AeroFS: A Self-Hosted Dropbox Alternate

Dropbox is nothing short of incredible. When the whole world thought file sharing had to be complex and kludgy, a MIT student who forgot his flash drive showed us all that file sharing could be simple enough that we’d all want to do it. You’ve got to trust it with your data, and be willing to pay to store more than several gigs of data, but beyond that, there’s little to make you question using Dropbox. It’s ubiquitous for good reason.

That doesn’t mean it’s the be all and end all of file syncing. There’s Google Drive, Microsoft’s Skydrive, and Amazon’s new Cloud Drive sync. But one new competitor, AeroFS, is taking on Dropbox directly with its own private sync solution, in an app that might be the absolute closest competitor Dropbox has seen yet. It’s fresh out of beta for individuals and teams, so let’s take a look.

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What, what’s AeroFS?

Dropbox sure took some explaining at the beginning, but almost everyone — techie or not — is used to it these days. It uploads your files to the Dropbox server and syncs them with your other devices, or with your friends and colleagues’ computers via shared folders. Simple.

AeroFS is almost the same, with a small catch: there’s no central server. It’s peer-to-peer sync that works almost just like Dropbox. You can sync files between your own computers, or share folders with friends and colleagues, over the internet or inside your own network when you’re offline. You’ll still need an account for authentication, but after that, you don’t use the AeroFS servers at all.

It’s Dropbox, decentralized.

So close, you might miss the difference

And that’s not an inapt description: AeroFS feels very similar to Dropbox. After signing up for an account online, you’ll download a small app to keep your files in sync. That is, the files inside your AeroFS folder, since everything you want synced with AeroFS has to be in that folder.

Choose where to store your one AeroFS folder

Next up, there’s a walkthrough of how AeroFS works. That’s nice … but it’s identical to Dropbox’ walkthrough. I understand taking cues from the way Dropbox works, and making your own unique product that’s in some ways similar, but a tutorial that’s almost precisely the same is a bit too much.

Wait: haven’t we seen this before?

The good thing is, AeroFS does work almost as good as Dropbox. If you’re used to using Dropbox to store everything, and just need to keep stuff synced between your computers — and don’t need files stored online to access if, say, your computer died suddenly — then it might be perfect. You’ll just have to add your files to your AeroFS folder, and setup AeroFS on your other computers, and it’ll likely work fine. The cool thing is, it’s 100% free, and there’s no storage limits beyond the size of your own hard drive. If you want to keep 500Gbs of documents and media synced between your computers, it might be the perfect app for you.

AeroFS in action

In my tests syncing AeroFS between my Mac and a Windows 8 PC on the same network, syncing was almost instantaneous. Syncing online was slower, but it seemed to be nearly as fast as Dropbox syncing in my non-scientific tests. You likely won’t notice the difference in real-world use.

The only major problem I had is that AeroFS is more resource intensive than Dropbox; it used 3% of my CPU and around 100Mb of ram all the time it was running, even when it wasn’t actively syncing files. AeroFS is Java powered, so that may be the culprit, but it definitely might eat into your battery life and computer performance.

Sharing and Saving

Now, sharing is one of the best things about Dropbox; it lets you easily send files to your friends and colleagues’ computers by just saving them in your shared folder. AeroFS lets you share files in much the same way. You can right-click on any folder inside your AeroFS folder and invite people to it. Once they’ve accepted, everything in that folder will be synced between both of your AeroFS accounts.

Add folder collaborators simply

Sharing folders worked great in my tests, just like syncing files between computers connected to your own account. What can get messy, though, is if both of you are editing the same file at the same time. Then, you’ll end up with a sync conflict. The conflicted file will have a yellow fork-in-the-road icon on the bottom to let you know there’s a problem, and from the AeroFS menu you can choose to view your local file, the conflicted copy from your collaborator’s computer, and then merge the changes or choose which version to keep.

Hey files, quit fighting!

There’s also file versions saved for everything you sync in AeroFS, whether between your own computers or with others. You can jump back in time and catch changes, and quickly restore the old version. That’s nice to have; I use the previous versions tool in Dropbox quite often. However, it can use up extra disk space, so you might want to keep an eye on that.

Hey there, ye old files.

Your Whole Team

You might have noticed that I said shared folders can be shared with one other person. That’s actually one of the limitations of a free AeroFS account. Free accounts can share folders with one other person; you’ll need to make a new shared folder for each person you want to share files with. Free accounts also can have up to 3 teammates, which we’ll dig into in just a bit.

If you want to share folders with more than one person, or have more teammates, you’ll need to upgrade to a Team account, which costs $10/teammate/month. If you just want to share your own folders with multiple people, it’ll cost you $10/month, and the people you’re sharing folders with can still be using a free account.

There’s one final piece to the puzzle: the AeroFS Team Server. This is an extra app you can download to let your computer store all the files from each of your team’s AeroFS accounts (thus, the teammates). Alternately, you can have the Team Server store the files encrypted in Amazon’s S3 storage, giving you a way to — essentially — build your own Dropbox.

Send your AeroFS files to S3

If your company has a server running the AeroFS Team Server, then anyone on your team can sync files between their computers even if their other devices are turned off, since they’ll sync through the server. They’ll even be deduplicated and compressed. That makes it much more like Dropbox, and makes it much more interesting for teams. It also can make it more interesting for individuals; you could run Team Server and the normal AeroFS app at the same time to centrally backup your family’s AeroFS files to Amazon S3. I only wish the S3 options were built into the individual app itself; that’d make it a much more compelling tool for individual users.

Conclusion

On its own, AeroFS is a neat tool, one I’m sure I’d have loved to have around before Dropbox. But it’s a different world today. There’s Dropbox for free or $10/month, then alternates from Microsoft and Google that are even cheaper storage. They all let you keep your files synced, and stored online, too. That’s a huge advantage for most of us; I’ve used Dropbox and Skydrive both to get files I needed when I was away from my computer, something I couldn’t do with AeroFS. They also have mobile apps on iOS and Android, where AeroFS currently only has a limited Android app, one that only lets you view files from your computer.

For teams, the advantage is clearer: you can run your own AeroFS server, keeping everything under your roof, with no storage limits. But that’ll still cost you $10/user/month, where Dropbox for Teams would only cost you $10-$13/user/month, depending on your team size, and it comes with unlimited storage and more.

The very best use case for AeroFS right now is keeping larger amounts of files synced between your own computers on your own network. If you don’t need to access your files online, and want to sync more than Dropbox will let you, then it’s a great free option. If you have a VPS and want to sync files between it and your Mac, it’s also a great tool for that. AeroFS is also a great option if you want the added security of not having your files on a 3rd party server, something many businesses may appreciate. Still, it’s a tough sell in today’s crowded collaboration and file sync app market.


Summary

A neat tool for syncing files and making your own private cloud, though a hard sale over existing sync tools.

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  • Sigilist

    Thank you for the look at an interesting alternative. Two things I wasn’t sure of by the end vs. DropBox: versioning and making publicly “links” to individual files. Guess I’ll need to go try this out and see some more first hand.

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      It has versioning; the article mentioned that. Then, there’s no public sharing since there’s no web app. Everything’s on your local computers.

  • Blair

    Now this seems like something Apple could have integrated into it’s computer’s and devices. Here’s what I got from their website: “AeroFS Sync is FAST. Because AeroFS does not depend on the public cloud, data syncs directly between devices at the maximum speeds possible. That means that AeroFS works incredibly well not only over the internet, but on a LAN as well.”
    &
    “With AeroFS you and your team can sync as much data as you need, for free. Whether it’s 10GB, 100GB, or 1TB, AeroFS lets you sync all the data, to all of your devices. No caps, no file size limits.”
    Now that seems more like it! I’m gonna have to give this a try. No more worrying if I have enough space or not, just share anything on my computer!
    Thanks for bring this app to my attention Matthew.

    • Andy

      Shared Folder’s [sic!]

  • http://jtechcommunications.com Joshua Reynolds

    Aren’t they selling a product as a service (or you could look at it as leasing you software)? For a monthly fee, you can store your own files on your own hard drives. I’d be interested in the product if they would just sell a license to the software as a flat fee per user that I owned and could use forever, but to commit to paying them for the rest of the life of your company in order to use their software just smacks as crazy.

    • Terry

      It does appear that way, they do run servers that help in the process of connecting two computers over the interwebs, although the maintenance cost of this would be monumentally lower then with a cloud storage provider.

      I would have preferred to pay an upfront cost and maybe $10/YEAR for the maintenance. A price plan like that really could put the pressure on the Dropbox-like vendors who have storage costs.

      That said, what if they are able to implement every feature dropbox has today (like their roadmap outlines), and do it without using cloud storage? If you’re paying Dropbox $10 month, then wouldn’t this product be at least worth the same?

      I can see it both ways.

  • http://jonathangraft.com Jonathan Graft

    What would you recommend…AeroFS or OwnCloud? I started installing OwnCloud last week but ran into some minor complications and haven’t tried fixing them yet.

    • http://mikebethany.com Mike Bethany

      OwnCloud isn’t an end user kind of solution. For instance you can’t just point to a directory and say, “Serve this.” Instead it makes it’s own file catalog and makes you go through the client to add anything. So you can’t use your normal file server and just turn it into an OwnCloud server easily.

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  • Lucas

    I am not so sure it is more secure than Dropbox; I think having your Mac acting as a “Sever” it is a lot less secure than using Dropbox’s secure servers. I mean; If your Mac is acting as a “Sever” which I believe AeroFS is all about, it is then similar as leaving one of your home’s windows widely opened even if you locked your home’s door – And that means your Mac could become an easy target for Hackers, and even if your data is already encrypted by the AeroFS app – once a Hacker has brake into your Mac he could retrieve your encryption keys, including your Amazon’s access key, secret key and encryption passphrase, just by lunching the AeroFs app. In other words; It will be a lot more difficult for a hacker to brake into Dropbox infrastructure than breaking into your Mac. I am also wondering how AeroFS behaves if FileVault is turned on (since FileVault not only encrypts your data – but also blocks all sharing services and restricts access to your mac from the outside) Maybe AeroFS should incorporate the use of a Yubikey to launch the AeroFS App (No Yubikey = Not able to lunch the app”

  • Terry

    It saddens me that people are so passively accepting of the privacy risk of using products like Dropbox that they would cast a blah review for a really revolutionary competitor.

    Here is a product that will sync your files, for free, without storage limitations while still being as easy to use as Dropbox and without exposing your files to a third party provider. This is huge. You don’t have your unencrypted files sitting on a 3rd party server out if your control and you still have all the same core features of Dropbox. This should be a slam dunk for most people and businesses.

    I’ve only used the Areofs for a week, but I’ve seen seamless sync of my company records at the office and at home. Updating at either location shares them across my office locations. For my purpose I don’t need multiple team members, my team shares the same files, so I haven’t needed a pay plan as of yet, whereas with dropbox I would need to upgrade my storage. (Although I could also see myself upgrade to $10/mth areofs plan to have sharing with unlimited number of external clients).

    As for the previous commenter, areofs is more secure because your data is not stored in the cloud. So the immeadiate benefit is that you have one fewer locations where your data could be leaked from. Secondly, you have no control of the data on the dropbox servers. You don’t really know if they are permanently deleting your files when you ask, you don’t know if dropbox employees aren’t sitting down at lunch and sharing the personal photos that you backup using their service. You don’t know for certain the security policies are being followed to the letter to prevent unauthorized physical access…which shouldn’t be a big deal, but it IS because all your stuff is sitting up there unencrypted.

    To your other point, Areofs would not be more insecure by the function it performs, because the aerofs client is basically doing the same thing the dropbox client is doing, sending and receiving files.

    Terry

  • http://mikebethany.com Mike Bethany

    Great article, thanks for taking the time!

    Of course I have a complaint…

    “…where Dropbox for Teams would only cost you $10-$13/user/month, depending on your team size, and it comes with unlimited storage and more.”

    Dropbox for Teams is NOT unlimited (https://www.dropbox.com/business/pricing). This makes the $10 to $13 comparison less valid.

    As someone that has to share thousands of resource files with a tiny team this is awesome but I’m not dropping Dropbox yet either.

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Actually, Dropbox for Business (which was called Dropbox for Teams before) *is* unlimited. It also requires annual commitment for at least 5 users, so it’s pricy up front, but they are advertising unlimited space on it these days.

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