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Dropbox Doom

I think I've been using Dropbox for just over ten years to synchronise files between my various desktops, laptops, tablets and phones, for the princely sum of $0. Sure, you only get 2GB of storage at that price, but with clients available for pretty much every operating system known to mankind, it has worked transparently for all those years -to the point where I basically forgot about it and assumed it would always be thus.

I therefore missed this not-so-minor news: Dropbox stopped supporting 'non-standard' file systems in November 2018.

As of November 7th 2018, Dropbox now only supports (and therefore only really works on) NTFS, ext4 and a couple of Apple-specific file systems. File systems such as ZFS, Btrfs and XFS miss the cut.

Which is a bit of a show-stopper for many (if not most) Linux distros, since ext4 hasn't been the default file system for lots of distros for quite a while. Even when it is, there are lots of good reasons for choosing an alternative file system that Linux supports well. In my own case, for example, my /home partition is formatted with XFS by choice. Red Hat use it as its default; OpenSuse uses Btrfs as its default -these are not minor players in the Linux universe!!

Now, there are ways of making Dropbox work even if you are using one of these 'weird' file systems. For a start, you could download and run the dropbox-filesystem-fix script. I tried it and it mostly worked fine -but there's no guarantee it will always work and the project producing it explicitly warns that “This is an experimental fix, not supported by Dropbox. It might cause data loss”… which isn't exactly encouraging!

Another approach I tried:

cd /home/hjr
dd if=/dev/zero of=dropbox_drive.img bs=1M count=2048
fdisk dropbox_drive.img (select: g, n and then w options; press Enter to accept sizing defaults)
mkfs.ext4 dropbox_drive.img
sudo losetup -Pf --show dropbox_drive.img
mkdir /home/hjr/newdropbox
sudo mount /dev/loop0 /home/hjr/newdropbox
sudo chown hjr. /home/hjr/newdropbox/

…which creates a 2GB 'fake hard disk' formatted with ext4 and mounts it in a place where the Dropbox client can make use of it, after you tell it to by fiddling with its Preferences → Sync options. Automatically re-mounting all that at startup can be a bit of a fiddle, but not an insuperable problem.

So there are possible workarounds.

But I don't think Dropbox deserves a pass on this: their decision to drop support for more than just one Linux file system is corporate bone-headedness of the 'deserves to be punished' sort, in my view. They have decided to mandate a specific (and fairly old!) file system for Linux users -and this seems to me to fly in the face of the entire Linux ethic: freedom of choice. The only way to respond to their behaviour, in my view, is to simply stop using Dropbox completely. (Since I'm not a paying customer anyway, they won't shed any tears about this, but anything to dent their market- and mind-share, basically!)

However, that's easier said than done: there are not too many free file synchronization tools out there which work on multiple platforms -including Linux and Android (my two must-haves). Obviously, one could use something like Google Drive or Microsoft's OneDrive -but I don't particularly want to put my files into the hands of the mega-corporations and their data-mining proclivities. So what I'm looking for is cross-platform, free and not run by one of the monster-corps in the IT world…

I researched a number of them: pCloud, SpiderOak and Tonido amongst them.

  • pCloud offers up to 10GB free (2GB out of the gate, just like Dropbox), has a client for Android and an easily-installable Linux client for most distros. Transparent, client-side encryption is not, however, available with the free plan and doesn't come cheap: US$4 a month. I should mention, too, that the recommended Linux client is now an AppImage, so isn't installed like you would a 'regular' application and doesn't get integrated into your disto as a regular package would: it's more like one of those 'portable' applications you can run on Windows without actually running a setup.exe. As such, I am less than comfortable with it (for what are quite probably unreasonable and irrational reasons, I accept!)
  • SpiderOak sells the 'SpiderOak ONE' cloud backup product. As far as I could tell, it does not have a free product offering (just a free 21-day trial). It's cheapest offering seems to be US$5 per month for 100GB: too expensive for my tastes! There are clients for Linux and Android.
  • Tonido (like NextCloud and OwnCloud) is something you download and host on your own server. Clients can then access that server via a URL. Your files don't specifically reside in 'the cloud' unless you happen to install it on a host you've rented that's 'out there' somewhere. I ruled all these options out on the grounds that I don't want to do my own hosting, but want someone else to host it all for me.

Of all these sorts of options (and I looked at quite a few more than those listed), none completely won me over, though pCloud came close. Unfortunately, there appears to be no way to actually sign up to the pCloud 10GB free offering: it could just be me, but when I signed up, I had to pay for the 2TB Premium product (£100 a year!) and then immediately cancel it and ask for a refund. Those are murky waters, especially since when you click to cancel your paid-for subscription, there's no indication that a refund then has to be manually applied for. By the time all that's sorted out with their Help Desk (who were actually very helpful!), you could well find yourself liable for some moolah after all!

I also disliked their desktop client application -click it, and new File Manager windows open every time. If you just want to check your storage quantities, free space and so on, you have to remember to right-click, not left-click. It's fiddly and irritated me a lot.

So, all-in-all, I found pCloud a less-than-satisfactory replacement for Dropbox.

Which brings me onto the one alternative which I did find acceptable: Mega. Now, before we go any further, let's be clear that although Mega was originally established by Kim Dotcom (whose apparent personal ethics would rule out me using Mega in a heartbeat), it has had nothing to do with him since 2015. His claims that the company he founded had been taken over by the Chinese, and then essentially nationalised by the New Zealand government, would seem to be untrue (though I wouldn't think the worse of it if it was owned by the New Zealand government!) The truth would appear to be that he was indeed ousted by a Chinese investor, but that it is now owned by publicly-listed shareholders in the normal way.

The free product offering from Mega comes with, essentially, 15GB of storage. You get more as you unlock 'achievements', such as installing their desktop or phone client software or recommending the product to others. Those achievements have a fixed life-time, however, so you will eventually end up back at the 'base' 15GB soon enough, unless you start paying. Their paid product offerings seem quite reasonable, too, though: £9 a month for 1TB, for example; cheaper if you pay annually. End-to-End transparent encryption is provided as part of the base product, with Mega themselves therefore unable to access your files (your password acts as the private key and cannot be recovered if you forget it!)

Their Linux client is a properly-installed affair (on Manjaro, yay -S megasync will fetch the relevant software from the AUR repositories for you). It looks good and behaves properly: a left-click on the system tray icon will not open a file manager window, for example, but will bring up a small configuration window in which various options can then be selected as you like, only one of which opens a file manager window!

There are equivalently-good Mega clients for Windows and Android (and the Apple ecosystem), so cross-device synchronisation is a… er, synch!

So, in conclusion: you can spend a lot of time (and, potentially, money) evaluating alternatives to Dropbox, but as Dropbox no longer properly support Linux users, it's an investment that this Linux user thinks is worth making. In my opinion, pCloud and Mega are both worthy contenders for the Dropbox-replacement crown, but pCloud's obscure way of getting to its freebie offering and the poor quality of its Linux desktop client means that, for me, Mega is my preferred choice of free cloud storage for desktop and phone. YMMV, of course!!

blog/working_for_me.txt · Last modified: 2018/12/22 14:21 by dizwell