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Living on Cloud Eight-and-a-Half

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Aug. 2nd, 2010 | 10:58 am

My mother has just bought a new Macbook Pro 15".

This time, things will be different. This time, her laptop will be a thin client.

(Regular readers, please forgive the occasionally negative tone of this review: a pessimistic perspective is necessary in any risk assessment of infrastructure.)

Thin Client General Principles

Data Recovery. There should be nothing irreplaceable on the laptop. Losing the laptop should lose no data.

Data Security. Should the laptop fall into enemy hands it should disclose no secrets.

Data Replication. Data on the laptop should be available off the laptop.

State Recovery. If the device gets lost, she should be able to reinstantiate it in less than four hours of fingers-on-keyboard work, and be back to where she was before.

Thin Client Specific Requirements

She has about 10 gigs of important data and 20 gigs of photos.

She runs the standard Microsoft Office suite.

She uses some software that is Windows-only.

She cares about private sharing, but not public sharing.

Thin Client Architecture Requirements

Multihoming. The thin client should sync with at least two independent cloud app providers, so that single-provider outage will not affect uploading.

Multi-modal sync. She wants to sync regular files. She also wants to sync email, contacts, calendars, and bookmarks too.

Should work across Windows, Mac, iPad, and iPhone.

Cloud Storage App Providers Compared

For file/document syncing, the candidates are: (as of 20100802)

iDisk, part of MobileMe. Minor drawback: in my experience, iDisk falls out of sync about once or twice a year requiring a complete manual rebuild using rsync, which puts recovery beyond the abilities of most end-users. Major drawback: integration with Time Machine is clunky: TM offers a beautiful UI for unlimited backup versioning of every file on your computer except your iDisk folder. Given Apple's stellar usability reputation, this counts as an embarrassing fail.

DropBox. Great syncing so far: features like LAN sync show that this dev team have the most mojo. Unlimited version support with the "pack rat" feature, which exposes S3's underlying versioning at a significant premium ($40/year). Drawback: obsessed with its special MyDropBox folder: anything inside, or symlinked from, that directory gets synced; anything outside doesn't. For now, workarounds are necessary.

SugarSync. Is able to sync any folder on disk, not just a special subdirectory. Versioning limited to previous five. You can email attachments to SugarSync and they'll automatically show up in a folder.

Evernote. Hews closest to the Weinberger tag-based philosophy. Full-text-indexes all content, notably searchable PDFs. But because it's document oriented, not filesystem oriented, exposing the EverNote repository requires extra work. Being integration whores they have an impressive array of third-party partners on tap.

JungleDisk. Offers direct access to S3, which means you have to sign up for S3 yourself and get keys. Being an AWS developer I find this totally natural, but since they were acquired by Rackspace I'm guessing the original passion is gone, because the OS X app has some weird and fundamental flaws, like not showing me any subdirectories of preexisting S3 buckets, and there's an iPhone but no iPad app. The major pro here is the pay-as-you-go pricing for storage: at $0.15/gig/month, storing 10 gigs would cost me $18 a year, compared to DropBox's $100 and Sugarsync's $50.

For every other modality:

Google. Storing, syncing, and searching of email is second to none. Also provides easily synced contacts and calendars. Google Docs with insynchq.com is an intriguing alternative. Alternatively Google Docs over FUSE with format autoconversion integrating with one of the above methods.

See also SugarSync's comparison matrix.


The ideal cloud storage app would have:
- the full-text-indexing and search capabilities of EverNote.
- the unlimited directory scope of SugarSync.
- the unlimited versioning and LAN sync of DropBox.
- the pass-through pricing of JungleDisk.
- the online editing interfaces of Google Docs.


In the real world, to achieve something like the above, we'll use a combination of:

- DropBox as the primary sync manager across multiple desktops and laptops
- SugarSync as the secondary backup
- Time Machine / Time Capsule as the local tertiary
- Spotlight to handle the full-text indexing

SugarSync is necessary because I don't have direct access to the underlying S3 objects. If I needed to flash a new client at a time when DropBox was down, I could use SugarSync. If DropBox were more like JungleDisk I would be less concerned about DropBox downtime.

The Time Capsule will act as a local fileserver cloud-in-a-box thanks to Remote File Access. All the external drives currently floating around the house will plug in to it. I'd like to see it RAID-1 mirror the internal with the external devices, but I don't know if that's possible. We're also going to use the Time Capsule as a base station, to split the private net from the public guest network, and retire some of the existing network gear. The 2wire will go back to running as just a DSL modem; we'll turn off the NAT and Wifi.

Because Vista and OS X offer usable search, we'll pass on EverNote this time round, though it's intriguing enough that I'll keep playing with it on my laptop.

Because iDisk doesn't work very well compared to DropBox, we'll pass on MobileMe. We don't even need it for contact and calendar syncing because Google does that job very well now. The only thing we lose is Safari bookmark integration, but my mother doesn't need that, and if we did, we could use delicious or pinboard.

We'll do security using FileVault and password timeout locks.

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Comments {4}

Have you tried Syncables?

from: anonymous
date: Aug. 2nd, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)

Hey Meng it's John Exley, remember me from Singapore? I was an American exchange student at NUS this past spring and we met on several occasions, including the iMATCH Launchpad event, the Angels Den funding event, and at your stomping grounds: Hackerspace itself!

I just read through your review and find it quite thorough and well articulated. However, being an intern for Syncables, I had to comment and ask your honest opinion of our premium product.

In summary, Syncables lets you bring harmony to your digital life by managing your files and media from multiple devices. The pain it solves is basically what you've highlighted here in your review: the concern of whether you grabbed the latest version of a document, or whether you'll be able to access your media and spreadsheets on all of your computers. Syncables works quickly and easily, and you can automatically sync, migrate, access and publish content between your main PC, Mac, netbook or any other syncable devices on the same network.

Have you had any experience with Syncables, or do you think cloud syncing is absolutely essential before you consider other services than the ones you highlighted? Syncables works as a peer-to-peer computer syncing solution.

Hope you're doing awesome my friend...one day I would love to come back to SG and meet up with you!

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Re: Have you tried Syncables?

from: mengwong
date: Aug. 3rd, 2010 07:20 am (UTC)

gotta have a cloud mirror ... i can't assume her computers will be on all the time.

the primary failure recovery case looks something like this:


if my mother's laptop gets abducted by aliens on her way to, say, Bahrain, she has to be able to buy a new model and restore to it as though the loss never happened.

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CloudBerry Backup

from: anonymous
date: Aug. 3rd, 2010 11:23 am (UTC)

Please consider adding CloudBerry Backup to your list. It is a product similar to Jungle Disk where you need to have your own Amazon S3 account. It supports a few other Cloud Storage namely MS Azure.

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Ninja Cyber

from: ext_240590
date: Aug. 9th, 2010 04:01 pm (UTC)

Hello.. How are U?? Do you Have Update???

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