Dropbox – What? Why? How?

Have you turned to the clouds yet?

Cloud computing seems to be competing as the new black right now with numerous providers coming up with amazing tools to help us simplify our computer usage and data sharing.

Once such application is dropbox . To help you decide whether this is the application for you, below is a summary of Jon Honeyball’s article Dropbox: A simple way to sync files in the cloud which appeared on pcpro.co.uk in August 2010.

What is Dropbox?

Dropbox is an online service that stores files. You specify a point in your file directory tree that you want to be your dropbox, and any directories beneath that point, including all files they contain, are automatically included.

It’s important to note that your files stay on your own disk, too, just where you left them; what you’ve done is tell Dropbox to monitor that specific area of your hard disk and to send any changes up into the cloud, so if you’re using a laptop and you lose network connectivity, everything is still there on your hard disk.

Whenever you perform certain file actions (create, modify, delete and so on) within the Dropbox-monitored space, the changes are synchronised up to the online store.

The best thing is that you get the first 2GB of space for free, and if you want more you can rent it for $9.99/month (around £6.50) for 50GB, or $19.99/month (around £13) for 100GB. If you refer other people and they start using Dropbox, you’ll get a small free space increment as a gratuity or introduction fee: at 250MB per referral, this is a useful amount to add to your 2GB of free space.

Multiple computers

To make Dropbox work across multiple computers that you own, just install the software on each device and log into your account: each newly added machine automatically gets a download of the current server contents into the place that you’ve nominated on each machine to be Dropbox space.

Clearly, it wouldn’t be a good idea if all the machines on your local network had to send and receive via your office internet connection or home ADSL line, so any synchronisation takes place directly, machine-to-machine over the local network if it can see the other machines on the LAN.

This makes local synch very fast indeed, and saves on internet bandwidth. If you want to get to your files when you’re away from your computer, then there’s a full web interface into the remote store. Just log into the service and browse around your storage space.

By default Dropbox stores one month’s worth of changes to each file in its cloud store. To retrieve an older version of a file, just go to the website and choose the file, then select the Show Previous Versions feature. You can use this to roll back changes over time, which is useful, especially for developers.

If you pay for the “Pack-Rat” upgrade, which costs $39 (around £27) then Dropbox will store all your old versions for an unlimited time. This also applies to files that you’ve deleted from your local disk (the Pack-Rat upgrade extends file undelete from 30 days to unlimited time).

Shared directories

There’s another feature that makes Dropbox interesting. If you have a friend who also has Dropbox, then you can set up special directories within your Dropbox tree that are shared between you.

This isn’t just a one-to-one share, but can be created around a group of users, which is ideal for sharing things between friends or members of a family.

Finally, the cross-platform nature of Dropbox is a big issue. There are clients for Windows and Mac, and you can get to your data in the cloud either by the website, or by using a native application on an iPhone, iPad or Android phone, with BlackBerry coming soon.

Dropbox downsides

All of this seems too good to be true, so are there any downsides?

Well, let’s start with the obvious one: the software isn’t really network-aware. Yes, it knows whether a target machine is on your local LAN and then uses the local LAN to transfer, rather than using up and down the internet connection to the server.

That’s fine, but if you’re using a laptop and you’re connected via a 3G connection, you may find you have a big synch happening in the background if many files were changed while your laptop was disconnected. This could be painful from a cost point of view, and almost unthinkable if you’ve trundled to somewhere in Europe and are on a roaming data rate.

Dropbox doesn’t offer many choices here, although pressing Quit will stop any synchronisation. However, Dropbox is set to autorun by default, and you may not notice a big synchronisation taking place in the background.

My next worry is that your data is held in the cloud, presumably in the USA, so it may be open to Patriot Act inspection, and there are implications under the UK’s Data Protection Act too.

You should therefore be careful about what you put into Dropbox shared space, because if you fall foul of the Data Protection Act you’ll be liable. It would be nice if Dropbox offered a European-hosted data service, but there’s no sign of that at the moment.

Finally, there’s no way to control any encryption on the service. Dropbox says that all file transfers are over an encrypted SSL connection, that all files stored on its servers are encrypted with AES-256, that files are inaccessible without a username and password and that Dropbox employees are unable to view any files.

All of that is adequate, but I’d like to be able to insert my own certificate into the system for all my files, to ensure that everything is encrypted under my control. This would cause issues with shared folders, for example, but I’d be happier about holding data outside of the EU.

Great overall

Overall, this is a great service for data backup, recovery and sharing. It’s considerably more sophisticated than just a simple mounted drive using WebDAV. Clearly, it’s useless for disaster recovery, but as a means of ensuring you always have access to your stuff, there’s much to commend it.

As for myself, I’ve paid for the full 100GB solution with the Pack-Rat upgrade, and have added it to my suite of backup, archive and data transfer tools.

I now find it easier to get a friend to install the free Dropbox client and then join in a share than it is to push our files on to some other online shared space. For home and small-business users, this is a great solution.

For larger businesses its lack of management umbrella control and user-controlled encryption could be a worry, but give it a whirl and you might find it incredibly useful – I know I have.

So there you, that’s dropbox in a nut shell. What do you think? Is it for you?

Author: MPM Computer Consultancy provides IT Services, Support and Training to sole traders and small businesses in Ipswich. Bury St Edmunds and surrounding villages.