Dropbox Left the Cloud in 2015 and Never Went Back


Dropbox made a significant decision in 2015, opting to reduce its dependence on cloud services, notably during a period of growing cloud adoption. This is the second article in our analytical series on cloud repatriation. Our first examined Ahrefs’ 2020 choice to host their own colocation data center, which yielded substantial savings. 

Established in 2007, Dropbox’s initial framework utilized Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3) for file content storage, with metadata hosted in private data centers. 

By 2018, with an investment surpassing $53 million, Dropbox transitioned much of its infrastructure to three dedicated colocation facilities, bringing its AWS usage down to just 10%. For context, as of Q2 2023, Statista reports that AWS holds a 32% share in the $65 billion cloud infrastructure market.

Many businesses have shifted from public cloud to managed colocation services or hybrid solutions in recent years. This article will explore Dropbox’s rationale for such a move, its adopted strategy, and its broader industry implications.

The Impetus Behind Dropbox’s Reverse Migration 

As Dropbox expanded, its distinct storage needs and growing user base nudged it towards reconsidering traditional cloud options.

  • An established data center presence: Dropbox was familiar with data center infrastructure even in its nascent stages. Their alliance with Amazon S3 intensified post-2013 to cater to burgeoning storage needs.
  • Economies of scale and profit margins: A pivotal rationale for their shift was the prospect of amplified cost savings and profit margins. In-house large-scale storage promised superior economies of scale.
  • The inception of Magic Pocket: This was Dropbox’s tailored solution to storage, merging reliability with scalability. It marked their significant transition from traditional cloud storage.
  • Performance optimization: Having storage systems aligned with company needs to facilitate precise performance tuning from end-to-end.
  • Tailored block storage solutions: As a global leader in cloud services, Dropbox’s vast scale enabled them to refine their hardware and software, optimizing unit economics.

Many maturing SaaS businesses, initially thriving in the cloud, are reevaluating their strategies to optimize costs further and boost profit margins. Dropbox’s in-house transition underscores its dedication to efficiency, performance, and safety.  

How Dropbox Left the Cloud

Dropbox’s transition away from the cloud involved a delicate balance of strategy, technology, and logistical expertise:

Iterative capacity planning and a software-driven approach

Regular updates and reviews ensured Dropbox’s data center modeling evolved with their business needs.

Dropbox’s software team took the lead, using capacity forecasts to dictate server requirements across different data centers.

Timed transition off Amazon

Dropbox was on a tight timeline with impending Amazon contract expirations. They methodically shifted their system and data, ensuring a timely transition from their Amazon dependency.

Technical challenges and system testing

It was crucial to undergo significant infrastructure changes without disrupting services for its vast user base. The ideal outcome? Ensuring users remained largely unaware of these shifts.

Before full-scale implementation, the initial code was tested on a partial version of Dropbox, managing about 20% of the data previously hosted on Amazon. This in-depth testing phase spanned eight months, emphasizing the importance Dropbox placed on ensuring a seamless transition.

Advancements in storage density

From 4-terabyte drives in 2015 to 20 terabytes by 2020, the tech giant also ramped up the number of drives per chassis, reflecting their commitment to maximizing storage efficiency.

The result? Dropbox’s Magic Pocket system. Apart from handling encrypted data, this in-house solution achieved an enviable annual data durability rate surpassing 99.9999999999% and availability higher than 99.99%.

What Were the Results?

Dropbox’s migration to its infrastructure yielded palpable financial and operational benefits:

  • Cumulative savings over two years: Following its migration, Dropbox pared down its operational expenses by $74.6 million within two years, as highlighted in its 2018 S-1 statement.
  • Immediate cost benefits: During the shift from AWS’s S3 to their tailor-made infrastructure from 2015 to 2016, Dropbox reaped savings of $39.5 million. This came from a $92.5 million decline in expenses to third-party data centers, offset by a $53 million increase for their proprietary data centers.
  • Enhanced savings by 2017: Their strategic foresight continued to pay off, with savings expanding by an additional $35.1 million beyond the 2016 figures.

Dropbox’s transition to a new infrastructure fortified its financial standing and bolstered its market position, enabling it to capture 27.6% of the global file-sharing software market in 2022, according to Statista. 

This remarkable growth trajectory exemplifies how companies can take charge and become significant players in their respective industries.

Lessons Learned Eight Years On

Reflecting on Dropbox’s eight-year journey from cloud dependency to independence, several pivotal lessons emerge for enterprises of all sizes:

Embrace adaptable growth models

Dropbox’s time-bound actionable growth vector approach, which quantifies IT service output, offers an alternative to traditional space and power-centric data center models. Other organizations could potentially adopt this mindset.

Understand the scale and cost

Building vast networks like Dropbox’s is no small feat. A deep understanding of the challenges, significant scale, and talent are paramount.

While in-house infrastructure brings autonomy, it doesn’t come without significant investment. Scale and expertise are critical.

Specialization can be advantageous

Dropbox’s primary storage focus made their migration manageable. Conversely, companies deeply embedded in specialized cloud services may face more arduous migration paths.

Seek expert guidance

As affirmed by Urs Hölzle, a former professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the eighth employee of Google who played a pivotal role in shaping the company’s global network and current cloud services, it’s often the best decision not to tread this path alone. He advises, “The right answer is not to do this yourself.”

Partnering with colocation data center experts like TRG Datacenters can be a game-changer for organizations contemplating similar journeys. Stay connected for more insights.