Secrets of the Data Sync Masters: Your Guide To Data Sync Solutions

Most IT pros have multiple machines, but keeping files in sync can be a challenge.

When Chris Winebarger launched Hercules Home Investors, he couldn't afford a dedicated IT staff or server hardware for his startup company. He did, however, want to implement fairly cutting-edge IT capabilities that would allow him and his staff to share files whether they were working in the main office or home offices.

Winebarger looked at nearly 10 different options before deciding on a $15-per-month service from Nomadesk. After installing the free client, Nomadesk lets users choose either a personal or a team file server, the latter of which lets users synchronize an unlimited number of systems.

"The client software maps a local drive letter to your folder on Nomadesk's servers and synchronizes files between your local workstation an-d Nomadesk's servers for easy and quick accessing and saving of files," explains Winebarger. "When users edit files or folders, the change is uploaded to the Nomadesk file server. Any other users download the change -- the Nomadesk client checks on a short, regular interval for any changes on the server -- or you can force synchronization manually."

The setup was simple. Winebarger just downloaded the client, set up a team account, invited other users via e-mail, and picked a drive letter. After three months, he says it's working well, and is used consistently to sync files between machines.

Data resides on local machines and in the Nomadesk cloud, so there's a degree of backup. But the cautious Winebarger uses a hosted backup service just in case.

"If we were a large company, I wouldn't consider Nomadesk as an option," he says. "[Midsize] and large companies would still be best served by on-site server infrastructure. Since we are a small startup, Nomadesk is a perfect option."

MCSE Jesper Bockfeldt was also looking for a solution suited for small shops. Bockfeldt has clients that aren't just small, they're one-man shops. Yet most have multiple machines, so these shops still need a way to synchronize them. That's where Dropbox comes in. This service is free for the first 2GB and then goes to $99 for 50GB and $199 for 100GB. The system synchronizes your machine's folders -- be they PC, Mac, Linux or iPhone -- to the Dropbox repository.

While Dropbox will place an icon in the system tray, Bockfeldt likes to put the Dropbox folder in the root directory "so it's easy to find," he says. Dropbox has come in handy on more than one occasion.

"I used it when I went backpacking for a month, where I always have a computer if I have to support my customers," Bockfeldt explains. "I scanned my documents, such as passport, Visas, driver's license and health insurance, and have it on my computer. Should I lose all my belongings, then my lifeline is Dropbox on the 'Net."

Microsoft Live Mesh
Not surprisingly, quite a few Redmond readers use Microsoft solutions. John Macek, owner of JM Consulting, is one of them. Macek's need is fairly simple -- synchronize the laptop that he uses for customer calls with his desktop so that he can access spreadsheets and documents regardless of which machine he's using.

Not wanting to use a remote connection to the desktop, Macek investigated cloud solutions. After trying a few approaches, Macek settled on Live Mesh, the brainchild of Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie.

While the documentation wasn't the best, Live Mesh was easy to set up. Unlike some systems that synchronize all files automatically, with Live Mesh you choose the folders you wish to sync. For Macek, the folders are part of a "Live Desktop" and are in the cloud as well as on the laptop and the desktop.

Redmond reader Bruce Thompson is another Live Mesh adherent and uses it both personally and for a client. The client, a sales manager for an outfit with offices across the country, kept losing pictures and documents on his laptop. His IT department tried to tie him to a company server in Seattle through Windows offline files, but the manager rarely had a high-speed connection to the office.

"I set him up with Live Mesh so that any time he connected to the Internet, his files would be synced to the Live Mesh site in the cloud," Thompson says. "A very nice side benefit was that he could allow select people in the corporate office access to documents when he was on the road. Since we set this up, he hasn't lost any more files."

Thompson not only uses Live Mesh to keep his own three machines in sync, he also used it to solve his password woes.

"Passwords used to be the bane of my existence," he explains. "It seemed like I never had the password that I needed. I found a way to make passwords easy. I use the open source KeePass. It encrypts the data with 256-bit AES encryption.

"I store the database in a Live Mesh folder," Thompson adds. "Anywhere I am, I have secure access to all of my passwords, even from my phone. Live Mesh supports file locking ... if I try to open a file that's open on another computer, it warns me."

Right now, Live Mesh is free and offers 5GB of storage. After that, files are stored on a peer-to-peer basis using other Live Mesh clients, Thompson says.

As is the case with the other tools already discussed, setting up Live Mesh was simple. Thompson logged into Live Mesh and installed the client. The sync was then set up for that computer. After that, Thompson picked the folders he wanted to submit.

If he's on another machine, he logs into Live Mesh and downloads or uploads files. He doesn't even need the client. Thompson's only minor complaint: synchronization only happens when he's logged into Live Mesh.

Poorman's Solution
Peter Poorman, an enterprise software product manager in Plano, Texas, wanted to back up files from his son's college machine and other PCs and ended up discovering a synchronization tool from Microsoft similar to Live Mesh called Windows Live Sync. Oddly enough, Poorman and his son were both using Sync already -- they just didn't know it.

"My son uses Sync to keep his college work synchronized between a laptop and a desktop computer," Poorman explains. "Adding me to his existing Sync places a copy of his files on my computer. I then include these in my regular backup process, which I do using EMC Retrospect. Sync is set up so that my copy of the data is read-only, so I can't accidently delete or modify his files."

The system works great and files are synced quickly and transparently. "It handles disconnects -- such as the laptop being put to sleep -- completely seamlessly," Poorman says.

A Groove-y Answer
Another technology close to Ozzie's heart is Groove. Kevin Wood, senior solutions architect at Structured Communication Systems Inc., is a Groove aficionado and uses it to sync his laptop, desktop and netbook.

"I might be at a client site, and the client gives me a document I want to read later," Wood says. "I might take a photo while I'm traveling and want to share the photo with my siblings. So, the challenge is that I get files while I'm using one computer that I will need on another computer. How do I easily get the right file to the different destination? For my personal files, I 'could' use a thumb drive. I could use an Internet-based storage application, but then I would have to log on, the recipient would have to check for new files, etc."

Groove wasn't hard to find. As a Microsoft Office Ultimate user, Wood had the Groove client right on his hard drive.

Once he found it, Wood went to work setting up Groove workspaces that include documents, discussions and calendars. Workspaces can be based on folders, which are instantly shareable -- once invitations have been offered and accepted.

"The tools and data are stored on each individual's workstation," Wood explains. "All any individual needs to do is drag and drop a file into the Groove workspace on their desktop. The file can be opened and edited in the local workspace.

"The individual does not need to be connected to the Internet," Wood continues. "When the individual does connect, new or updated files are copied to the server. New or changed files are downloaded to the user's workspaces. The workspace files can be copied to external drives, removed and treated like normal files."

For Wood, Groove is a near-perfect solution: "Not having to copy files to a thumb drive or try to determine which of multiple files is the latest is fantastic," he says. "One 'workspace' is [for all of my] clients. So, as I work on multiple clients, the data is synchronized. When a project is finished, from my mail laptop, I can move the folder from the workspace to my backup/archive location. The file is now gone from all the computers. If I need the files back, I just copy from the archive drive back into the workspace."

Exchanging Information
C. Marc Wagner has an unusual approach to synchronizing data and it centers around using Microsoft Exchange Server.

"Thanks to Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, BlackBerry Enterprise Server and a BlackBerry, I can keep every important piece of data synced," says Wagner, a services development specialist at Indiana University (Wagner is speaking for himself and not on behalf of the University).

"There is the problem that Exchange only allows me to dump files of a limited size into an Exchange folder, but that number is several megabytes."

Wagner's approach doesn't actually require synchronization. It uses Outlook Web Access (OWA) to get at files onto the server. "If the telecommuter is accessing Exchange from a machine for which they have administrator privileges, and they have access to Outlook, a superior approach is to configure Outlook to communicate directly with your employer's Exchange Server via MAPI," Wagner explains. "This solution allows the telecommuter to not only have access to the full range of their e-mail, calendar, tasks and notes, it also gives them access to Exchange-based file folders, which can store pretty much any kind of file -- either as e-mail attachments or just as files."

Wagner's system takes a bit of forethought, but is effective for key files. "I have Outlook configured for all of my telecommuting needs. I use Remote Desktop (RDP) only when I need access to a file not stored on Exchange," he notes. "Then I usually send myself the file to my local Outlook configuration as an attachment -- resorting to download over RDP only when it's too large a file to be supported by our Exchange servers. Anything I can store in Exchange, I can access from my BlackBerry or my notebook or desktop computer at home or on the road."

Wagner sees ease of setup as a key advantage to his plan: "There are a number of synchronization strategies built into Windows, but they all require the telecommuter to be sure to synchronize their files regularly. My solution doesn't require the telecommuter to remember anything. OWA is accessible from any publicly accessible workstation with a compatible browser. The other solutions require a one-time setup on the systems the telecommuter anticipates using."

BPOS Is Boss
Alberto Lugo, president of Microsoft Certified Partner Internet Vision Development Corp. in San Juan, Puerto Rico, needed to synchronize several PCs and a server. In effect, he wanted to build a sharable document repository. As a partner, Lugo came across the Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS), a set of Microsoft-hosted apps that sells for $10 per month per user. The key to syncing is SharePoint Online.

Lugo nabbed the system, which offers access to SharePoint Online, Exchange Online, Live Meeting and Office Communications Online. "SharePoint Online is a portal that includes document management and collaboration features. What's nice is there's no infrastructure to purchase, and it's available to all of our employees in different locations without VPN access," Lugo says. "Before that, we had a SharePoint portal at the office, but we didn't use it much because the VPN access was too slow for our employees out of the office."

Given the Web-only nature of the product, BPOS setup was simple -- 20 workers were up and running in about a day. All Lugo had to do was set up the user accounts through a portal. To ease multiple configurations, user configuration data can come from an Excel spreadsheet.

The system works great, Lugo says: "The actual solution stores the files in the cloud. No sync to the computers is necessary. It's seamless with most files; Microsoft Office 2007 opens and saves the files from its own interface, as though the files were on your computer."

Redmond reader John Terdik found an answer to syncing his "My Documents" and other folders with SyncBackPro from 2BrightSparks. (For more on data-sync products, see this month's Redmond Roundup). Terdik set it up so that one machine acts as a master. Each evening, all of the other related computers sync to this master. "Thus, if I make a change to a document on my laptop at the next sync cycle, it will be synced to the master system," Terdik explains. "Then, when my wife's system syncs to the master, the cycle after the laptop has synced and her system will pick up the changed files. All of her changed files are synced to the master, and my laptop will pick them up on its next sync cycle."

SyncBackPro is pretty sophisticated, Terdik argues, supporting both backup and mirroring: "For example, I have one backup that I run for My Documents where I copy [source] any changed file to a special folder [destination], and if I delete a file in the source, it's not deleted from the destination," Terdik elaborates. "This covers my hole of deleting a file and then realizing a couple of months later that I goofed and really need the file. With the Pro version, it will copy locked files. I also use it to back up my Outlook 2007 files both the Local and Roaming folders."

Enterprise Function Without the Price
Mike Powell, an IT professional with Legend Brands, had a simple aim: "To have enterprise-like functionality without the enterprise price." Powell put an unRAID OS-based NAS server (from Lime Technology LLC) as the core. "It has RAID-like parity protection against drive failure, and unlike most RAID systems the drives can be moved to a different system in case hardware other than a drive fails," Powell explains.

The next step was setting up backup, which he did with Jungle Disk Server Edition. "My critical family photos and documents are only about 6GB, so I have the single-server plan with 10GB [free] for $5 per month," Powell says.

Synchronization was the final step. Powell explains: "To synchronize files, I use my unRAID server as the master source. I set up Microsoft SyncToy on my PCs to sync anything that I may need while mobile onto my PCs and back. I have SyncToy scheduled to run at log-on and log-off to make sure I catch everything."

Powell built the server using old parts he had lying around, keeping costs to less than $400.

"I won't argue that my setup isn't quite as slick as pushing out a GPO from my domain controller to automatically configure folder synchronization on my client machines," he says. "But I do think my solution comes close enough to call it enterprise-like, and the price is certainly tough to argue with."

Home Server
Last year, reader Antonio Checa set up a Windows Home Server for personal files. The server holds program installers, photos, videos and other items Checa wants to access no matter where he is.

"Administration is minimal, and the number of available plug-ins for it allows me to leave it downloading files all day or performing other tasks without too much overhead," he explains.

Doug Says...

I wrote this story for a selfish reason. I have two laptops and soon will have a netbook and want a central place to keep key files. What better source of advice than you, the Redmond reader.

There were 19 of you who wrote and detailed your solutions. That's the power of the Redmond reader. Many of these interactions happen through my Redmond Report newsletter, so if you'd like to be part of this interactive experience, sign up today here. And yes, I'm going to use one of these solutions for my own file sync. Thanks for the advice.

The server offers a DNS name allowing Checa to access files on shared directories remotely. "The box even auto-configured the required ports on my Universal Plug and Play-enabled NAT router; so far it's been a breeze working with it," he reports proudly.

But that's not the whole story.

"The major problem is actually having on my laptop wherever I travel my music and important pictures, since if I use the Windows Home Server approach completely I would have to have two copies of my information -- one on the server and one on my laptop," Checa says. "The solution is to run Microsoft RichCopy or Robocopy nightly between my laptop and my Home Server to sync my files, so when I'm on the go they're available to me. There's also a mirror at home for my family to enjoy the pictures and photos in our collection."


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