Saturday, February 07, 2009

Degenerate synchronicity via Dropbox

I've discovered a tool which, over the last week has considerably simplified the awful mess which was an unsynchronised set of work files, spread between my office computer and my laptop. With 20 versions of every file at different stages of completeness it was getting ridiculous.

I write a lot of files, mostly for mathematical programing. It's what I spend most of my time at work doing, and I enjoy it a great deal - the breaking down of a complex problem into workable, smaller steps which are understandable and efficient is as much a game as anything, it just happens to lead to papers and new results, which is always good.

Anyway, because I create lots of files at work which I often want to continue working on in the evenings I would normally e-mail myself the file, or take it home on a usb stick and add to it at home or in a cafe. At home I would regularly create two or three new versions of this program as I tried out new methods to solve a problem. The next day I would take one or all of these to work and continue working. The outcome was that I had dozens of different versions of every file and I was frequently confused as to which file was the newest/most correct version. My two computers got more and more out of synch as the degeneracy in files melted and the whole thing became a great mess.

Until now...Dropbox is a wonderfully simple application which in a matter of 24 hours seems to have solved all of these problems, and more. It's free to download and has an online storage capacity of a couple of gig (plenty for my current mathematica files).

When you download it and set up an account, the program creates a folder on your computer. You then put files into this folder and a copy of this folder which is online synchonises with that on your computer. The two versions only synchronise when you turn on the program on your computer, but what I've found best is to turn it on automatically when I log on in the morning, and then again when I log off at night, to get everything up to date. Provided I haven't created any huge new files it should take a matter of seconds.

So, the vital part is that I have a second version of the folder on my laptop. It again is synchronised to the version on the internet. When I update a file on my computer at work, as soon as I go home and connect my computer to the web, I have a synchronised version on my laptop with everything I've done during the day. I effectively now only have a single version of my files, it's just no longer local.

What is more I can connect to these files wherever I am by logging into my account online and using the web interface to get any file I want - be it a talk, a mathematica file, or a half written paper. There is no longer the problem of having multiple almost equivalent versions of the same file - life has been greatly simplified!

Of course I'm not relying on this system to hold up (though I have no reason to suspect it won't) so I back up my files religiously with Time Machine.

Anyway, I would highly advise this program to anyone else who has problems with the mess of using multiple computers, or who simply wants some free online backup. Definitely worth spending a few minutes to get your life back in order!

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