Simple Syncing

March 29, 2009  (Jeffrey Kabbe)

Moving from one office computer to several office computers is a big jump. Plenty of solutions will work well on one computer, but not so well on multiple computers (see, e.g., Bento). You don’t even need a large office to move into multi-computer territory. For a long time my wife was a true solo, but still wanted to be able to work from her desktop and her laptop.

There are a couple of solutions for accessing files in the multi-computer environment. One solution is to have a central server to which all the computers connect to access work files. This simplifies administration somewhat, but it doesn’t work well in an offline environment (such as the aforementioned laptop). Another solution is to store the files on each computer but use software to keep the two or more computers in sync. This is the solution my wife uses in her practice.

I have been quite skeptical of syncing software for a long time. I don’t have a horror story from my youth that has scared me away from it. But it just sounds dangerous – running a program every few minutes that deletes and updates files based on its own internal calculations. So if we were going to use syncing software, it would need to be bulletproof (or at least make me feel like it is bulletproof).

The first syncing application my wife investigated was DropBox. DropBox seems like a very capable solution, but it has some limitations for the Mac law office. First, DropBox seems to sync a single folder and it has to be the “DropBox” folder. It’s a little clumsy to have a folder named “DropBox” be the primary repository for business documents. I didn’t investigate whether the folder could be renamed because of the second problem: DropBox doesn’t play well with FileVault. Depending upon the kind of law you practice and which state you practice in, FileVault (or something like it) is somewhere between strongly recommended and mandatory. So DropBox was out.

Coming along at exactly the right time was Syncplicity. This little application works great. It supports FileVault without any hitches. You can synchronize any number of folders – named anything you want. This is especially useful in an estate planning practice. Many estate planning attorneys use Windows drafting software. Using Syncplicity, my wife can draft an estate plan in Windows (under VMware Fusion) and have it sync over to the Mac folder almost instantly. Because the drafting folder is a different folder, the entire collection of business documents doesn’t need to be synced onto Windows (which would mean storing two copies of each document on the computer, one copy for Mac OS X and one copy for Windows.

It hasn’t all been roses. A few times, for no reason my wife can ascertain, multiple copies will appear as if someone was editing a file even though the file wasn’t open on any other computers. This is a minor quibble, though, because it only happens about once every couple of months and no data has been lost. The real complaint we have is that Syncplicity won’t sync empty folders to other computers. Empty folders do appear in the online view of your files. But they won’t be synced to other computers (I even asked, and this is the way Syncplicity is intended to work). So, alas, Syncplicity isn’t perfect. But it has helped my wife be productive and kept her documents complete across different offices.

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