six months as people realize all is not well on the public cloud,” he says.

Kanagavel preaches that total reliance on public online services is a bad idea, and that having control over your own critical data is good. Tonido’s growth—3,000 devices a day are being added to the network—confirms that attitudes about the cloud are shifting, he says.

Data on a personal cloud is safe from prying eyes, he argues, because it is stored in the user’s home or office. And though there’s no guarantee that CodeLathe will stay in business, that doesn’t matter: “Say, hypothetically, we shut down next year. Customers can still access their software and do anything they’ve been doing. They’re not dependent on us,” he says.

Kanagavel also sees a geopolitical motivation for keeping private data off the public cloud: “If a few companies control everybody’s information, it’s not good for society in the long term,” he says, noting that national governments can’t be comfortable with a handful of U.S. companies storing all of their citizens’ data. “It becomes a power struggle over who has more control over citizens’ data—the government or some company?”

At least one sector has already widely bought in to his arguments. Among Tonido’s biggest customers, Kanagavel says, are several U.S. government agencies.

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