July 21, 2008

The power of cross-platform synchronization

Author: Lisa Hoover

These days there are plenty of ways to back up your computer files. The options are easy when you're dealing with one computer -- just back up your files to an external hard drive and forget about it -- but when several machines are involved, each with a different operating system, things can get complicated. If you frequently work on more than one computer, having access to your synchronized files no matter where you are can also be useful. PowerFolder, a backup and file synchronizing service, helps you cover all your bases, no matter what platform or how many computers you're using.

To get started with PowerFolder, I installed a tiny .jar file on a Linux box running openSUSE 11.0 and an iMac running Mac OS X Leopard, and I ran a .exe file on a Windows machine running Vista. Installation took only seconds, and registering with PowerFolder for a free account (which comes with 5GB of online storage and an option to purchase more) took a couple of minutes more. Once completed, I was ready to begin syncing my files.

I clicked on "Mirror a folder" in the Setup section of the GUI, and a dialog box with several folder choices opened. Options include Documents, Music, Pictures, Video, and so on. On Windows and Linux there is even an option to sync my entire Firefox or Thunderbird folder. You can also choose a custom directory from an existing folder on your computer if you don't see the option listed that you want. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a way to sync more than one folder at a time, but you can add additional folders one at a time by repeating the setup steps.

Once you've selected the file you want to back up, you'll be asked to send an invitation containing a "secret access code" to anyone you plan to allow file access. The invitation can be sent immediately, or saved in a local file to be handed off to someone later via a text file or loaded onto a USB stick. If you've downloaded PowerFolder onto your desktop PC and laptop, you'll also have the option of simply passing the invitation from one computer to the other via your LAN.

Once you've set up the folders you plan to sync, you've got lots of choices on the details of how the syncing will occur. To simplify matters, the developers have created several sync profiles, all designed to achieve different things. For instance, the Mirror profile is best for mirroring two or more computers bi-directionally. It will scan files every five minutes and sync only the parts that have changes, and automatically transfer any new files in the folder. Alternatively, the Project Work profile stops all automatic functions, and only scans and transfers files when the sync button is pressed. A Customized profile lets users configure each setting to their own specifications.

Since constant syncing of large files can strain a computer's resources and cause other working programs to lag, the developers include a prominent toggle button that tells PowerFolder to run silently and stop scanning for changed files or perform any other tasks that would tax the hard disk. I ended up using this feature more than once when I began to notice that automatic syncing was causing other applications -- most notably my streaming media -- to stutter and slow down.

PowerFolder tracks details of all the folders it's syncing and offers up details via the user interface, including how many files are in each folder, who has access, and what is the folder's total size. It also displays color-coded discs next to the name of each folder, but I was never able to ascertain what those colors represented.

Backup and extras

Setting up PowerFolder to back up your files to online storage is much like setting up syncing. The main difference is that you're required to first create at least one managed folder locally, then set up the backup details by clicking on Online Storage in the user interface panel.

If, during a backup, PowerFolder detects filenames with characters that may cause conflicts on another system, you'll get an alert asking how you want to proceed. You'll have the option to exclude the file from the backup or sync, automatically rename it, or try to sync anyway.

A nice side benefit of having folders stored online is the ability to invite others to view and download them -- thus making team collaboration exceptionally easy. PowerFolder also facilitates online team work by allowing multiple computers to stay in sync with each other so everyone is always on the same virtual page. Setting this feature up is easy as sending an invitation from one computer to another. Once you've completed setup, PowerFolder also functions as private peer-to-peer networking, so you can share files with your team without connecting to a central server.

Where PowerFolder really shines is its accessibility. Folders stored online can be securely accessed and downloaded onto any computer with a Firefox, Opera, Safari, or Internet Explorer 7 browser. Though a typical computer user may find this feature helpful, people on the go will find it indispensable -- no more burning a nightly CD to take work home with you. One enhancement I would like to see is the ability to set folders to automatically back themselves up at certain intervals. If this option already exists, I didn't find any evidence of it in the settings or documentation.

Speaking of documentation, that's one thing PowerFolder is woefully lacking. The Web site and wiki provide a lot of information but most of it is not very clear. It outlines the steps a user should take to accomplish a certain task, such as setting up online storage, but doesn't give enough comprehensive information to be useful.

For instance, a section of the Quickstart Guide reads, "If asked if you want to add the Online Storage to your friendlist please do so." Under what circumstances would I not receive that request? If I don't receive it, have I done something wrong, or missed a step? Is the friendlist request necessary for certain functionality but not others?

Based on the amount of content in the Quickstart Guide and wiki, it's clear the developers have made an effort to educate people on how to use PowerFolder, but the instructions are often vague or lack precision. This is particularly frustrating because the GUI itself is often vague and sometimes downright confusing. For example, when you click the Setup button, a dialog box pops up with seven different options. The first two are "Mirror a folder" and "Backup a folder." There's no explanation of how the two differ, and clicking through to subsequent screens reveals the setup steps are nearly identical. Sifting through the documentation reveals precious little additional information and, in the end, I was only able to understand the difference based on educated guesses. Fortunately, PowerFolder's user forum appears well-monitored, and developers seem to answer questions there rapidly.

Conclusion

PowerFolder proved to be reliable in both backups and syncing, and functionality across all platforms worked equally well. Based on the varying available options and clear alert messages, the developers have obviously taken steps to make sure that the service will work regardless of what operating system is used, rather than just creating a generic piece of software and hoping for the best. Were it not for the frustrating lack of clarity in the documentation, I could easily envision regularly using PowerFolder as a backup and synchronization tool on all of my computers.

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