Cloud Storage: On SugarSync, DropBox & Live Mesh
A few years ago I listened to analysts talking about the “virtual business.” They envisaged a world of mobile workers who could tap in to their corporate networks from anywhere. There wasn’t much substance on this future vision, and certainly not to the extent that mobile workers now enjoy with technologies enabled by Cloud Computing.
Back in 2001 when I set up my first web company, it was always my ideal that the company should be truly virtual and not be tied specifically to any physical office space. While it is important for people to come together to build ideas, this can be done in any space that provides the correct tools – which for us means whiteboards and notebooks.
I still value physical interaction with people for certain meetings as you get a visual feedback which you cannot get on the Web. You can see all of the participants’ body language, and it is much easier to be completely inclusive in such arrangements. Virtual meetings – using Skype and whiteboarding technologies – are OK in some situations, but not all.
However, these meetings do not make up the bulk of the day to day work – this is spent with the computer either writing, desigining or programming. And, as long as the computer is present with the right tools, this can be done anywhere. As long as the files are there also.
This is where the Cloud comes in (see also previous post: Cloud Computing vs Dedicated Servers).
My original intention was to embrace Cloud Computing and adopt an application to manage the replication and synchronisation of my business files across multiple computers – namely the office PC and the laptop – without actually needing to physically connect the two.
Initial reviews of available systems revealed two main contenders – SugarSync and DropBox. The former appeared a more mature product and with a wider functional base, so I decided this would be my synchronisation tool of choice – subject to testing it out of course. Ever the skeptic!
So, about a moth ago I installed SugarSync to provide a cloud-based store for all my work files. The set-up is simple – create an account online and then install the SugarSync client on all computers that need to be kept synchronised. SugarSync then ensures that all selected folders are replicated across all computers linked to that account so all your files are everywhere, as well as stored online in the Cloud. You can also configure SugarSync as a straight backup tool so that copies of the files are stored only in the Cloud but not replicated to each computer. Personally I opted for full synchronisation to make sure there is always a backup and I don’t need to be online when I need to access my files.
So how was this to change my life?
The main benefit would be that all my files would be accessible to me at any time – even from a mobile phone or any Internet connected computer. I no longer would have to depend on USB memory sticks to carry around a sub-set of my files and find myself caught out when somebody calls and I need something I don’t have.
This would make working much easier – I just open my computer and get on with work. A few minutes after I have saved the file (usually), SugarSync would back the file up in the Cloud and is then ready to send it to all the other computers I have connected to the account when they are switched on and the SugarSync client is running.
Was it easy making the transition? Essentially yes.
SugarSync set-up is easy – just create an online account and install the software.
I started with a sub-set of my files – about 5Gb of data – large enough to be a good test, but not committing everything. This took a few days to push up into the Cloud because upstream data rates are quite slow in the UK. Once the files were there, I installed SugarSync on the second computer (laptop) and started the download. This was much quicker and only took a few hours. I tidied up a few duplicates and manually merged in the contents of my memory sticks and let SugarSync sort out the synchronisation which it appeared to do without a hitch.
There were some teething problems with the install on the Vista machine which I did not discover until a few days later. This required a re-install and created a swathe of files in limbo. SugarSync support is very slow and generally takes a few days to provide responses to support tickets. Also, there is no user manual explaining the basics – such as the “reclaim storage” option – and what to do in these situations. Nor could I find anything online. There is also no community support or forums. Consequently, in the intervening days there was a lot of faith held in the accuracy of the data held in the Cloud and what had actually been synchronised on my computers.
After three days I received a response which “explained” what the “reclaim storage” option was about. Unfortunately, the response didn’t really clarify the situation and after a couple of weeks trying to resolve it I resorted to gambling with SugarSync and trying out something that could have been easily addressed.
Here is a summary for anybody experiencing a similar dilema with reclaim storage:
The files shown under “Reclaim Storage” are the files you have deleted from your computer. Files don’t get corrupted or deleted on the storage server. Some files stay in your account [on the SugarSync server] even after deletion. You can delete them safely. Your data will not be affected in any way. [That's a direct quote]
I can only guess at how these orphans appear, since deleted files actually appear in the “deleted files” folder.
Idea 1: SugarSync maintains up to 4 previous versions of the file you synchronise so that you can roll back to a previous version. When you delete files they are moved to the “deleted items” folder, but previous versions could be orphaned and appear in the “reclaim storage”.
Idea 2: Because I had to reinstall the software, create a new link between the laptop and the Clound, and delete the old link via the online control panel, the resulting rescan picks up some of the old associations but also creates new ones. These new ones cause the old data to become orphaned.
SugarSync doesn’t work properly. I had to re-install SugarSync on my Vista machine a few times (this is the Sharpcast support team’s answer to most of your problems), and when you do this you have to link your computer to the SugarSync account again and delete the previous computer relationship online. This then causes SugarSync to re-scan the machine and it often uploads/downloads some files again. It also fills up your desktop recycle bin with old copies of hundreds of updated files if you have a large data set.
It would be nice to be able to trust that SugarSync is doing its job properly (asÂ SharpcastÂ asks you to do), but after two weeks of not getting a straight answer to the problem and being told to (yet again) re-install the software, I took fate into my own hands and discovered that you can selectively delete or archive files from the “reclaim storage” list of files. I chose to delete 2 files I knew I could find easily in my 5Gb of data and deleted them permanently. I waited a few hours and checked to see that the original files were still safe – as SugarSync claimed they would be.
Unfortunately, one of the files – a client proposal – had been deleted. Since only 1 file was affected I could easily recover it from the recycle bin on my desktop. However, the “reclaim files” dialogue lists thousands of files and folders in my case, and given that SugarSync has just been proven to delete files that it shouldn’t, I have now stopped SugarSync synchronising any data between my computers for fear of loss of any further data.
This problem may not be a direct consequence of SugarSync, and may be due to my Vista Home installation on the laptop potentially conflicting with the XP Pro installation on my base computer. Of course I am looking at all angles here – but the bottom line is that SugarSync doesn’t work in my operating environment.
These all work in much the same way as SugarSync – in the sense of you create an online account and install the desktop client software, so I won’t cover this part of the process again here.
My initial reaction was that the team at DropBoxÂ are much more open with their product. Sharpcast are clearly in the “old school” in that the product is a black box and you just have to take it on trust that it works. Their blog is essentially release notes rather than communication, the latter approach being better aligned with a product embracing cloud-based computing IMHO.
I was pleased by the DropBox documentation and the explanation of what it’s actually doing in order to synchronise your data, unlike SugarSync which doesn’t even appear to have a user manual. DropBox also has active user forums where you can get fast responses to issues from other users.
DropBox also has a nice feature where you can share sub-folders with other people and so collaborate on files over the web in true virtual teams. SugarSync is a closed system for you alone, although you can “send” files to people but once you do they are outside of the synchronisation control loop (this is basically an email tool).
The downside is that DropBox currently only works from within a single root folder called “My DropBox” which is created under your “My Documents” folder. All files which you require to be synchronised must be located in this folder. I have about 30Gb of data that I would like to keep synchronised and don’t really want to move the files. DropBox do plan to extend this in the future to allow you to use your pre-existing folders but it’s not available at the time of writing.
I had a quick look at MobileMe from Apple. However, file synchronisation doesn’t appear to be built in at present (according to the website) and the system only provides an iDisk feature where you can drop/upload files to create an online copy. However, I am told by a customer who uses it that it does support full synchronisation and that they use it regularly (see * in table below). Also, the account is limited to 20Gb which is not sufficient space for my files :(.
The email, calendar and PIM-related synchronisation are excellent, but since I already have these features through Emissary Mail this would be duplication of effort and potentially lead to confusion!
I then looked at Live Mesh from Microsoft. This is currently a tech preview (alpha) release and only offers a 5Gb free version at present. However, the interface is much easier to understand and the development blog is much more open that Sharpcast’s. There is even a post on tombstone files – which sounds very much like the problem I could have been experiencing with SugarSync.
Live Mesh is Windows-only at the moment, but Mac and mobile versions are on their way. It’s early days, but as a Windows user I hope the operating system integration is going to make the software more reliable in synchronising my files. Live Mesh also allows collaboration via public folders which will help working with my PA and other team members. Plus it has a built in remote desktop feature not present in other replication tools which gives you full access to other computers fully connected to the mesh.
From a perspective of vision, Live Mesh appears the most capable product long-term. It embodies both the synchronisation and replication features with cloud storage plus principles of mesh computing by allowing you to connect to the peer computers in the mesh itself, so extending the reach beyond the cloud. The current level of issue management (i.e. what to do with file synchronisation conflicts) is much more transparent and it works!
When a file conflict occurs – for example when you edit a file on multiple machines – Live Mesh shows a dialogue that allows you to choose which file to keep, or you can view the files and decide what to do.
The only issue I have with Live Mesh at the moment is that it summarises what it has done – e.g. “Edward TerryÂ added 16 filesÂ in the folderÂ Mesh Quickshare” – but there is no way to find out which 16 files. When you are dealing with large amounts of data, it would be good to be able to access the details to verify manually that everything is as it should be. Live Mesh has also (on two occasions) appeared to have performed a large update of files and folders even though nothing was actually changed in the folders it identified. I am not sure if this is just the desktop catching up with the Cloud, or something to do with the local computer time changing, but it was a bit confusing. All the files appear to be present and accounted for, so I am hoping this is just the “news” feature of Silverlight catching up with reality.
|Allows File Sharing
|Keeps Old Versions
It’s still early days for Cloud-based systems and the file deletion by SugarSync is a serious blow to the credibility/stability of an application you are basically trusting your business to.
I can’t speak for the reliability of DropBox or MobileMe as I haven’t tried them.
Live Mesh is still only a “tech preview”, but appears more reliable even at this early stage. The online reporting explains what is happening more clearly and Microsoft’s recent fix for tombstones is very timely. It would benefit from a little more detail in the audit trail as “20 folders added” is a little brief – a link to show you which ones would be a nice addition.
My initial experience with cloud storage is positive overall and I will continue to pursue this route. Once the products mature and the minor issues I have experienced are resolved through better support and refined interfaces, these technologies will help more people be truly mobile and the idea of the ubiquitous Internet will help transform how we do business together.