Egyptian blogger from Cairo.
Revolutionary Socialist.
Partner & Creative Director at ThePlanet.

Centralize Your Files on a Remote Server

As a freelancer of any sort, you’re always on the move. In most cases, you travel distances as part of your work, and have to maintain a certain level of productivity at all times. Web designers and graphic designers alike can only last so long with a laptop, mainly due to the the small screen sizes, but also because of the limited capabilities of laptops in comparison to assembled desktops. This normally results in an investment in a powerful yet affordable desktop at the central location (be it the office, home, or anywhere else), accompanied by a notebook that allows for work continuation on the road.

That particular scenario raises a number of inconveniences. First and foremost, when you initiate a given project on one computer, you have to physically transfer everything via a USB flash memory or an external hard drive of some sort. When you’re back to your original PC, you’re left pondering which files have changed and thus require being transfered back, and which haven’t, and therefore would be a waste of time moving them back to overwrite the originals. Secondly, when your work is scattered between a couple of different computers, unless you can physically access either one of them, you are left stranded with your documents out of reach. Finally, when multi-tasking with a handful of projects, you’ll inevitably become completely disorganized, significantly reducing your efficiency and productivity.

Centralization of documents

Anyone in the vast IT industry probably has his or her website on a shared server. If you don’t, then you should. Besides the fact that you can get your own web space for as low as $6 a month, it has become crucial that you have a presence on the web, regardless of your field. Remember that the web means power to the people, and investing a small monthly fee is a small price to pay for the amount of freedom that you are granted in return. After you’ve established your own website, it is now time to take advantage of your space on the World Wide Web.

Store your files remotely

Store your files remotely

If all of the important documents that were placed on your main computer were accessible from anywhere and at anytime, then life would’ve been much easier. Unfortunately, unless you’re willing to buy a dedicated IP from your ISP and leave your computer connected 24/7 with constant electricity, Internet and cooling, then that’s not an option. This is where the remote server comes in.

By placing all of your documents with your hosting provider, you can access your files from anywhere with an Internet connection. Going away for the weekend? No problem, upload all of your work on your remote server, and when you reach your destination, get a hold of any computer with an internet connection to download the necessary files and start working. This means that you might not even need a laptop if you are sure of a qualified computer for your tasks at the location you’re heading to.

Synchronization and not manual transfer

If you use an FTP client (such as FileZilla) to upload all of your documents, and then download them from another computer using FTP, or HTTP (by visiting the exact location from the browser and downloading). That saves you the hassle of carrying around memory sticks or external hard disks where your data is stored, but you are left with the same issue of figuring out which files are supposed to stay, and which should be replaced. This is precisely where automatic synchronization comes in.

Using a synchronizing software, you can simply create profiles that mirror local directories with equivalents on a remote server. This means that if you have a folder on your hard disk named “contracts”, for example, you can create a profile so that under your website (or ideally, on a subdomain such as storage.yourwebsite.com) the same folder is created. Whenever you have completed a working session, you run the application and scan for differences. The program automatically selects the changed files on either end and lists them for you. By starting the process, you will have essentially left the program to download and upload only the changed files via FTP. Fast, efficient, and lets you get on with your daily tasks, as oppose to worrying about irritating ones.

Install the synchronizing software on every computer that you use, and when you are using one that is not yours, you can simply access the URL where the files are stored and download the necessary ones. You can use a web application to give you HTTP access to your files, such as the PHP Directory Listing Script, and therefore finding and downloading your files becomes a breeze.

Choosing the appropriate synchronizing client

Unfortunately, this is a field that is lacking options. Like everything else web-related, it is probably a temporary issue, but after extensive research, I’ve only found two powerful synchronizers. Both are commercial, albeit reasonably priced. The following are the features that were the base of my search:

  • Two-way synchronization: Allowing you to upload and download, as oppose to using the remote server simply as a backup
  • FTP support: This one knocked off quite a few of the candidates. It is essential to be able to synchronize with a remote server via FTP, as oppose to a physical hard disk connected to computer being used
  • Interface: while an attractive appearance is not necessary, an organized display of the local vs remote files side-by-side is absolutely vital. Without an easy way of comparison, you’re wasting your time

After experimenting with a few, the following are the creme de la creme

GoodSync Pro

Screen capture taken from GoodSync.com

Screen capture taken from GoodSync.com

Never mind their 90s-style website, this is by far the best synchronization tool the world has experienced. Light-weight and extremely easy to use, this application runs smoothly and leaves no room for confusion or frustration.

At the start and end of any working session, run GoodSync and you’re guaranteed to have the most updated files in a very limited time. You can view the long list of key features on their website, but here are the ones that stand out:

  • Allows for synchronization or simple backup
  • Not a memory hogger, fast and does not interrupt your multi-tasking needs
  • Automatically detects and fixes time shifts. By far one of the most important features
  • Visual comparison avoids mistakes regrading overwriting files with others
  • Timer and scheduler let’s the application do it’s job while you’re not even on your computer

At $30, you’re certainly getting a bang for your buck. The downfall that has sadly pushed me away from it is that it is only available for Windows. If one of the computers you will be synchronizing with is a Mac, then this software is no good for you. After using a genuine version for over a year, I had to move on to a competitor that offered Mac support. The disappointment was so deep, that I wrote them politely asking them to develop a Mac version, but without success.

Super Flexible Synchronizer

Gets the job done

Gets the job done

They might have a much more professional website than that of GoodSync, but that’s probably where the loud praise would end. Super Flexible Synchronizer can be installed on a Mac, PC or Linux, making it the obvious choice for those juggling different OSs.

This application includes the basics required by anyone synchronizing with a remote server, but besides its support for the various operating systems, there isn’t too much to brag about:

  • Not a very inviting interface, but gets the job done nonetheless
  • Slow performance, especially when scanning large remote directories
  • An incompetent time-stamping technique, potentially forcing you to upload and download the same files repeatedly (view work around below)

Although not as impressive as its $40 price tag suggests, it remains the best option for cross-browser remote server centralization and synchronization. Before you can fully rely on Super Flexible Synchronizer, you should remove the time stamp, as it is redundant and leads to the repetitive transfer of the same files:

Save yourself the hassle and remove SFS's time stamp

Save yourself the hassle and remove the time stamp

  1. After creating a profile, click “Edit Profile”
  2. Under “Advanced Setting” to the bottom left, select “Comparison”
  3. Under “When size is identical”, check “Ignore Timestamp Altogether”

What this does is tell the program that if the file sizes are identical, even if the time stamped on the given files are different (and they always are because SFS stamps when uploading OR downloading), then assume they are the same. When there is a difference in file size, it goes on to the modified date of the actual file, which means that the newer replaces the older. Otherwise, you’ll probably end up uploading and downloading the directories back and forth. This permanently solves the problem.

Conclusion

To summarize, the following is what you need to do in order to centralize all of your documents on a remote server, and synchronize with the different computers that you are using:

  1. Sign up for a domain and hosting with any of the hosting providers (for example, Blue Host) if you haven’t done so already
  2. Create a subdomain exclusively for storage (like backup.yourwebsite.com, or storage.yourwebsite.com)
  3. Install the PHP Directory Listing Script on your web server (instructions on the website)
  4. Download a copy of either GoodSync Pro, or Super Flexible Synchronizer (depending on whether or not you’re syncing with a Mac)
  5. Setup profiles that mirror local directories with the same but on your remote server, via FTP, using the software you chose in step 4
  6. Start syncing right before and right after extensive work sessions

This solution is ideal for web designers, developers, graphic designers, or anyone always on the move while working on different computers. You could also use it to store photos, music and videos. The only problem might be the limitations of your internet connection, making it almost impossible to upload large files, as well as your shared hosting provider’s connectivity, slowing down communication with the server. As the services and features provided to us by the beautiful Web increase, organization is a must.

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2 comments

taha

October 15, 2009

wow! i had been meaning to ask you about this many many times. and here it is, clear, concise and to the point. for a while now i’ve been juggling across working on my laptop (ubuntu) computers at work (mac) and then having everything in between on two external hard disks and a thumb drive. and just the other day i was thinking i may need another external hard disk.

Tarek Shalaby

October 16, 2009

Exactly, it’s a solution for anyone juggling between different computers. Otherwise it becomes a mess, and organization is key with anything related to technology and the web.

I’m hoping more competitive open source alternatives pop up so that we don’t need to pay for such a service.

The problem could be with places that are not well connected to the internet, uploading becomes a bit of an issue. But hopefully we can get everyone on board so that no one misses out on his or her birth right of owning a private space on the information super highway. In fact, that’s what Google Chrome OS will be essentially pushing for: moving all of your files on remote servers and relying less on your local machine.

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