Fellow European Dominik Grolimund recently stopped by in Los Angeles to show me the new distributed storage and sharing platform Wua.la. He gave me the chance to look at it even before Om Malik could give it a try, but I was a little too preoccupied with other projects to review it right away, and Wua.la has since been mentioned on Gigaom as well as Techcrunch UK. Oh well. Maybe I can go for the review with the most buzz words instead :)

So what is Wua.la all about? It's a file sharing application that is built on the notion of secure, distributed storage and social relationships. You can share files with your friends, private groups or the general public - features that are somewhat similar to Allpeers or other private sharing services. It's a stand alone Java application that is available for Windows and OS X, with Linux support promised for future releases. Wua.la is still in closed Alpha, but a beta launch is planed for early next year.

wua.la

There are a couple of things that set Wua.la apart from Allpeers and the likes, with the distributed storage component being one of the most obvious. Sharing files on Wua.la automatically means uploading them to the network, the upside of this being that your contacts can download your files even when you are not online. Files are split up into little pieces, encrypted and then spread around on the network, with each piece being saved on at least five different nodes.

The interesting part about this is that there is a bit of redundancy built into this process: A file might be split into a hundred pieces, but you don't actually need all those exact pieces to reassemble the file. I guess one could compare it to the role of PAR files on Usenet that give you access to extra data blocks in case an original fragment gets lost or corrupted.

Each user starts of with one gigabyte of storage that is initially supplied by the company's servers. You can get extra storage space for sharing some free gigabytes of your own hard disk, but Wua.la doesn't just take anyone. You need be able to accept incoming connections as well as have your client online for at least five or so hours per day to be considered as a node for their distributed storage system. Keeping the client online longer will earn you some extra credits. From the Wua.la website:

"If you provide 10 GB of your local storage and you are online 70% of the time, you get 7 GB of additional online storage."

wua.la

Of course one could argue that storage really isn't worth that much of a hassle in the age of S3, but this is where the second unique aspect of Wua.la comes into play: The platform utilizes an extreme degree of decentralization as a way to protect your privacy. All the metadata associated with your files is stored locally, and private searches are carried out completely independent of the Wua.la server, so the company has no clue what kind of files you and your contacts are exchanging, as long as you don't make them public within the Wua.la network.

This sounds like a wet dream for lawsuit-plagued file sharers, and Techcrunch UK writer Mike Butcher even worried whether Wua.la migh be poised to become "a system to store things you donít want anyone else to see", whatever that means. Kylie Minogue MP3s?

wua.la

I'm not really sure if Wua.la makes for such a good darknet. Hardcore file swappers tend to share tens or even hundreds of gigabytes, something that would be a little hard to accomplish even for the most generous Wua.la users. I do believe though that Wua.la, or a system like it, could become really important as some kind of secure, distributed storage for the social graph.

Okay, here we go with the buzz words. Social networks like Facebook or Myspace have become the primary way for many people to swap photos with their friends. Flickr and Youtube obviously play a big role in personal media sharing as well, and sites like Pownce merge media sharing with activity streams.

People are however increasingly waking up to the fact that many of these offerings are in fact not as private as they thought. Average users are starting to remove their beer bong pictures from their Myspace profiles because they have heard of potential employers scouring social networks to find out more about the folks they are about to interview. And then there are those privacy glitches. Remember how upset the Facebook community got when the site first introduced news feeds?

Finally, there is the discussion about social network portability and openness. Currently, people are focusing on the fact that Facebook owns your social relationships and that you have to start rebuilding those relationships every time you join a new social network.

Well, guess what? The exact same thing is true for the relationship between people and media. Sure, you can save all your files at Box.net or all your photos on Flickr and then just post an application or a widget on your new profile page. But there is no easy way to give your contacts on Facebook and Linkedin access to a certain file, or even to be selective within a network about who gets access to what. Once you added someone as your friend on Facebook you automatically give him access to all those photos you shared back in those days when you only had your five best buddies as friends.

Media sharing has huge privacy implications, and that's where something like Wua.la could come to the rescue as kind of a secure, personal storage vault for your social graph. Just upload files to the Wua.la cloud, define access rights on a case by case basis, generate links for your personal profiles that are scattered around the web - and you're ready to securely share files with your friends, no matter which service they are using.

wua.la

Granted, Wua.la doesn't have the best Web integration right now. You can link to individual files you re sharing, but there are no widgets, no public profiles and no APIs - something that would make really a lot of sense to get other developers involved and plug Wua.la into other social platforms. But the potential is definitely there, and it will be interesting to see where this is going.

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