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SpiderOak Offers 'Completely Private' Cloud Storage Higher Ed

A cloud storage company has released a version of its product specifically designed for colleges and universities. SpiderOak's new Blue OpenLicense (OL) is designed to let institutional IT departments manage student storage and user accounts. At the same time, IT has no visibility into the contents of those accounts. In fact Blue OL provides so much privacy, if users lose their password, they're out of luck; neither the IT organization nor the company can help them retrieve their files or folders unless they've been synced to another device.

SpiderOak's cloud-based service allows a user to synchronize and access data across multiple computing devices, including mobile ones. It also enables users to share data. For example, an instructor could share the contents of different folders with different students. As the folder is updated, those changes would be pushed out to everyone with access to it.

The company has two cloud offerings, Blue OL and an enterprise edition, SpiderOak Blue. The newest edition of the software targets schools to address a "classic" problem. Every year, CEO Ethan Oberman said, "you have an outgoing senior class in June and an incoming freshman class in September. The school is only buying 5,000 accounts. When those 1,250 seniors leave and the new 1,250 arrive, basically what they're doing is transitioning out the seniors and transitioning in the freshman, but they're [still] only paying for 5,000 accounts."

In the open license model, the administrator can upload and download lists of users. "Each user will receive an email with a link to a client, and off they go," Oberman noted.

As he explained, with Blue OL the data being maintained on SpiderOak's platform is owned by the end user, not the organization. If the user forgets the password, the organization needs to set up a new account. "Under no circumstances are we able to view plain text data on our users. Even our administrators who have direct physical access to the box the data is stored on are unable to view the actual contents of a file or a folder," Oberman said. "The server has no clue of what data it's looking at; it's just looking at encrypted data blocks." The company refers to that as "zero knowledge privacy."

That's a crucial distinction, Oberman said, between what his company offers and what competitors offer. "An administrator at Dropbox or any one of these other companies could theoretically look at your data."

Data maintained by the enterprise-oriented Blue edition, however, is considered to belong to the organization. Password reset is possible via a browser-based interface. And if an organization needs access to the contents of the files or folders, for example, in a legal discovery situation, it's available.

With both versions, the storage administrator can distribute accounts to blocks of users, freeze and cancel accounts, and view high-level information on those accounts, such as when the last backup was done.

"Universities are a major adopter of cloud-based technologies because they have an inherent need to store a tremendous amount of data," said Richard Stiennon, chief research analyst at IT-Harvest. "Because of the high value of the intellectual property being stored on their private clouds--as well as the potential for this data to be subpoenaed under federal law--universities need to consider a cloud provider which can off-set that responsibility and assure their students complete privacy and transparency. This can only be assured within a 'zero knowledge' environment."

A Blue Plus appliance edition allows an organization to run an on-premises private cloud implementation that adds several features, including:

  • "Key escrow," which gives the organization control over the data;
  • User accounts that can be managed via LDAP, Microsoft Active Directory, or RedHat Directory Server; and
  • Integrated password management via LDAP or RADIUS.


Oberman said that if the school is hosting the storage solution, the charge is $2.50 per user per month. When SpiderOak hosts the storage, as with Blue OL, the company charges $300 per terabyte per month with an unlimited number of users.

"For academics who want to take advantage of the cloud, but are concerned about security and keeping student information secure, SpiderOak is a strong choice," said user David Perry, an assistant professor of emerging media at the University of Texas at Dallas.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.