Something to sync about

Gibbs takes a look at a cross-platform file synchronization system and then thinks about extending the idea.

In my Network World Web Applications Alert newsletter I recently covered a terrific service (in beta, natch) called Dropbox published by Evenflow.

Dropbox is a cross-platform, multiple-endpoint, file synchronization system. It creates a special folder called "Dropbox" in the local file system of a group of PCs. Drop a file into this folder on one machine and it appears in all of the other machines' Dropbox folders. This facility is incredibly useful for collaborative projects and the distribution of specialized content such as templates.

The actual file transfer is done blockwise (that is, using only file deltas) in the background to minimize perceived performance impact, and the actual transfer is mediated by the Dropbox servers which allows synchronization between machines isolated by firewalls because Dropbox only uses ports 80 and 443 (that's HTTP and HTTPS, respectively). An important feature is that all data transfers are secure and storage on the Dropbox servers is encrypted with 256-bit AES.

What's really impressive about Dropbox is you can install it on Windows (XP and Vista are supported, although it seems to work just fine on Windows 2003 SE) and OS X (Tiger and Leopard). Even better, a Linux version is in the works.

You can create subfolders under the Dropbox folder and share them with other Dropbox users outside of your group, and the Dropbox Web interface provides control of sharing, a log of all file additions and deletions, and recovery of deleted files; and you can add comments to shared folders. Finally, as if all that weren't enough, you can just log in directly to the Dropbox Web site and upload and download files, which provides you with access even from machines that don't have Dropbox installed.

During the beta (drop me a note to with the subject "dropbox" and I'll send you an invite) you are limited to 2GB of shared storage. When Dropbox comes out of beta the company plans to reduce that to 1GB for free accounts (beta users get to keep their 2GB limit). In their FAQ the company notes that there have been requests for self hosting and to use Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) as the back end, but it makes no promises as to when it might deliver these features.

It's got to be said: Dropbox is a work of genius. It does what it claims to do better than any other service I've seen and transparently enough that you could deploy it to inexperienced users.

All of this got me thinking about other synchronization uses. I might set up Dropbox such that the shared folder on a Windows 2003 server on my network is monitored by a copy of another tool I really like, GoodSync, a utility from Siber Systems that I last reviewed two years ago.

GoodSync allows you to set up synchronization "jobs" that can be run on-demand or scheduled. The sync process can uni- or bidirectionally synchronize directories and can use any combination of Windows shares, FTP, Secure FTP, WebDAV and WinMobile (via ActiveSync).

I could set up GoodSync to copy files one-way from various subfolders in the server's local Dropbox folder to a server archive folder. These various subfolders would be shared via separate Dropbox accounts on the machines of other people I work with who aren't very computer literate and who shall remain nameless. I'd set up their systems such that critical files (such as accounting data and address books) would be stored in their Dropbox folders, and GoodSync would ensure that copies were archived and always recoverable.

A free alternative to Goodsync might be to use Microsoft's Robocopy, which is part of the Windows 2003 Resource Kit Tool. If you want to try this utility (which is about as user friendly as a cornered rat), you might want to use the optional GUI, which slightly improves its usability.

Obviously there are many ways to, if you'll forgive me, skin this particular cat. What do you use?

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