DropBox

If you haven't already read my article on Live Mesh, I was recently introduced to the world of online file storage when a work colleague offered to send me a large file through this service. After signing up for my own account and installing the Mesh client, my system became highly unstable with constant Explorer crashes. This made me look for other alternatives and luckily I stumbled across DropBox.

Much like Live Mesh, DropBox is an online storage file sync service which works as follows:
  • You download and install a client tool (Linux, Windows & Mac versions available);
  • Sign-up for a free online account (2GB storage);
  • Run the local client to register the computer as part of your account;
  • Define a DropBox home folder on your local computer which is monitored by the install client at all times in the background;
  • Any files added, updated or deleted from the DropBox home get automatically uploaded to your online storage space;
  • If you switch to another computer with a client installed and registered under your account, any files that are older than online versions are automatically updated and the folder is synced;
  • You may also access your files online through a Web interface via the DropBox site.
The service is very similar to Live Mesh in essence, but even though it comes with only 2GB for free (as opposed to 5GB for Mesh), I'm finding it much easier and more transparent to use. For one, the thin client just sits quietly in the system tray and never gets in my way. Not crashing my Explorer process every half-hour or causing blue-screens scores points for usability.

Besides that however, DropBox still has numerous limitations:
  • I'm unclear how the authentication scheme works - local clients do not need a username or password to sync to your online account. The client must somehow associate with the online service when installed. I'm sure someone can explain this to me in much clearer terms...
  • Files are not encrypted on the backend server. A suggested workaround is to use a TrueCrypt volume as a container and sync the entire virtual file-system. I'm experimenting with this at the moment but have doubts on how well it works (various concerns regarding differential updates, volume mounting/un-mounting, handling merge-conflicts, etc).
I still think this sort of online storage tools should offer client-side encryption with a secure key as an option. It's relatively easy to implement but may impact your ability to access files via a web interface (unless browsers are updated with standard encryption/decryption APIs). I doubt we'll see any security from the rumored Google gDrive either...

2009-03-04: I've been using my 512MB TrueCrypt volume a bit over the last day or so. The differential uploading actually works quite well, i.e, I can mount my TrueCrypt image stored on my local PC, open and edit a text file, unmount the image and Dropbox immediately notices the container has changed. Dropbox then re-syncs with the online account, but only re-uploads the small portion of the container that actually changed! 

Using an encrypted TrueCrypt volume however completely kills the online file-access use-case, i.e. you need to download the whole container to your local PC and use TrueCrypt to mount it with the correct pass-phrase to extract any file from within. This may not even be possible when accessing data from a shared PC, let alone the huge bandwidth wastage... Might as well just zip-encrypt a file and store it on an FTP server somewhere.

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