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Synchronizing computers, Part 4: SyncToy

Nov 29, 20054 mins

* Trying out SyncToy from Microsoft’s Web site

In this series about synchronizing files on different computers, I’ve been telling you about ways to match up the contents of specific folders on different computers – sometimes using cables and sometimes using Internet connections.

Reader Alain Duminy (who has CISSP and GSEC certifications) recently wrote to me from Manila in the Philippines about another method for synchronizing files on different disk drives: SyncToy.

This unsupported utility for Windows XP was released in August. From Microsoft’s Web site you can download both a white paper and the free software. This “PowerToy” is not formally supported by Microsoft, but there is a user group in the Professional Photography forum where you can get help informally. SyncToy is useful for synchronizing folders on different computers that are already linked in a network or for synchronizing folders on removable disks attached to a single computer.

To download SyncToy, users must download and allow an ActiveX validation tool to check the authenticity of their Windows installation (which also implies that one cannot download the software from a non-Windows-XP system). I was unable to complete this process using my default browser (Opera) and had to switch to Internet Explorer.

According to its documentation, SyncToy requires the following for successful operations (quoting directly):

* Operating System. Windows XP Home or Professional (including Tablet PC and Media Center Editions) with Service Pack 2 or later installed. This program has not been tested on any other version of Windows.

* Hardware. A system with at least 256 Mb of RAM and a Pentium III or better CPU is required. For best performance, 512 Mb of RAM and a Pentium 4 or better CPU is recommended. 20 MB of free disk space is recommended.

* Microsoft .Net Framework. Version 1.1 of the Microsoft .Net Framework is required. Other versions of the .Net Framework may be safely installed on your system without affecting the use of SyncToy.

The software was originally developed to manage photograph collections, but it can serve for all types of files. One of the most useful features of the tool is that it recognizes files that are identical even when their names on different systems are different and can rename the files on the target systems – this process is even faster than the block- or byte-oriented synchronization used by other software tools discussed in this series of articles.

There are extensive tools available to help deal with conflicts such as files that are present on one system but not the other. SyncToy keeps a record (“snapshot”) of all files it “saw” in previous runs and can figure out that, for example:

* a file has been deleted on the source and should therefore be deleted on the target rather than restored on the source

* a file has been newly created on the source and should be copied onto the target

* a file has been renamed on the source but modified on the target

SyncToy allows the user to configure automated responses (“rules”) for such situations or to ask the user for a specific decision on what to do.

I tested SyncToy for synchronizing my 80G-byte USB removable drive containing 27G bytes of data in 138,000 files; because almost all files were already synchronized, the process took only 70 seconds (with my anti-virus product temporarily turned off to minimize the time for file access). This is such a rapid turnaround that I moved the portable drive to my laptop and tried it there; the synchronization took about five minutes because more files had to be transferred or deleted to complete the synchronization – still very good performance considering the volume of data involved. I will experiment with this tool to see if it meets my needs for all my synchronization functions.

In summary, for people who are using Windows XP and have removable drives or networked drives, this tool may provide good functionality and performance for backups and for synchronizing shared directories.

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Tomorrow, Nov. 30, is Computer Security Day. This worldwide observance began in 1988 and is now supported by the Association for Computer Security Day, which supplies free posters, suggestions for activities, and links to appropriate information resources.