Sunday, February 20, 2011

Keeping Data Available and Synced

Remember (if you’re old enough) how exciting it was to be able to put big chunks of data on a USB memory stick, or more accurately, flash drive (the “Jump Drive” was an early model from Lexar). So much better than floppies, and who uses floppy drives any more?! The problem is, though, that these are easily misplaced (especially a problem if you have any sort of sensitive data on the drive), they can cost a fair bit, and they can fail – a colleague recently discovered the danger of relying on a USB flash drive when it failed just when she needed it for preaching a sermon in chapel!

There are a number of excellent methods now available for making data broadly and safely available, and even keeping things in sync. I’m going to highlight two quite similar services that may well be entirely free to use, depending on how much space you need, and fill related but distinct roles in my use. A disclaimer here: I will give you a link for the services. If you use this link both you and I will get extra free space, so I do benefit by your use of the link. If you have a friend that you know is also on one of these, by all means use their referral link to benefit them. You definitely will want to take the referral path, though, as it gives you extra space as well as me or your other friend. Now to the services!

The first one I became aware of and put to use was Dropbox (referral link at Offering 2 gigabytes of space free (and more via referrals or on a paid plan) this was a fabulous, free, accessible replacement for my USB drive. If I could get to the internet, I could simply log in to the Dropbox site and access my files. I could also put files in a folder (photos, music, documents, whatever) and send a link to that folder to someone via email, and they could then retrieve those files. Besides that, I could also install the free Dropbox software on my PCs (of whatever sort: PC, Mac, Linux, and mobile devices) and have the files automatically replicated on all the PCs. (Dropbox also now allows you to select which portions you replicate, so that you don’t overwhelm a computer with low capacity.) The only glitch, and it was by no means a deal-breaker, was that Dropbox set up a folder on each PC which was the place everything was stored, so I had to put a copy of my class notes in there to get them from one machine to the other. (Yes, there are ways of setting up linkages and doing all sorts of exotic maneuvers, but that goes well beyond the basic stuff.) Dropbox was, and continues to be for me, an incredible and excellent alternative to USB drives for transferring and sharing files.

Another issue, which I had also originally solved with a USB drive, was keeping my files in sync. I generally did most of the work on my academic class notes on my home laptop (currently a Macbook), and taught from a tablet PC in the classroom (currently a Lenovo). Keeping my files in sync was a pain: I tried multiple software programs and used a 16gig USB drive to transfer the synced files from one to the other. It took time and had dangers of over-writing files where I’d made changes in both locations between syncs. It was a pain! Then I discovered Sugarsync (referral link at This excellent service offers 5 gigabytes free to start with, is very reasonable for larger sizes, and also gives extra space for referrals. It runs on the same types of gear as Dropbox, but differs in that Sugarsync makes it very easy to sync files between various computers. After you install the free Sugarsync manager program, you can designate any folder(s) on your computer(s) to be synced to each other. I chose, for instance, to sync my class notes from my home laptop to my class tablet, as well as being available to me on my iPhone and iPad. Now, when I change a file (as I did in our Bible study class this morning on Hebrews – link at on one computer, even on my iPhone or iPad, that change is propagated to all the linked computers without me doing anything else! Very cool! I’ve since created sync linkages between a number of different computers, linking different data between them all, and Sugarsync has never let me down.

Is it safe and secure? About as much as anything is on the internet – make sure you choose a good password (and I plan to do a blog posting on that soon). In some other important ways, though, it is VERY safe.
·      Think about it – both services back your data up to multiple locations. It’s available to you on the internet, as well as locally on whatever machines you’ve enabled for replication. If the internet is down, the information is still on those local machines. If you’re working away from the office and can connect at an internet café or library, even from the other side of the world, your data is backed up. If a machine is stolen or lost, that data is still on the other machines as well as the internet.
·      What happens if you accidentally make an unintended change? Won’t the syncing/replicating mess you up? Yes, it can, but fortunately both services offer versioning. I used this just last week. I was editing a file and changing some information, but absentmindedly hit “save” rather than selecting “save as”. I needed both the original file and the new one (it was an exam for my students, and they would have been heartbroken at being deprived of this evaluative learning exercise!). Fortunately, all I had to do was log in to the Sugarsync website, find the file (which had already synced to my other machines), and select “more” on the dropdown menu to find the “versions” tab, and a few seconds later I had both versions of the file, just as originally intended. What a relief!

Well, these services provide a terrific deal! You may well decide, as several friends have, that it’s worth paying for a paid plan and extra space. Even if you don’t, they offer useful tools and a safety net, and I recommend them highly.

Planned future information here on the blog: safe and easy password creation, management, and deployment tools, as well as backup and high availability strategies to make sure that when things go really wrong, you can keep on working. Stay tuned! And do spread the word: I intend to become more regular and frequent in updating this site!