Sandstorm Wants Web Users To Gain More Control Over The Apps They Use

These are interesting times if you’re interested in reconfiguring the structure of the Internet. Recently TC covered MaidSafe, an open source project that’s aiming to build a new p2p Internet that does away with servers entirely.

Now here’s another open source initiative aiming to recast the relationship between web users and the underlying infrastructure that serves them content by making it easier for individuals to run their own servers.

The project, which bills itself as “a personal cloud platform”, is called Sandstorm and is being led by ex-Google engineer (and creator of Cap’n Proto), Kenton Varda.

Here’s the Sandstorm mission statement:

The web is too centralized. Most — possibly all — of the web apps you use today are developed by giant corporations and run entirely in their datacenters. Open source and indie web apps exist, but are rarely used, because they usually require you to run your own server, which few people want to do. Federated networks — where every user controls their own personal data on their own server — are currently essentially impossible.

The solution is to make it easy for everyone to have a server that they control and where they can run any app they want. Sandstorm is here to do that.

So how exactly is Sandstorm decentralizing network structure? It’s doing this by making it easier for individuals who aren’t tech experts to run their own server and control what’s on it. That means they can install smaller indie or open source apps on their server — and not have to worry about giant corporates taking those apps away, i.e. if they decide it’s not worth their money to have them taking up resource.

The idea is that by changing the structure of who owns and controls the server, the type of content you get access to shifts — and open source apps and indie apps become more accessible. It’s also arguably a more pro-privacy structure since the user’s information remains in one place, on their own server where the apps they choose to use are installed, rather than being distributed across the Internet in bits and bytes stored on the servers of all the companies’ whose apps they happen to use.

The Sandstorm servers you get to control are still sitting in the cloud — running on Sandstorm’s own server hardware — but that’s a way to simplify the process of letting people run their own server by avoiding the need for them to build and maintain a physical machine too.

Sandstorm does also support those who want to run a physical machine themselves — but obviously that’s a pretty niche group, and the general aim of the project is to expand this alternative network infrastructure beyond the reach of existing groups of sys admins who could be doing this sort of thing already.

“Sandstorm makes it radically easier for users to run their own servers. This gives users privacy and freedom (no spying; no disappearing apps; all data in one place; ability to change apps and mix-and-match),” Varda tells TechCrunch, summing up the project aims.

“Meanwhile it saves developers from the need to monetize their app, maintain servers, etc. In particular, this makes it possible for indie and open source apps to reach a wider audience, and can greatly simplify the business model for small startups.”

Sandstorm is live already in an early build — you can play with a demo of the system here — but the team is also looking to raise $50,000 in crowdfunding via the Indiegogo platform to add some polish to make it fit for the mainstream.

That said, the mainstream isn’t going to be stampeding to Sandstorm’s system just yet. There’s no doubt it’s still a pretty techie concept — and that talk of servers is an inevitable and instant turn off for the average Internet user. Plus, the mainstream is hooked on mainstream apps — like Gmail and Facebook — that absolutely require storing your data on someone else’s servers.

Varda concedes that the initial marketing for Sandstorm is therefore going to focus on the ‘usual suspects’ — aka power users, open source advocates and the pro-privacy movement — and that it will be future apps created for Sandstorm that act as the pull to reel in a wider pool of people.

Even if Sandstorm is wildly successful it’s probably never going to unseat Google and Facebook from their dominant Internet positions with a ‘sandstorm’ of alternative indie apps, but there is certainly scope to expand the pool of people who are willing to use/try out indie apps — by lowering the barrier to entry.

“At this time our marketing is focused on the kinds of users who will buy into the platform for what it intrinsically represents — so, power users, people concerned about privacy, open source fans, and the like. We are trying to draw in these users because they are also likely to be developers who will help fill out the Sandstorm ecosystem and will be patient with us through the early stages of development. (We also identify with these causes ourselves.),” he says.

“Later on, we believe it is the apps themselves that will attract ‘mainstream’ users. Sandstorm‘s lower barrier to entry will make available a wide variety of niche apps and other things which simply wouldn’t make business sense as traditional SaaS startups, but which are very useful to certain people. We point to apps like IPython Notebook and ShareLaTeX which are incredibly popular among certain audiences but obviously aren’t for everyone.”

Another target for Sandstorm are businesses that don’t want to store their data on other companies’ servers — yet want “SaaS-like usability and security”.

“With our enterprise tools, a company will be able to convert their in-house machine cluster into one giant Sandstorm instance, on which employees can easily install and use software as-needed,” adds Varda. “Meanwhile, enterprise software developers will have a new, easy way to offer ‘on-prem’ services without high support costs. Imagine how much smoother this market could be if, say, the accounting department could — without even talking to the IT department — purchase a new piece of accounting software and have it up and running, on the company’s own servers, within minutes.”

At the time of writing, Sandstorm is approaching half its target funding with another 27 days left of the campaign to run. If they raise more than $50k they have a series of stretch goals to further expand the accessibility of the system — such as developing an indie app market where open source and indie devs could sell wares, to help encourage them to port stuff to Sandstorm.

Security is baked into the system by securely sandboxing apps on the server so they are isolated from the rest of the system. There’s also a way for apps to talk to each other, to allow for content to be shared between apps when needed — via a picker interface, whereby the user is asked to select the particular photo/document/file they want to access at a given point.

On the business model front, Sandstorm will charge consumer users for hosting servers on its hardware at $5 per month. It also plans to sell enterprise tools to businesses to reduce IT costs while still keeping their data in-house — by, presumably, reducing their reliance on expensive sys admins. The third strand of their business model involves running the Sandstorm app store and taking a cut of any app sales.

Apps that have already been ported over to Sandstorm include collaborative document editor Etherpad; web mail client Mailpile; blog publisher Ghost; RSS feed reader Tiny Tiny RSS; and the interactive computation environment IPython Notebook.

Check out the video below to watch Varda go into more detail on the Sandstorm system and the project aims.