General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

A service of the ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology eReport

American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

SEPTEMBER 2010

Vol. 9, No. 3

Columns

 

TechNotes
Cloud-Based File Storage and Synchronization Services: Access Your Files From Anywhere

Lawyers tend to be some of the more mobile professionals who also want to stay connected to their offices. Remote access to files and folders is no longer a luxury but a necessity for many of us who are trying to maintain sanity in an otherwise hectic world. Of course, we also want to travel as lightly as possible and don’t want to have to drag along anything more than absolutely necessary while being aware of potential issues if we cross international borders and are worried about data security. Luckily, there are a number of web-based services that provide online storage and access to folders and files that you can access from anywhere you have Internet access and that work with most popular web browsers.

Some of the factors to consider in selecting an online storage and synchronization service include:

  • Does the provider offer a free account?
  • How much online storage space do you receive?
  • Can you obtain wither through referrals or by purchase more storage space if needed?
  • Is the link to your account encrypted or not?
  • Is there a way to synchronize folders and files between online accounts and your computer if desired?
  • Can you grant access to designated individual or to the public for sharing files?
  • Will the service work on different operating systems such as Windows 7, Linux, and Mac OS X, or is it limited to only one?
  • Can you use the service for backup?

What you will discover is that features and storage space vary between providers with some being free and others having only fee-based options, most of them offer cross-platform functionality allowing you to share files between Windows, Mac OS X, and even Linux. Some of the services are primarily designed for backup, while others focus on making access to folders and files and keeping them synchronized between computers and the online versions their primary mission.

If you do an Internet search for inline file storage, you will get pages and pages of results. Providers will vary from small companies you may have never heard of to global providers in the Internet marketplace. This article will focus on three of the most popular services and then provide information on some alternatives

Dropbox is one of the most popular file-sharing and synchronization services available today. In addition to providing 2 GB of free online storage that can be increased by referrals or by purchasing an upgraded account, Dropbox allows you to synchronize files placed in your Dropbox folder on your desktop not only to your online Dropbox account but to other computers as well. When you install the Dropbox desktop application, Dropbox automatically synchronizes new and changed files between your online account and each Dropbox you create. One of the unique features of Dropbox is the ability to perform a Delta sync, which transfers only the parts of the file that have changed. This increases synchronization speed and lowers bandwidth requirements. Because Dropbox places an exact copy of the file found in the online storage on your desktop, you can work on these files even if you’re not connected to the Internet or you lose your connection. When you reconnect to the Internet, any changes will then synchronize to your Dropbox account and from there to any other Dropbox folders you’ve created on other computers. Dropbox can be accessed from mobile Android devices as well as from the iPhone and iPad, while BlackBerry users can access the service through a mobile-optimized version of their website.

Sharing files in Dropbox is easy and straightforward: once you’ve add a file to your Dropbox folder, right-click on “Copy Public Link” to copy the unique URL that you can then email to others to provide direct access to the files. You can also share folders and can create a new shared folder or share existing folders. Once you share a folder, it will be added to the other person’s Dropbox, and any changes will be synchronized.

Dropbox doesn’t restrict the file type you can add and works with Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone, and other Internet-capable phones. According to the company, public folders and files are not able to be browsed by anyone on the Internet, but can only be accessed by the specified URL to reach them. Dropbox uses SSL to create an encrypted link between your web browser and their servers. AES 256 encryption is used to secure files. According to the company, files cannot be accessed by anyone without your account password including their employees. One potential downside to Dropbox is that if you do have limited hard disk space, you will want to avoid installing the Dropbox desktop feature because the synchronization process places the actual files on your computer, thereby taking up disk space. Basic Dropbox service with 2GB of storage is free, or you can select 50GB of storage for $9.99 a month and 100 GB for $19.99 a month.

MobileMe is the synchronization and file storage service from Apple. A MobileMe account provides 20GB of storage for $99 a year. In addition to file storage, MobileMe provides synchronization of email, contacts, calendars, and photos. However, for the purposes of this column, the feature that we want to consider is the MobileMe iDisk. iDisk places an icon on the Mac desktop that, when opened, shows you all of the files and folders contained in the iDisk online storage space. You can upload and download files from any computer that has a web browser or by using the iDisk application for Macs or the iPhone. You can share iDisk folders with friends and colleagues who can access them via the Internet using a web browser.

Another feature similar to services provided by YouSendIt or other similar file sending services, allows you to upload larger files and send others just a link to that file by email. Using that link, they can download the file and avoid any email attachment size restrictions imposed by many law firms or e-mail providers. A very nice adjunct to this linking feature is that you can set a password for accessing the file as well as setting the number of days the file will be available for download.

One thing that is missing from iDisk is the ability to synchronize files automatically between a desktop computer (or other device like an iPhone) with the files in the online storage folder. Although if storage space on you mobile device is limited, this avoids the issue created by Dropbox, if the desktop Dropbox desktop applications is installed, of not downloading unnecessary files to your device. In other words, you control when and where you transfer files between your device and your iDisk.

On non-Mac devices, you access your iDisk and other MobileMe records using the MobileMe control panel application; however, this requires installation of iTunes version 9 on the PC. Like Dropbox, MobileMe uses SSL to create an encrypted link between your web browser and MobileMe servers. Accessing your iDisk (actually, your MobileMe account) requires you to provide your username and password; however, I have been unable to locate any information regarding any encryption or other security information for files placed in your iDisk.

While Dropbox and MobileMe (with it’s iDisk component) are two popular online file storage options, they are not the only ones available. Microsoft offers its Live Mesh Beta , which is similar in some ways to Dropbox, allowing for online storage and its desktop synchronization service, Windows Live Sync, which synchronized data between multiple computers including Macs and smartphones with mobile web browsers. Microsoft is in the process of combining these services in its new Windows Live Sync, which combines both of these services under one interface that is currently in beta testing. Live Mesh is free and comes with 5GB of storage courtesy of the Microsoft Live Desktop, which is part of the Live Mesh sign-up. The new Live Sync is targeted at people who use multiple computers and want to keep information between them synchronized while also being able to have Internet access to the file they need most.

Microsoft SkyDrive is the 25GB free online storage and sharing service that can be accessed by most web browsers. Access and security is controlled by a Windows Live ID and a password, but SkyDrive does not use the SSL protocol when creating the link between your browser and its servers, and there is no encryption on the files. Skydrive includes the free MS Office Web Apps so you can work with others online You can share a single file or an entire folder over the Internet with others, and, if you are always sharing files with a number of people, you can also create a group to easily share files.

There are a number of other services that are available including SugarSync, which combines web-based storage with synchronization between multiple computers and mobile devices. You can share folders and files with others, and it includes file versioning, saving the last five previous versions of a file. The web link to SugarSync uses SSL encryption and data stored on their servers is encrypted with 128-bit AES. SugarSync works with both Windows and Mac computers as well as a wide range of mobile devices and phones. SugarSync provides a free 2GB account, or you can purchase more storage starting at 30GB for $4.99 per month, 60GB for $9.99 with additional accounts for 100GB or 250GB of data.

Other services include Syncplicity , SpiderOak , Drive Headquarters, 4 Shared , Google via its GoogleDocs service, and Box.net, to name just a few.

So go ahead, compare features and sign up for one of the free accounts. I think your mobile life will be much easier after you do.

Nerino J. Petro, Jr., is a legal technologist and the practice management advisor for the State Bar of Wisconsin. A former practicing attorney, he blogs on legal technology and practice management issues at www.compujurist.com. Nerino writes the ProductWatch column for Law Practice Magazine and is a regular contributor to local, state, and national publications.

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