Opera Unite — should be “Untie”?

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By Sterling “Chip” Camden
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Well, paint me in a two-tone pattern of “smug” and “disappointed”.  I correctly predicted that Opera’s self-styled “reinvention of the web” would have something to do with breaking the traditional model of web client/server that we’ve all come to know and curse.  But their execution on that grand plan leaves me feeling like I ordered a steak but they brought me the bull.

Opera’s “revolutionary” new idea is called Opera Unite, and it’s built into a version of Opera 10.  In a nutshell, it’s a web server built into your browser.  It provides an HTTP server that has access to your local file system, as well as a number of applications built on top of that:  file sharing, photo sharing, chat room, media player, and “the fridge” (a place where people can leave notes for you).

Each of these has its own URL, which you can send to someone to give them access.  Some of the services provide for password access control, but they can all be made public.  You can also write your own services, using the Unite API.

The grand vision here is that you are now freed from the shackles of depending on a dedicated web server.  No need for uploading, hosting fees, or domain registration!  Just serve everything right off your desktop.  But like Vitaly, I see a few gotchas with this approach:

  • You’re still relying on a server.  Every request has to go through a subdomain of operaunite.com in order to be relayed to and from your desktop.
  • Does anyone think that a lightweight web server running inside a browser will be able to scale on demand?  In my tests, it was dog slow, even for one client.  So much so that external clients kept timing out.
  • What about the drag it places on your workstation?  Should you get some major traffic, expect to crash.
  • The workstation not only has to be up and logged in, but it also has to be running Opera.  If you close Opera, all of your web clients go down.
  • This significantly broadens the attack surface for security threats.  I ran it on a VMWare virtual machine, behind two layers of NAT and a firewall device with all incoming requests denied.  The URL was still accessible by my good friend Joseph in Tennessee.  Furthermore, the files to which I gave him access resided on another system in my local network on which I had a drive mapped.  If my daughter decided to set this up on her workstation, she could open a huge tunnel into my local network.  Of course, I’m smart enough to set up different access privileges for each of my home users, but how many family computers out in the wild have any user privilege distinctions at all, yet contain quite a bit of sensitive material?  What happens when Junior decides to share C:\ publicly and Mom and Dad haven’t even heard of Opera Unite?
  • Even when a site is password protected, the URL is http: – which means the password is being sent in plain text.
  • The web server is very simple – no support for any kind of back-end scripting (not even PHP).  HTML, JavaScript, and CSS round out your available options.

It’s likely that Opera will offer improvements to this service in the future, but to me the design seems flawed from the start.  There’s a reason why we have web servers that can be available 24/7 and don’t place a drag on our desktops and handhelds.  I think the future is leaning more towards commoditized server horsepower in the cloud, rather than a web server in every browser.  Perhaps at some point that server glue may become completely invisible to everyone but us geeks, but I don’t think that will happen by placing server responsibilities on the client.







46 Responses to Opera Unite — should be “Untie”?

  1. Bingo, baby. Perhaps, in Norway, Opera makes sense, but

    here? No. Someone should tell the Norwegians about the

    "1,000,000th English Word". Want to share files, photos and fun with your friends? Wasn't that why Facebook was invented?

  2. Bingo, baby. Perhaps, in Norway, Opera makes sense, but
    here? No. Someone should tell the Norwegians about the
    “1,000,000th English Word”. Want to share files, photos and fun with your friends? Wasn’t that why Facebook was invented?

  3. "I ran it on a VMWare virtual machine, behind two layers of NAT and a firewall device with all incoming requests denied. "

    Yeah, whatever the number of security layers you have, the Opera Browser connects to a centralized server, and anyone who wants to get into your machine piggybacks through your own connection. Malware that runs of people's computer often act that way to circumvent inbound protections on firewalls.

  4. * You’re still relying on a server. Every request has to go through a subdomain of operaunite.com in order to be relayed to and from your desktop.

    –FALSE, in fact a lie. See the ample documentation and every article about it anywhere.

    * Does anyone think that a lightweight web server running inside a browser will be able to scale on demand? In my tests, it was dog slow, even for one client. So much so that external clients kept timing out.

    –WELL IF IT DOESN"T WORK, IT WONT WORK, but in fact, I've already used several such sites, without difficulty. It seems that people all over the world are doing better than you. The little 'chat' rooms were a little sluggish, but you forget that the purpose of the whole thing is to serve things to your understanding friends, not to idiotic consumers dealing with the company you're working for.

    "What if you get slashdotted?" If this is an argument against Opera unite, it is an argument against anyone's having a small local webserver, that it should all be in the hands of the monopolies like Google who so happily hand over everything to the cops? "yeah man, my old mac mini crashed when my xyz page got slashdotted" – I'd wear that like a badge of honor.

    • Hey, We've got our first Troll! (Edit: Please note that I named this guy a troll before removing a bunch of profanities from his comment)

      "FALSE, in fact a lie. See the ample documentation and every article about it anywhere."

      Dude, this was confirmed by Opera engineers… Opera opens a persistent connection to operaunite.com.

      • Yeah, and my tests confirm that. It has to go through operaunite.com in order to hook up with your workstation's connection to the web. If it were just a redirection to your workstation's IP, then my firewall would have stopped it.

  5. * You’re still relying on a server. Every request has to go through a subdomain of operaunite.com in order to be relayed to and from your desktop.
    –FALSE, in fact a lie. See the ample documentation and every article about it anywhere.
    * Does anyone think that a lightweight web server running inside a browser will be able to scale on demand? In my tests, it was dog slow, even for one client. So much so that external clients kept timing out.
    –WELL IF IT DOESN”T WORK, IT WONT WORK, but in fact, I’ve already used several such sites, without difficulty. It seems that people all over the world are doing better than you. The little ‘chat’ rooms were a little sluggish, but you forget that the purpose of the whole thing is to serve things to your understanding friends, not to idiotic consumers dealing with the company you’re working for.

    “What if you get slashdotted?” If this is an argument against Opera unite, it is an argument against anyone’s having a small local webserver, that it should all be in the hands of the monopolies like Google who so happily hand over everything to the cops? “yeah man, my old mac mini crashed when my xyz page got slashdotted” – I’d wear that like a badge of honor.

    • Hey, We’ve got our first Troll! (Edit: Please note that I named this guy a troll before removing a bunch of profanities from his comment)

      “FALSE, in fact a lie. See the ample documentation and every article about it anywhere.”

      Dude, this was confirmed by Opera engineers… Opera opens a persistent connection to operaunite.com.

      • Yeah, and my tests confirm that. It has to go through operaunite.com in order to hook up with your workstation’s connection to the web. If it were just a redirection to your workstation’s IP, then my firewall would have stopped it.

  6. “I ran it on a VMWare virtual machine, behind two layers of NAT and a firewall device with all incoming requests denied. ”

    Yeah, whatever the number of security layers you have, the Opera Browser connects to a centralized server, and anyone who wants to get into your machine piggybacks through your own connection. Malware that runs of people’s computer often act that way to circumvent inbound protections on firewalls.

    • Interesting — but if you're going to go to that trouble, why not set up a permanent site instead of hosting it in your browser?

      • The fact that it is "trouble" is meaningless at this point. I was merely refuting the claim that ALL connections HAVE to go through operaunite.com, and when someone tried to say otherwise was labelled a troll.

        Also, giving out your ip is no particularly difficult.

        ps: Sorry if I posted a couple of times, I thought I had missed a "required" field. :-(

        • Hey Miguel,

          I named him a troll before editing the comment of the guy, who was insulting the author of this post, telling him he was a "f* idiot"

        • OK, point acknowledged. But it seems academic. Someone with the technical acumen to be able to set up the direct connection probably already runs server-based sites that they could easily use instead. I'll concede, though, that this is a new product, so Opera might be able to simplify that hand-off somewhat in the future — which is somewhat of a frightening idea from a security point of view.

        • Thanks, Kiltak. From the perspective of the argument itself, I wouldn't have minded if you left the insults in place. I have a tough skin, and the commenter's need to resort to ad hominem attacks only reveals the weakness of his argument.

  7. I joked about it being called Untie too. I never realized that it was so insecure. I don't think that too many people will be discovering the service anytime soon, so we have time for it to mature.

  8. I joked about it being called Untie too. I never realized that it was so insecure. I don’t think that too many people will be discovering the service anytime soon, so we have time for it to mature.

  9. I can't help but think that you have completely missed the point of Opera Unite. It's not a replacement for a fully-fledged web server. It's not even a replacement for a low-resource web-server for the home. It's just a way of exposing your machine to trusted folk.

    Maybe you just don't interact with many computer literate people who are not also geeks, but there is a large problem "out there" regarding sharing big files with others. Send it over IM? Unreliable at best. Send it over email? Takes far too long and locks up the email client. Upload it somewhere? Requires somewhere to host it, the time it takes to upload, etc. etc.

    Would it be nice to be able to say "here, grab it from my machine?" Yes, it would. I've been doing that for years, but that's because I know how to configure Apache, poke a hole in the firewall, handle security, and so forth. For people who want to share files online but don't know how to run a local web server, what choices are there? Opera Unite provides a good one.

    This is a common complaint I hear from the "geek" crowd – a product is released that takes the complexity of something the geek already knows about, and distills the essence of it to make it accessible to the everyman. Then the geek complains because it's not as powerful as his existing custom solution. The product is not for you!

    You do not "have" to use Opera Unite in order to interact with people who do (Facebook et al require both users to sign up and be friends, and no, there is no file sharing on facebook). The whole point is to use existing web standards to provide something the average joe can use. You already know how to handle better servers yourself, so do so. Leave the people who don't want to configure a miniature web server for the home to use an intermediate product. The only such product at the moment is … Opera Unite.

    • That wasn't how it was hyped. "Reinvent the web" doesn't mean simple file sharing to me.

      Besides, there are plenty of free services that allow you to share big files without placing an on-demand load on your workstation or exposing your file system to visitors.

  10. I can’t help but think that you have completely missed the point of Opera Unite. It’s not a replacement for a fully-fledged web server. It’s not even a replacement for a low-resource web-server for the home. It’s just a way of exposing your machine to trusted folk.

    Maybe you just don’t interact with many computer literate people who are not also geeks, but there is a large problem “out there” regarding sharing big files with others. Send it over IM? Unreliable at best. Send it over email? Takes far too long and locks up the email client. Upload it somewhere? Requires somewhere to host it, the time it takes to upload, etc. etc.

    Would it be nice to be able to say “here, grab it from my machine?” Yes, it would. I’ve been doing that for years, but that’s because I know how to configure Apache, poke a hole in the firewall, handle security, and so forth. For people who want to share files online but don’t know how to run a local web server, what choices are there? Opera Unite provides a good one.

    This is a common complaint I hear from the “geek” crowd – a product is released that takes the complexity of something the geek already knows about, and distills the essence of it to make it accessible to the everyman. Then the geek complains because it’s not as powerful as his existing custom solution. The product is not for you!

    You do not “have” to use Opera Unite in order to interact with people who do (Facebook et al require both users to sign up and be friends, and no, there is no file sharing on facebook). The whole point is to use existing web standards to provide something the average joe can use. You already know how to handle better servers yourself, so do so. Leave the people who don’t want to configure a miniature web server for the home to use an intermediate product. The only such product at the moment is … Opera Unite.

    • That wasn’t how it was hyped. “Reinvent the web” doesn’t mean simple file sharing to me.

      Besides, there are plenty of free services that allow you to share big files without placing an on-demand load on your workstation or exposing your file system to visitors.

    • Interesting — but if you’re going to go to that trouble, why not set up a permanent site instead of hosting it in your browser?

      • The fact that it is “trouble” is meaningless at this point. I was merely refuting the claim that ALL connections HAVE to go through operaunite.com, and when someone tried to say otherwise was labelled a troll.

        Also, giving out your ip is no particularly difficult.

        ps: Sorry if I posted a couple of times, I thought I had missed a “required” field. :-(

        • OK, point acknowledged. But it seems academic. Someone with the technical acumen to be able to set up the direct connection probably already runs server-based sites that they could easily use instead. I’ll concede, though, that this is a new product, so Opera might be able to simplify that hand-off somewhat in the future — which is somewhat of a frightening idea from a security point of view.

        • Thanks, Kiltak. From the perspective of the argument itself, I wouldn’t have minded if you left the insults in place. I have a tough skin, and the commenter’s need to resort to ad hominem attacks only reveals the weakness of his argument.

        • Hey Miguel,

          I named him a troll before editing the comment of the guy, who was insulting the author of this post, telling him he was a “f* idiot”

  11. It seems to me that if all a user is looking to do is share files from their local workstation then DropBox covers that niche fairly nicely.

    • Good point.

      Opera's add-on applications allow you to do more than that, but they aren't very usable from my testing, precisely because those types of apps need the horsepower of a real web server.

  12. It seems to me that if all a user is looking to do is share files from their local workstation then DropBox covers that niche fairly nicely.

    • Good point.

      Opera’s add-on applications allow you to do more than that, but they aren’t very usable from my testing, precisely because those types of apps need the horsepower of a real web server.

  13. OK. Security issues aside…

    Was Opera Unite at all like we expected? Not at all. If it was something worthwhile, I would've changed from Firefox. The new "features" don't convince me at all and I see no special or innovative ideas.

    "Reinventing the web" is a good advertising slogan but actually reinventing the web is a completely different matter.

    Don't get me wrong, Opera is a good browser but I knew for the start that this hype would amount to nothing.

  14. OK. Security issues aside…
    Was Opera Unite at all like we expected? Not at all. If it was something worthwhile, I would’ve changed from Firefox. The new “features” don’t convince me at all and I see no special or innovative ideas.

    “Reinventing the web” is a good advertising slogan but actually reinventing the web is a completely different matter.

    Don’t get me wrong, Opera is a good browser but I knew for the start that this hype would amount to nothing.

  15. I tried it myself, but soon later someone pointed me to HFS ("Http File Server"), which is a simple solution for file sharing from your home computer.

    HFS does not provide a gallery with thumbnails, it has no chat, etc. But it feels less awkward than the current implementation of Opera Unite.

    All that Opera Unite has to offer, could as well be achieved with standalone applications like HFS, which just have to be found (if they exist) or coded (if not). There is no need to make this thing part of my web browser, and there is no need for a big Opera label, there is no need to make it all rely on one central infrastructure tool.

    Opera devs are so used to building a swiss army knife, that apparently they can't imagine to build a piece of software that is not part of the Opera browser.

    • Good observation. It seems like the folks at Opera believe they are empowering users by freeing them of their dependence on online services, but they're doing that at the price of loading up the client. I think the goal of democratizing the web is a good one, but I think it will be achieved by making server resources more generally available and accessible, rather than by making the client heavier.

  16. I tried it myself, but soon later someone pointed me to HFS (“Http File Server”), which is a simple solution for file sharing from your home computer.

    HFS does not provide a gallery with thumbnails, it has no chat, etc. But it feels less awkward than the current implementation of Opera Unite.

    All that Opera Unite has to offer, could as well be achieved with standalone applications like HFS, which just have to be found (if they exist) or coded (if not). There is no need to make this thing part of my web browser, and there is no need for a big Opera label, there is no need to make it all rely on one central infrastructure tool.

    Opera devs are so used to building a swiss army knife, that apparently they can’t imagine to build a piece of software that is not part of the Opera browser.

    • Good observation. It seems like the folks at Opera believe they are empowering users by freeing them of their dependence on online services, but they’re doing that at the price of loading up the client. I think the goal of democratizing the web is a good one, but I think it will be achieved by making server resources more generally available and accessible, rather than by making the client heavier.

  17. I am not a geek nor do I know much about this "reinventing the web" business. I found this article because I searched for "why is Opera Unite so slow".

    While it didn't help me find a way to make this faster, at least I know it's not "my fault" that this is driving me crazy.

    I'm trying to download a file from a friend's machine and the fastest download speed I can get is 7 KB/s. Ridiculous. Downloading from anywhere else on my connection is more than 10x as fast and I'm just using the bottom of the line home internet solution.

    Ok I just had to vent. It's no fun seeing estimated download time in DAYS rather than hours.

    • I think you've stumbled on the primary flaw in this whole idea. Peer to peer sharing means that each side can be the weakest link. You're probably being dragged down by your friend's speed. In the traditional model that places a server in between, the only things you have to rely on are the server's availability and the speed of your link to that server. Both are usually much better than you can expect from a peer.

  18. I am not a geek nor do I know much about this “reinventing the web” business. I found this article because I searched for “why is Opera Unite so slow”.
    While it didn’t help me find a way to make this faster, at least I know it’s not “my fault” that this is driving me crazy.

    I’m trying to download a file from a friend’s machine and the fastest download speed I can get is 7 KB/s. Ridiculous. Downloading from anywhere else on my connection is more than 10x as fast and I’m just using the bottom of the line home internet solution.

    Ok I just had to vent. It’s no fun seeing estimated download time in DAYS rather than hours.

    • I think you’ve stumbled on the primary flaw in this whole idea. Peer to peer sharing means that each side can be the weakest link. You’re probably being dragged down by your friend’s speed. In the traditional model that places a server in between, the only things you have to rely on are the server’s availability and the speed of your link to that server. Both are usually much better than you can expect from a peer.