Cubbit: P2P Cloud-Based Storage
Tom Lombardo posted on April 01, 2020 |
Cubbit wants to move online storage from the cloud to the "swarm." Will it live up to the buzz?

Cubbit, a crowd-funded endeavor with partners in Italy, Israel, and the US, was designed to meet the demand for secure cloud-based storage, without monthly or annual fees. But rather than a centralized data center, Cubbit uses a unique configuration that distributes files among several devices—a "swarm," as Cubbit calls it—in various locations, with built-in data redundancy and secure encryption. The makers describe it as a blend of peer-to-peer, cloud, and Network-Attached Storage. Let's take a look at how it works and then check out the company's claims about its benefits.

Cubbit: a blend of P2P, cloud, and Network-Attached Storage (Image courtesy of Cubbit)
Cubbit: a blend of P2P, cloud, and Network-Attached Storage (Image courtesy of Cubbit.)

The Cubbit Swarm

From the user standpoint, Cubbit behaves similar to Google Drive or Dropbox: there's a folder on your local hard drive that gets synchronized to a swarm-based folder. Whenever you save a file to the local folder, it's automatically synced to the swarm for backup and remote access. If you add or change a cloud-based file from a remote location (i.e. a different computer), those changes will be automatically synced to the local folder on your own computer. But unlike cloud-based services, which don't require additional hardware, Cubbit users purchase a Cubbit Cell—a desktop device consisting of an ESPRESSOBin single-board computer and a hard drive. It's a one-time purchase, after which the use of the Cubbit swarm is free forever.

The Cubbit Cell comes with a 2TB hard drive, but the user only gets half of that space for storage. Of the remainder, 512GB is used for data redundancy and 512GB is dedicated to commercial Cubbit users—those who pay an annual fee (this provides the revenue that allows Cubbit to offer its service free of charge to individual users.) When connected to a home router, the Cubbit Cell becomes part of the swarm, a distributed network of data storage devices. The user can increase storage by attaching one or more USB drives to the Cubbit Cell, with the caveat that only half of the added storage is "their" space—the rest goes to the Cubbit swarm as described earlier.

A Cubbit Cell connected to a home router. Image courtesy of Cubbit.
A Cubbit Cell connected to a home router. (Image courtesy of Cubbit.)

The swarm is controlled by a central coordinator, an AI server that oversees all data distribution. Multiple coordinators are distributed regionally, providing flexibility and redundancy, and Cubbit protects its coordinators using the same processes as all established web services: firewalls, NAT gateways, and other cybersecurity best practices.

How Cubbit Works

When a user saves a file in the Cubbit folder, a copy is temporarily placed in their Cubbit Cell. At that point, the user can continue working or shut down the computer. The Cell then encrypts, divides, and uploads the file, taking as long as necessary given the user's bandwidth.

Security is provided by military-grade AES-256 encryption, with the key generated on the client side. Cubbit claims that nobody but the user, not even Cubbit engineers, can decrypt the user's data. 

Data integrity is ensured by distributing the file over multiple devices and adding an error correction code with 50% redundancy. The Cell divides the encrypted file into 24 data blocks and adds 12 parity blocks. The result will be spread out among 36 different Cubbit cells, only 24 of which need to be available in order to retrieve the file.

Once the data has been encrypted and divided, the Cell communicates with the coordinator, which determines the optimal Cells within the swarm to distribute the file. The coordinator then "introduces" the client to the 36 peers that will host the file. Even though only two-thirds of the peers need to be functional in order to retrieve the file, the Cubbit coordinator monitors all Cells and will redistribute data if six or more of the Cells are offline simultaneously.

Greener than Data Centers?

Cubbit claims that their system is more eco-friendly than energy-hungry data centers, as the company's engineers explain in a white paper (or green paper, as they call it). This is a debatable point, as many data centers are signing renewable energy agreements, which may negate the green aspect of Cubbit. Nonetheless, wasted energy, green or not, is still wasted; that renewable energy could be put to other use, like replacing dirty power. Intuitively, one might think that the swarm uses as much power (collectively) as an equivalent data center, but the latter requires massive cooling systems; it's unlikely that an individual Cubbit Cell will generate enough heat to have an appreciable effect on a home's temperature or cooling system.

Speaking of energy consumption, the Cubbit Cell uses a more power-hungry HDD rather than an efficient solid-state drive (SSD). Price is the main reason, but SSDs also have a limited number of write cycles, making them less practical for a device that's constantly moving data around (HDDs are still quite common in data centers too, for the same reasons.)

Centralized vs distributed clouds in terms of peak consumption per TB of stored data. Image courtesy of Cubbit
Centralized vs distributed clouds in terms of peak consumption per TB of stored data. (Image courtesy of Cubbit.)

Cost

At $362 for a Cubbit Cell with no recurring charges, is it a better deal than cloud-based storage options with monthly or annual fees? I compared it to Google Drive and Dropbox, who both charge $9.99/month (~$120/year) for 2TB of storage.

Cubbit: 

$362 (one-time fee) for 1TB of user storage

+$100 to add 2TB of external storage to gain another TB of user storage

=$462 one-time cost

This results in less than a four-year payback period. Although the Cubbit only comes with a two-year warranty, storage devices have a typical life of around seven years, so it seems likely that the device will pay for itself. However, the $362 price is the early bird cost during the crowd-funding campaign. The full retail price is $648, which changes the picture a bit:

$648 (one-time fee) for 1TB of user storage

+$100 to add 2TB of external storage to gain another TB of user storage

=$748 one-time cost

Now the payback period is just over six years—perhaps less, if Google and Dropbox raise their rates.

Long-Term Viability

While Cubbit might be less expensive than Google Drive, I'm pretty confident that Google won't be going away anytime soon. My biggest concern with Cubbit is, what if I drop $362 on this device and the company goes out of business? I'd still have my data in my computer's Cubbit folder, but I would no longer have the swarm providing backup and remote access. So the good news is that I wouldn't lose any data but the bad news would be that I spent money on a product that didn't pay for itself, and then I'd need to switch to a subscription service. Cubbit thinks that its business model will keep it thriving. In effect, Cubbit offers a free service to individuals while providing a paid cloud-based service for businesses—not that far from Google's revenue model, in fact.

Cubbit intends to move online storage from the cloud to the swarm. Whether it lives up to the buzz depends on the number of individual users willing to pay a one-time fee in order to avoid recurring charges, and the number of commercial clients who buy into the Cubbit model of storage as a service.

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