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Unlimited online storage for free, almost: Wuala

Start-up Wuala has an interesting solution to online storage costs: the mesh.

Wuala is a new company with a compelling story for Web users: If you want to share files--music, videos, anything--with your friends and family, it will let you do it for free, with no file-size or bandwidth limits.

The catch: You get 1GB of storage for free. Beyond that, you get access to free storage in proportion to the amount of storage from your own hard drive that you share with the Wuala community.

You add files to your Wuala drive by dragging them into the app.

Wuala uses a "mesh" of hard drives from all its users. Everything you share gets sliced into 500 or so pieces and the distributed in tiny bits, and redundancy, to thousands of other users. When you, or someone you're sharing the file with, wants to load or play a file, it's pulled in from users, BitTorrent-like.

It's not easy to build a reliable storage network based on end-user PCs, which tend to be online only sporadically, and with poor upstream bandwidth. Wuala rewards its users that stay online: The amount of storage users have access to is equal to the amount of storage from their own drives that they've set aside for the Wuala network, multiplied by the average percentage of time that their machine is online. In other words, if you're sharing 20GB of your hard disk, and your PC is on 50 percent of the time, you'll be able to use 10GB of space on the Wuala network. PCs that are network-connected less than 20 percent of the time cannot share their space at all.

All files you put up on the network are replicated extensively, so you'll always be able to get the data that you've uploaded. CEO Dominik Grolimund assured me. We had a nice talk about the mechanics of his network's security, redundancy, and reliability that I won't replay here, other than to say that if Wuala doesn't work as reliably as traditional centralized storage, it's going to be a very short-lived start-up.

The system allows you to keep files private, share them with people you specify, or publish them to world at large. Unlike other peer-to-peer networks, your machine doesn't have to be online for other people to get your data, since everything you put on the network is stored on members' machines. And because Wuala isn't hosting all the data, the company doesn't have to build out its own storage farm and charge users for the bandwidth (Grolimund said that's the real cost of running storage service; storage itself is cheap). That's why it has neither file-size nor bandwidth restrictions.

Wuala makes money from contextual advertising. This is the "public" view of files on the network.

Essentially, Wuala lets you trade your unused local storage for useful "cloud" disk space. It's a fair trade, but there's a big downside to the mechanics of the system in its current Alpha stage: users need client software to view files you're sharing with them. That makes Wuala sort of a non-starter if you want to share home movies with Grandma. (You also need to run the Wuala app full-time if you want to add files to the network.) Grolimund's company is working on a Facebook app and is also "discussing with possible partners about integrations," he told me in a rushed e-mail. Making the desktop app optional, not required, for viewing files on the network is a critical next step for this product.

However, the desktop app (I saw one for Windows and the Mac) is quite good. It's very fast, which is unusual for a network storage service, and it's easy to set permissions on files and collect comments from people who view them. It also streams media files directly.

Although Wuala's mesh storage technology is intriguing, it strikes me as an overly intricate solution to the basic business problem that bandwidth is not free. And it doesn't even solve the problem for all use cases--it's not a data synchronization platform, nor is it being built for backup (where the need for off-PC storage is greatest; but see Crashplan). It's worth looking into if you want to share a lot of big files with friends, though. See also: Tubes (review), Box.net, Omnidrive, etc.

The product is in alpha test right now but you can try it out by downloading the software at webware.wua.la and using the invitation code, "webware," when prompted. If you do try it, be sure to add me as a friend in the system. My ID is "rafe."