published: Sun, 20-Jan-2008 | updated: Mon, 18-Feb-2008
Back in October/November, I got to the point where I wanted — nay, needed — to use a desktop rather than a laptop for the majority of my work. My Dell XPS M1210 is great for travel because it's so light, but it's just not as powerful as I'd like. I certainly don't want to up-size to a larger "desktop replacement" laptop, I like the way my shoulders are, thank you very much.
Nevertheless, I would obviously like to continue to use this leptop on my travels (which, on average means about 5 or 6 days a month). So I started looking for some kind of software that would keep my laptop up-to-date with my putative desktop. I had this vision of me arriving back from some trip or other, plugging my laptop into the home network, this mysterious software copying all the changed data and files to my desktop, and then I could just start working again on my desktop.
Similarly, when it's time to go somewhere with my laptop, I just disconnect it from the network and off I go, knowing that I had the relevant files ready for use.
The most important file I'm talking about is my Outlook email file, but there are others. For example, on a trip I'd probably like to download pictures from my Canon DSLR using Lightroom, so those would have to be synced as well.
Sounds like an ideal case for Offline Files, the technology that comes with Windows XP. I remember having some issues with it before, way back when, so I decided to have a look for something else. After all, my reasoning went, what happens if I "forget" to mark some file as being available offline?
After some surfing around, I came across FolderShare. FolderShare was interesting — it enables you to keep files and folders synchronized between computers — but it seemed to require an Internet connection, even on a local network. Plus, my connection to the Internet at home uses a dynamic IP address, and my DSL modem was way too flaky to rely on.
(Aside: my DSL modem finally died on me last Friday afternoon. One moment it was working, the next plink, it gave up all pretense of doing so. One hour of me trying my usual tricks, two hours with Qwest tech support later and we all agreed that although it would train properly with the DSL signal, it just wouldn't work as a hub/router any more. It was well past 5pm by this time, and outside a mini blizzard was raging. Where to get a new DSL modem? I couldn't wait for something to be delivered — and I'm in Vegas next week anyway — so there was nothing for it but to brave the weather to a Qwest retail store. But I needed an Internet connection so that I could google for the nearest. Thank you, oh unknown neighbor who had an unsecured WiFi. I found one, drove there, avoiding the sliding skidding cars, and bought a super-duper new modem. A couple more hours later, it was all set up (and secured) and I was surfing again. And it's rock solid too. No more flakiness.)
In effect I would have liked FolderShare if the data store was on some other server elsewhere.
Enter Jungle Disk. This is a nifty application and file system driver that enables you to store files securely using Amazon S3 (Amazon Simple Storage Service). The file system driver gives me a new "network" drive that's a direct reflection of my S3 storage. It also comes with backup functionality, so you can set up a backup task to kick off every now and then to backup changed files to Amazon S3.
The really interesting thing is Amazon S3 is very cheap, for what you get. You pay 15¢ per gigabyte per month, and you only pay for the amount of storage you use. You also pay for downloads (18¢ per GB) and uploads (10¢ per GB) as well. Amazon S3 is itself fully backed-up, fully redundant (running on who knows how many servers), always available.
The backup option was also very interesting to me. Yeah, sure, I back up regularly to a big chunky external drive (I use Acronis TrueImage, thumbs way up for that), but my worry was getting some kind of offsite backup going. I no longer work in an office away from home so I can't just keep some backup DVDs at the office like I used to do. Jungle Disk seemed to offer some major benefits for me.
So last November I paid up for Jungle Disk and signed up to Amazon S3 in order to give it all a try.
The setup was easy. Once I'd installed everything and signed up to Amazon S3, the next step was to flag the folders I wanted to back up to S3 and sit back and let it rip. Well, "let it rip" is possibly a misnomer. It took a good couple of days to upload the several gigs I'd selected for backups. All the pictures from our digital camera as well as a gig and a half of archive file from Outlook.
But in the end it was done, and then I set up a regular "changed files" backup every hour. Jungle Disk even saves previous versions of files as well (for a certain length of time), so I can not only restore a given file, but also a previous version of it, if I so wish. And then I forgot all about it: it just runs invisibly in the background.
Today I also signed up for Jungle Disk Plus, which adds some extra functionality to Jungle Disk. The most notable new functionality is browser access to my files on S3. In essence, it gives me a special website that I can go to that enables me to upload files to or download them from S3.
It's secure as well. Connections are made through SSL, and I can encrypt all the files I store on S3 using my own passphrase.
So, was it worth it? No qualifications from me: yes. It. Just. Works. I don't have to worry about a thing and my important files are just backed up offsite.
Also, my S3 costs so far after three months of use are about $10 a month, which is pretty much nothing.
I'm now going to set up my wife's laptop to do the same. It's a no-brainer.