Mesh, SkyDrive, and Cloud-Based Synchronization!

**Writer’s note: This article was planned and blocked a week before it was written; in the meantime when I mentioned on either Twitter or Facebook that the article was being written, I received a number of requests to include other (that is, non-Microsoft) offerings.  Because I have not had the time to test those offerings I cannot do so in time for this article.  However my credibility and integrity is not based on my knowledge of Microsoft but of IT, so I will make this commitment to look into other similar services in the coming weeks, and write a follow-up article comparing and contrasting the offerings.  If there is a particular service that you would like to see covered in that article please leave me a comment and I will do my best.  I should mention that for the purpose of this series I will only be covering free services; I have written previously about a paid cloud-backup solution that I am partial to (eFolder) and will gladly compare other such services… but for these articles I will only compare ‘oranges to oranges.’

How many computers does one person need?  Until recently I thought the simple answer was one.  At any time if I bought a new computer I would sell my old one (to this day I regret selling my Acer Ferrari).  I won’t go into the reasons I need multiple laptops now, but thinking about it objectively I know a lot of people with multiple computers, or in the least who need (or would like access to) their documents and files in multiple locations.  This is especially true of people with desktop computers (either at work or home) who travel.  Where should your files sit?

I don’t have a desktop – I travel far too often and while on the ground it can be easy enough to connect to either a corporate file server or a cloud-based solution, airborne Internet access is still in its infancy, expensive, unreliable, and for the foreseeable future is not something that Air Canada seems to be rushing to implement.  In short?  My files have to be with me at all times.  Of course, I have two laptops that I travel with, and need to be able to work from both without missing a beat.  I have an external hard drive, but owing to security concerns it is protected using BitLocker to Go which means that while I am running Windows I have no problems, but when I am working in Mac OS X I am out of luck.  What I could do, of course, is first boot into Windows, copy the files I need onto my internal hard drive, then reboot into OS X; of course when I was done I would have to remember to boot back into Windows and copy any files I had changed back onto the external drive… and G-d help me should anything happen to that external drive!  Yeah, that sounds like a lot of unnecessary steps to me too.

Friends have been telling me about Live Mesh (beta) for a while now, but I only started playing with it recently, and only started delving into the true capabilities and powers of the product recently.  My eyes were opened and I saw the light!

Mesh has a number of features that have turned my head, including:

  • Connecting to the desktops of Mesh-connected devices; and
  • Synchronizing folders on your desktop to the Mesh Desktop.

A few days ago I had three devices connected to my Mesh: My Dell laptop, Windows on my Mac, and Mac on my Mac.  Now that I understand more I have connected several of my servers at home as well.

File Synchronization between desktops through the Cloud

By connecting a device (more accurately you are connecting an OS instance, as the two separate Mac devices demonstrates) you can now connect to any connected device remotely (as long as that device is on and connected to the Internet).  You can also then synchronize folders on your Mesh Desktop to that device.  Let me explain:

  1. On my Live Mesh Desktop (which I connect to in an Internet browser using my Live ID) I create a folder – I used to have Pictures and Documents, but decided to streamline.  When you first connect to your Mesh Desktop the only item on it is ‘Create New Folder.’  Click that, name it, and you are done.
  2. On the desktop of any (all) connected devices a shortcut appears that looks like a regular Windows Explorer folder, except it is blue, and has the arrow indicating that it is a shortcut rather than an actual folder.
  3. I double-click that folder shortcut, and I am asked where I want that folder to synchronize to.  On my Dell I opted to create a new directory on my D drive called d:\Mitch Docs.  On the MacBook’s Windows instance I only have the single Windows partition, so it is c:\Mitch Docs.
  4. On the laptop where my original Documents folder resides (the Dell) I move the contents of my original Documents Library (in legacy OSes my Documents folder) into the newly created directory on my D drive.  After the culling (which I will explain later) the contents amounted to about 3.5 gigabytes.
  5. In the properties of my Documents Library I:
    1. Add my newly created folder (D:\Mitch Docs) to the Library;
    2. Move that folder to the top of the list;
    3. Set that folder as the Default Save Location.

Now my work is done… Mesh synchronizes my files from the desktop my Mesh Desktop in the cloud, which may take a while depending on the size of the contents being moved as well as the bandwidth of your Internet connection.  I continue to work normally as I would.  The next time I connect my other desktops to the Internet I get the same Mesh Folder Shortcut icon on my desktop for the folders I created, and I have to go through the same procedure of assigning it a corresponding location on my local hard drive; but now instead of copying files into it, Mesh will synchronize my files from the cloud into the newly created folder automatically.  (I do have to follow the steps under Step 5 from above in order to ensure that the new folder is in the Document Library and is the default file location on each computer I add)

Now when I create a new document when I click save it will be saved locally, and immediately (upon connecting to the Internet) be synchronized to my Mesh Desktop, and from there it will be synchronized back to every desktop that I have connected to the Mesh.  Since my files reside on my local hard drive, I can access any of them when I am off-line (right now I am at 37,000 feet over North Dakota).  I can edit them, delete them, rename them.  When I connect to the Internet the changes are all synchronized.

Accessing connected Devices remotely

Monday morning I left my MacBook (booted in Windows) connected to the Internet in my hotel room and took my Dell to my class.  When I connected to my Mesh account I noticed that the MacBook was on-line; I clicked Connect to Device and poof! – I was connected to the desktop in an Internet Explorer instance.  I did some file clean-up (I had some files sitting on the desktop that I had been meaning to move onto my external drive, so I copied them to my Live Mesh Desktop, let them synch, and then moved them from the Mesh Desktop to my external drive.  While I was there (on the MacBook) I took the opportunity to change some settings, uninstall some software, and apply a number of security patches that Windows had downloaded on Patch Tuesday. 

I should mention that although there are a number of ways to connect to a remote desktop, most of them do not allow that remote computer to advertise and then connect through hotel firewalls, but since Mesh creates a secure connection when the computer connects to the Internet and maintains a connection over a standard secure port (443) no advertisement is required, and no proprietary ports are blocking it.  Although this is great for hotels it is also a benefit for me at home, where I have a plethora of machines, both physical and virtual, that I need to connect to from time to time, and have always had to be mindful of this because when I reconfigure my internal network (as I often do) I am still able to connect to any Mesh-connected machine.  Sometime this week I will likely install Windows 7 on a junk-system and make that my house’s Mesh-hub… I will connect to that machine from remote and then use Remote Desktop to connect to machines that are not otherwise remotely accessible.

Watch me work!

The default setting for connecting to a remote desktop locks the local machine while it is being accessed remotely.  However with the click of a button (Show local desktop) I can work interactively with someone on the other end – my wife, son, mother, or a client.  When my mother asks me to help her to do something on her computer I used to have to talk her through it blindly, but with Mesh I can show her what I am doing (she sees the mouse moving and every click) and I can then make sure she understands by letting her take control while I watch.

Limitations

Live Mesh Desktop limits you to five gigabytes (5GB) of files.  For most of us this is more than reasonable… but when I set out on this journey I realized how out of control my main documents folder was… 112GB (yes, that is One Hundred and Twelve!) to be accurate.  I had several directories of files that were important to be sure (my Outlook Archives count 17GB, and my past courseware was about 55GB).  I also had a plethora of pictures and other stuff in there, including letters, essays, articles, and white papers dating back to 1996.  I assure you I need all of those, but I don’t necessarily need them everywhere I go.  I culled the directory by moving folders to an off-line repository (hard drives in my server as well as a copy on my external hard drive which I carry with me).  These are files that I will access and look at from time to time, but wouldn’t be making changes to.  Without really going deep, I got my ‘important’ files down to 3.5GB or so.  Of course it didn’t hurt me – I didn’t delete or lose a single file – but it did at the same time force me to archive a lot of unneeded files so that my local hard drive is not overburdened.

What about SkyDrive?

Mesh is me… it could I suppose be my family if I wanted to create a single Live account that we all share, but as it stands it is all mine.  Live SkyDrive, on the other hand, is another cloud-based free offering and allows me to store larger – and more – files on-line, as well as share them with people within my Live Network.  I have a number of directories – some public which anyone in my Network can access, some private to which I can assign anyone granular control (Upload, Download, View, Full Control), and some which are just for me.  SkyDrive has a limit per account of 25GB, but it is not quite as useable as Live Mesh:

  • You cannot upload folders and sub-folders
  • Individual files are limited to 50MB
  • There is no synchronization option.

With those limitations I still use SkyDrive for a lot more than just sharing large files with friends and colleagues… although I use it for that too.  I also store a plethora of pictures there, as well as a number of PowerPoint presentations that I don’t need often but can use in a pinch if I am invited to speak unprepared.  I keep all of my Internet Explorer Favorites there, and of course files that I would gladly share with the right people… such as my curriculum vitae. 

A Perfect Solution?

Of course even these solution offerings are not a complete solution.  Are they secure?  I think they are.  However I have seen Cloud Services fail before, so you can be certain that I have a local back-up of my files at home (in addition to my actual Cloud Backup).

Live Mesh installs a client on each desktop… not invasive but it is there.  There is no such client for Live SkyDrive, but there is an Internet Explorer plug-in that allows you to drag-and-drop files.

When I say that I don’t know what I did before Live Mesh I am exaggerating… but it does keep my life straight and easily managed.  I no longer have to worry about multiple copies of multiple versions of the same file in different locations… if you have multiple computers it is an excellent solution to keep things organized.

Now good luck, go forth, and Mesh!

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