Sunday, December 6, 2009

Syncing through the cloud


How do you sync files between multiple computers?

I’ve written previously about my trials with internet based backup solutions: they were slow, expensive, tended to delete files instead of creating incremental backups, and dragged down my computer performance. I finally settled on using a cheap portable half-terabyte USB hard drive: I can literally drop all of the User directory tree onto it every week.

Lately, I’ve taken to doing the incremental backups using Beyond Compare, an outstanding folder comparison and synchronization utility from Scooter Software (Disclaimer: I have paid for my registered copy).

Now that I have two computers, a desktop in the office and a laptop for the road, I’m finding that I have to synchronize files between them. I have four key directories that I use for various projects and am constantly updating files, creating content, and changing directory structures as work progresses. Since I back up onto the USB drive, I’ve fallen into the bad habit of carrying my master backups around with me and synchronizing it onto whatever computer I’m currently working with.

This is, of course, a terrible idea: it puts my backup at physical risk and takes time at the start and end of every work session.

A couple of days ago, I found a solution through the productivity website Lifehacker, pointing to a cloud solution called DropBox.

I’ve been playing with the site for a few days, and it is really neat. A simple, free utility download installs the DropBox tool onto each computer, where it appears in Windows Explorer along with my other drives. I can create folders, drag and drop, and my files go up into the cloud as fast as they would on my USB drive. I have a free, private, password protected account with 2 GB of storage for testing: more is available for $9.99 / mo for 25 GB, $19.95 for 50 GB.

But the magic really started to happen when I freed myself from the idea of copying files around at all.

If I use DropBox as my working folder, then the various computers become simple windows onto the remote directories. When I log in, my work is just as I left it. The utility stores local copies on each machine and synchronizes to the latest version when I connect, so that I can continue working even if I’m not in Starbucks connected to the Internet.

It’s slowly changing how I think about my computer, from a notebook filled with project files to a tool that connects with my files.

I’m still experimenting, but I like what I see so far. It looks like you can even give limited access to colleagues by setting up subsidiary accounts. Lifehacker has lots of other creative ideas for how to use the site, and, if it seems to work reliably, I will upgrade to a pay account. It’s well worth a look.


Brian said...

I only wish there was a DropBox app for Android so I could have a sync folder on my phone. Other than that, I've been happy with it for about a year now.

Textual Healer said...

I would wonder about the security implications of having all my data stored on someone elses server.

I also run a laptop (home and on the road) and PC (office). My solution to keeping my work updated and available to me when I need it is to use Always Synch ( a free download - though i have paid for the commercial version as I became a heavy user) and a USB stick. This allows me to keep all my working files with me wherever I go. It takes a while to co-ordinate your file structure beween the computers but after that very simple. Every six months or so I drop all the files that are no longer current into an 'archives folder' to free up space. I also have an external hard drive with back of everything in case of my PC going down.

Dave Hampton said...

Thanks, brian: I'm still playing with it, and need to get the hang of the auto-synch options. It's a little scary when old versions get automatically updated, and I feel like I want to have a backup somewhere that I can roll back to if something goest wrong.

Thanks also, Nick, I absolutely agree about the security implications, and tend to password protect Word documetns with sensitive information. It's a good point to remember.
I've used SyncBack to sync to backups, but haven't tried it for daily synchronization as you do. I'll take a look at the program: your solution sounds similar to my use of Beyond Compare, but the USB stick makes more sense as a transfer medium.