To call me a little bit OCD is putting things lightly; I make the most picky of organizers look sloppy. This extends to both my personal and work spaces and the contents of my hard drive. This has become an escalating problem, especially on the hard drive end of things, the more computers I obtain. At the moment I have three of them, with a total of five operating systems (two are Macs, so they dual boot between OSX and Vista)– keeping particular files consistent between all of them has always been a challenge. Initially I didn't attempt to; I had a four gig USB flash drive and I would load up the things I needed between all of them on that. Trillian, my preferred IM client, was told to save its chatlogs to this drive and I would toss anything else I needed to have access to across multiple places (whether Photoshop files or website HTML or whatever) on that as well. When I just had one computer (or one computer at home and one at work), this was pretty manageable except when I inevitably forgot the thumb drive at home or at the office. When more computers got added to the mix things were even more problematic: if I was working on something in Second Life, I would usually want to have that running on a computer by itself, with Photoshop and Firefox and my IM client open on another. Unfortunately having all stuff writing to the thumb drive meant that I couldn't expect stuff to get saved when the drive wasn't plugged in. It would have to go to a temporary directory and it would be on me to remember to manually copy stuff myself; cumbersome and annoying, not the best solution. This also meant I was always down one USB port; on my desktop(s) this isn't a really big deal, but my MacBook only has two ports to begin with and the ports are so close together that if a USB drive is using one, it's too thick to allow anything else to be plugged in. There was also the fact that I had a flash drive jutting out from my computer, which was responsible for at least one ruined set of USB ports on a work machine when a coworker accidentally smashed it out of my machine.
Adam at some point, due to a few close calls of the latter kind, suggested I plug the thumb drive into my desktop and set it up as a network drive that all my machines could access over the local network. This solved the problem of being unable to utilize different programs across different computers that needed to write to the same drive; I could open Second Life on one machine and an IM client on the other and both would save data to the same drive over our local network, and if necessary I still had the USB drive to take with me if I needed to have access when I wasn't at home. This would have been an acceptable solution if not for the fact that, especially on my laptop over WiFi (and not a hardwired connection), the network drive had a habit of dropping out for the computers accessing it, meaning suddenly the connection would vanish when it was being used and data would not be saved correctly. It also still meant I had to use up a USB port, so those problems weren't solved.
Enter Windows Live Sync as my first attempted solution to fix this. A free part of Windows Live, it is a little piece of software that sits in the background and monitors specified folders for changes and propagates those changes to synced machines when they happen. As it works for both Windows and Mac it was initially a great solution for me; instead of carrying a flash drive everywhere, I just created a folder on my machines with the content of that drive and allowed Live Sync to keep everything consistent across my various machines, giving me the benefit of a local copy on my hard drives. It was not 100% without issues, though; namely it has some pretty stupid restrictions– you're only allowed to set up 20 "sync folders," which can only have a max of twenty thousand files inside each of them. That might seem like a pretty high ceiling at first glance but it was enough of a restriction for me initially that I had to do some pretty hefty reorganization and file-deletion to get myself under that threshold. I suppose it's to be expected given that this is a free service, but I would have happily paid for a premium version without that. Given that the main intent of the service, according to Microsoft, is for syncing documents and photos across multiple computers, I never would have been able to use it for that– my Documents folder alone has a total of sixty-five thousand files.
Nevertheless after the restructuring I was able to get things going. One slight drawback was that Live Sync makes use of Microsoft's servers to facilitate whether or not your various machines are online, so you have to be connected to the internet in order to have changes sync between machines. The files are also sent over a peer-to-peer connection, meaning files cross over the internet and not my local network. Everything is encrypted so I wasn't so concerned about interception, but this meant that I was actually using my bandwidth cap to send files to computers that literally sat inches away from one another. I was concerned about how that would affect things for us (something I'd taken for granted in the US was unlimited bandwidth, which is not the case in the rest of the world) but the impact was pretty negligible to our usage thankfully.
I set Live Sync up at the end of April and had used it constantly since then; I was extremely pleased with it, up until about three weeks ago when the whole system went down for about twenty four hours. The Microsoft status page for the service wasn't updated for about six, until finally they brought the website down to say that there was a problem. The forum I was sent to for further information was also offline, and there was no contact information on their help site to speak to any representatives. When I finally got a response to my initial support email, it came a week later with no acknowledgment of the downtime and a canned response suggesting I uninstall and reinstall the software. By then everything had been fixed for days, of course, but it was still disconcerting and troublesome to me. I hadn't realized how reliant I had gotten on Live Sync and when it was gone, my productivity was completely smashed. The stuff I needed synced across machines weren't getting synced anymore. To make things worse when the service finally did come back up, my computers seemed completely confused to each other and started passing the wrong files back and forth, overwriting more recent files with older versions from the computers that hadn't been synced while things were offline. By the time I realized this was going on the data that was supposed to be consistent was instead irreparable, requiring I went to a backup from the day before to get a fresh, reliable copy. It was incredibly frustrating for me and I was very concerned about what I would do if this happened again; however it hadn't been a problem for the couple of months I'd been using the service so I hoped that it was a temporary glitch. Sadly, yesterday things went down again, and it was time to find something else.
Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a lot of competition for this sort of thing. I initially was looking for a software solution that would let me sync things over my local network; the Live Sync method was great, but a bit overkill for me and it would have been preferable to have everything passing locally (not to mention much faster) instead of going over the internet. The majority of programs I saw to accomplish this were either PC only (which wasn't acceptable to me), only one way (IE, I could only change things on one machine and have it copy to others, but changes to those machines wouldn't be copied back) or only ran syncs at regular intervals, not instantly. After a lot of googling for services similar to Live Sync I pulled up a list of names and, upon comparison, ended up giving SugarSync a try.
Although they are similar, SugarSync departs from Live Sync in a couple of ways. First, although they both require an internet connection, SugarSync actually uploads files to their servers where they are then downloaded to the machines that need to be updated. Live Sync simply monitored whether computers were online and told which computer to sync what, but they didn't host anything themselves. That meant it was absolutely possible for me to change something on one machine while it was offline, change something else on another computer, and have things mismatch when all computers were online and talking to each other again. With SugarSync it's not necessary for the original computer to still be connected to the internet to make sure the changes it's made are still passed where they're supposed to. This also means that it's a viable backup service since data can be downloaded again if it's lost.
SugarSync is also not free; it has a two gig-limit free service, which I nearly squeaked under, but its first tier is an extremely reasonable 4.99/monthly, 49.95/yearly plan for thirty gigs which was more than enough for me. As I said earlier I would have had no problem paying for Live Sync to remove some of the limits they impose, to say nothing about expectations of reliability and having a human to talk to when something goes down. I also didn't have a lot of confidence in the longevity of Live Sync to Microsoft; their blog for the service has only been updated a handful of times, the last being in April, and it's littered with spam comments. Nothing makes you worry for a product when the developers of it can't even moderate their own site.
I haven't used it extensively yet, but SugarSync seems to fill in the expectations I developed from Live Sync just fine, which works for me. I do have some complaints though, namely being that the initial upload of data has gone so abysmally slow that it's reached an inexcusable degree. To upload only three gigs and approximately fifteen thousand files has taken over twenty hours, despite my machine being connected via LAN and having set the upload speed to max in the program's control panel. Comparatively Live Sync took only two hours to facilitate the transfer of the same amount of data across three machines; thankfully the download is significantly better and in general usage I shouldn't need to be transferring this much in one hit, but I still don't understand why it's taking so long. However so far this is really my only complaint, otherwise the service seems to work admirably. On top of the file synchronization the service is also got a host of additional functions that I'm sure others would get a lot of use from, though for me they're totally irrelevant since I only signed on for this specific purpose.
The cost might be a deterrent for others, but I was happy to pull out my credit card for something I could at least be assured of reaching a person for if there's a problem. Given how necessary Live Sync had become for me, finding a service that accomplished the same manner of functions with added stability was excellent, and that it works for both Windows and Mac means there's no disruption from what I'd come to need from the Microsoft product.
04 August 2009 – 5:02 AM
Sadly I have to take it all back; after using the service more extensively, my initial excitement was pretty badly destroyed. While I was initially impressed with SugarSync in a lot of ways, I discovered yesterday that while I thought the computers were syncing with each other, they actually were not. Wild variations between the number of files on each machine prompted me to dig deeper, discovering that not everything had been getting sent across as it was supposed to. One machine would have a file, while the other two computers would not, or vice versa with other things. There was no consistent explanation for why something was missing, but it was enough of a problem (several hundred files in total that were out of place) that I uninstalled it and canceled my trial. For the time being I'm back with Live Sync, fingers crossed that it stays stable enough for me to find something else.