Syncing in a Torrent

I’m ditching Dropbox… Cancelling my Google Drive subscription… I’m syncing with torrents, now…

When I bought my first laptop it seemed a little daring to be buying a machine with no floppy disk drive (this was twelve years ago…) But it had a CD burner, so I’d be alright… Then USB drives became the defacto way to shift files around.

Now it’s Dropbox, and the many similar services that let you throw your files up into the cloud and access them from any of your devices, or any web browser…

But… there have always been a couple of niggles… safety and security. Can you trust the service you use not to let your files leak into the wild… and can you be sure that your files will be there tomorrow?

With the recent revelations about the extent to which the NSA and GCHQ have their claws into the tech companies that provide these services, the security questions have become more acute. But the convenience and functionality continue to make them alluring…

Functions

It’s worth picking apart a few of the things these services offer – they go beyond what a floppy or USB stick could provide:

  • They let you move files between devices, with more speed and less friction than floppies or USB sticks

  • The social aspect: share files with chosen collaborators, or more widely, without having to physically pass a disk or drive around

  • The web: access your stuff through any browser anywhere, even if you’ve left your USB stick at home

  • Backup (in a limited way…) your files are off-site, should your computer fail, be stolen, or burn down…

An Alternative

I’ve been playing with Bittorrent Sync which, just over a week ago, released an iOS app to complement its applications for Mac, Windows and Linux based devices. Bittorrent Sync is simple in concept: you designate a shared folder on one of your machines, generate a ‘secret’ which you input on another machine where you nominate another folder and Bittorrent Sync uses its peer-to-peer system to keep the two folders in sync. You can share a folder to your phone, too, simply by snapping a QR code from the screen of the computer you want to sync with.

This offers several immediate advantages: it’s unlimited (you can sync as many files as you like) and it’s secure (all the data is encrypted and none of it is stored by Bittorrent or any third party). It’s also free (as in beer, there’s some discussion of the client maybe going open source in the future).

There are some immediate disadvantages which might be off-putting especially for the casual user:

  • first of all it relies on a computer being on all the time (to sync to) as there’s no third party cloud server doing this for you (also all the data goes over your broadband connection, so any issues with reliability or data caps will affect your syncing service)

  • while the ‘secret’ system is easy, the experience of setting it up is perhaps not quite as easy as the super-simple process Dropbox has refined itself into

  • there’s no web access, you can only share files to someone who has the application installed

That said, the increased concern over privacy may be enough of a motivating factor to encourage people to spend a little effort setting this up, and having a computer on is not strictly necessary since you could install it on a suitable hard-drive (a consumer NAS) instead and when these start to come with BTSync pre-installed setup will no longer be an issue.

Of course, the benefit increases as you keep your files synced in more places. But for those of us with a bit of the DIY spirit of enterprise, making a pact with a trusted friend or relative that we’ll each buy an NAS and use half of each to sync with the other’s files might be a way of creating some redundancy, and having an off-site backup of sorts into the bargain? With a larger group the benefits would be even greater (as, of course, would the costs, although hard drives are inexpensive).

Performance

I’ve been very impressed with my experience so far – I’ve ambitiously tried to sync my half-terrabyte iTunes library with few problems. Syncing over the LAN is exceedingly fast, while over the WAN speeds have – based on my limited experience to date – been as good as Google Drive. The iOS app is quite basic, a little slow and at times unresponsive. It does the job, but a better built in media player (AirPlay please!) would suit me well…

So far it’s good enough for me to cancel my Google Drive subscription. Yes, I’ll be losing the convenience of web access. My free account I’ll keep for sharing files with people who don’t have BTSync yet. But by providing me with an unlimited, encrypted, file sharing system BTSync has fulfilled all the needs the likes of Dropbox and its ilk were meeting, and more.

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11 thoughts on “Syncing in a Torrent

  1. I know where you’re coming from Simon, but usability and accessibility score much higher for me than privacy (I’m not mentioning security here because I’ve nothing I’m that concerned about – should I be?). Basically, I think it’s hard enough to get people off a USB stick habit without getting them to use Bittorrent – unless there was a corporate solution provided; then it might work – as might Oxygen or Copy. Google Drive, SkyDrive and Dropbox all serve the purpose well, so I’ll not be dropping them for the moment.

    For me Google Drive (especially now that you can use Photos saved to it in G+ posts) does the trick; and I’ll continue using Dropbox – it’s just SO easy to use.

    Have you looked at Copy or Oxygen neither of which I’ve paid too much attention to – even though I have accounts; I’d would welcome your thoughts on these.

    • I think that what Dropbox sells is the experience. I don’t believe it was a new or original product it offered, but it did it better and more simply than anyone else, and I think that’s going to remain hard to beat. I didn’t mean to give the impression that Bittorrent Sync is complicated (it’s not) but it’s more flexible and so conceptually requires more of users (you don’t get told where your Dropbox folder is, you can choose which folder or folders to sync and they can have different paths on different machines, and you can sync multiple folders in different ways – this is already exponentially more complicated). That suggests it’s aimed at a different user group to Dropbox.

      I’m not sure how a corporate version of BTSync would differ (though they are looking at it) because it’s fundamentally about peer sharing. If you and I were to have a shared a secret we can share a set of files. Perhaps the one thing that a corporate version, or a service that ISP could offer, will come if a feature that is being much suggested on the forums is implemented: a secret that allows the recipient to host but not read. Then someone else could take the hosting off my hands without me having to worry they could access any of my stuff. No need for me to leave a computer or NAS running, I just download BTSync, designate a folder, and submit the secret to my service provider…

      But there’s probably no reason to use BTSync if all you are doing is replacing your USB drive. Dropbox and the rest do this job very well.

      On the other hand, if you want to have a lot of files available in the cloud…well, if your budget is unlimited, maybe GDrive and Dropbox are still good options – but for me I’d want to keep my own backup as well. Indeed, while I’ve been using GDrive I’ve been keeping a machine more or less constantly running a Time Machine backup of a complete download – I’ve lost data in the past and now I am absolutely committed to prevention. To me it seems if you’re committed to having that in place already, BTSync actually simplifies things.

      I’ve had a look at Oxygen which appears to be a corporate Dropbox; as such aimed at businesses (if I ran a business, I’d give it a look). Copy I wasn’t familiar with but it looks like a straight Dropbox clone? The service I’d previously been quite interested in was AeroFS which is back to the P2P model of syncing, but as far as I can see BTSync offers everything it does without the cost.

      Of course it comes down to what you want or need. That’s why I emphasised the security and privacy. While tools like Dropbox served me well, they have also developed an appetite in me for more and more of my stuff to be available wherever I am. And I do value privacy, and I do want a backup of my files somewhere locally, and I do have a lot of data (meaning I’d need to spend a lot on their service). Trying to rig up a workflow around Dropbox or GDrive ends up more complex (if I want a backup) and much more expensive (if I’ve got lots to sync) than using BTSync.

      But I can’t abandon GDrive (the free version) altogether, because I still want to be able to share files as easily as just sharing a link (as you say, these services serve their purpose). BTSync doesn’t offer that.

      Yet.

  2. Really interesting stuff Simon! Thanks for your reply David. I was taking an induction with MSc students the other day and was surprised at how many had some kind of cloud storage – could have been half of a class of around 30. On reflection, many of these will be seeing such services packaged with their mobile device and top marketing firms (like Apple) will get you using the cloud almost without you realising it. Very few will understand or start to use ‘sharing’ though because they cant think outside the ‘box’ – they use FB for that kind of thing. Here’s where I agree with David about ease of use. When it comes to sharing a file or folder, the top cloud storage services are drop-dead easy: that is what paves the path of least resistance, hence adoption.
    For those paranoid about security, a dedicated partition within Dropbox using truecrypt is for me the stand-out solution.

    • That’s a very interesting point about marketing firms getting people into the cloud without their knowing. I think it might be worth teasing out ‘ease of use’ question into two distinct parts – getting started, and use once established. It’s on the first that there’s a small overhead with BTSync (it’s very easy once you’ve decided how to manage your syncing workflow). Dropbox and others really win on having a low threshold for adoption. Low enough to be almost unconscious!

      The TrueCrypt solution is an excellent idea… and a nice mix of where convenience and security can be traded off case by case – since you can choose to only do it for those files that need really good protection. But is it possible to decrypt on mobiles?

      That still leaves the question of backup – again, the casual user (who, as you say, may get sucked into the cloud without realising) probably doesn’t think about this. Once you starts updating your files that are in the cloud from different devices, do you know where the latest changes are backed up? To this, an alternative answer that maybe addresses the ‘ease of use’ (or rather, threshold for adoption) issue is third (or fourth?) party services like ‘backupify’ et al.

  3. This has got me going! Just been scooting around and I can’t see any benefit (in privacy/security terms) for Copy or Oxygen over Dropbox, although Copy does seem to suggest there’s a slightly different handling/treatment of files to establish ownership (but no doubt that could be by-passed).

    What I did come across was this: Tonido – http://www.tonido.com/ – which seems to package the BTSync “idea” into a set of apps and features. Back to you Simon for comment 🙂

    Here’s another link which describes the application – http://techonomy.com/2013/07/as-nsa-worries-cloud-dropbox-tonido-offers-its-personal-cloud/

    Also came across Tresorit – https://tresorit.com/ – which does client-side encryption (much in the same way that LastPass works, if I understand it correctly). I also like Mike’s idea of using TrueCrypt – if I ever can think of something on Dropbox I need to protect, I’ll think of using it. Up to now I’ve been using password protected Word documents for anything I considered sensitive – I presume that was a BAD idea??

    • I’m enjoying all of the new ideas and services that I didn’t know about before – thanks!

      Tonido does indeed seem to have the ‘private cloud’ model in common with BTSync (and AeroFS too). For sure, the ‘private cloud’ idea isn’t new – but either BTSync is doing it better (it certainly seems good to me) or is able to get traction because of it BitTorrent name/notoriety. Tonido seems to me the packaging of private cloud software with hardware (the TonidoPlug) that differentiates it… But I’d be surprised if we don’t see NAS manufacturers starting to sell BTSync equipped NASs soon, so it may lose its unique selling point.

      Tresorit, like Mike’s TrueCrypt solution, will keep both the hosts and anyone else who gains access to your files from actually viewing your data (unless the NSA have persuaded them to build some backdoors in). There are already BTSync ‘host’ services – but while data is encrypted in transit, since they need a secret to sync, they can decrypt it. There’s been a request on the forums – I’ve alluded to it before – to create a new type of secret that allows syncing but not decryption. I think the significance in this is that we may see some growth in companies offering BTSync hosting services at that point.

      For me one of the interesting things about BTSync is that while it is proprietary software, it will likely have an ecosystem around it:

      • the NAS sellers
      • BTSync hosting providers
      • app makers who will utilise the soon-to-be-released API

      For something that has become so important as file sync, it’ll be good to have more choice of software/hardware – no tie to a subscription, service provider, or single manufacturer.

  4. And there’s more …

    In my G+ stream this morning I saw a Make Use Of reference to Securing Dropbox – http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/securing-dropbox-6-steps-to-take-for-safer-cloud-storage/ – this led to this artcile on encrypted alternatives to Dropbox – http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/secure-files-3-encrypted-dropbox-alternatives/ – and within that there was reference (as Mike suggested earlier) to encrypting files (before emailing) – http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/ways-easily-quickly-encrypt-files-emailing/

    … hope this might be of interest.

  5. I started using it two days ago. I must say, I am very impressed.

    Basic Linux setup, hacking, etc. are not that alien to me. But once I set it up (relatively painless), the rest of the steps the application takes care by itself. No new prodding required.

    I always like setup-once and forget system.

    One problem is that, I have to manually update the binary if a new release comes out. The app (on my NAS) does not have the option of updating or atleast hinting that a new update is available.

    -J

    • That’s worth knowing JIgar. I’ve been using BT Sync happily for 3 months and like you I’ve not had to think about it since I set it up. Since it’s syncing between Macs I haven’t even had to worry about updates – it just gives me a prompt then gets on with it. But I am thinking of getting an NAS for BT Sync (a little extra redundancy never hurts with a system like this, and there’s possible speed benefits too) and I didn’t realise I’d need to take responsibility for updates – useful information, thank you.

      • The updates which you mentioned are probably for the Mac client. Not for the NAS binary. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be even more critical updates since it is the server which is directing all traffic and managing content. I am using goflex NAS. What about you ?

        Best thing I like about this is a working iOS app. That sealed the deal for me 🙂

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