Windows Live Mesh

I asked a colleague today if he could send me a large file and whilst I was still pondering on how to get past the stingy email attachment limitations, I received an invite to share a folder through his Windows Live Mesh account. I clicked on the email link which took me to a fancy Flash/Silverlight Explorer like interface showing me all files and folders I had been given access to. I navigated to what I was after, clicked download, and within a few minutes the exchange was all done.

I must say I was impressed by the quality and ease-of-use of the service, possibly because I haven't used things like Dropbox, SkyDrive or Mesh before (still waiting for Google gDrive...sigh). The whole experience was so painless that I downloaded the Mesh client and setup my own shared sync folder using an old hotmail login that I rarely use anymore (I have gmail configured to automatically retrieve all my other emails from different accounts via pop3 into separate folders). The client installation was relatively straight-forward (although I was getting some '401 Not authorized' errors the first 2 or 3 times I tried to add my PC to the Device list but the issue resolved itself after a while). I've now put up about 60 to 70 MB worth of data and planning to put more over the next few days (Mesh offers 5.1GB for free with option to expand to 50GB for $10 a month).

I think Live Mesh, Dropbox and other online file-sync services with strong, transparent desktop integration are great for a number of reasons:
  • very easy to share files between your own computers - all devices with the Mesh client will replicate transparently and keep in sync, in theory;
  • easy to access your files remotely from any web-enabled PC - can access all your files through a web-interface, no client required;
  • great way to backup your important files - sure, the Mesh server can crash too, but they have regular backups and are generally much more reliable than a USB stick or a CD/DVD;
  • good way to share large files with anyone in the world - I think Dropbox makes this even easier by giving you direct links to individual files rather than the Mesh email invitation system;
  • free, easy to set up, little to no administration required;
Having said that though, from my little experience with Mesh so far I can see a number of drawbacks and areas with room for improvement:
  • Entrusting all your data to others:
    • Firstly, I chose Mesh over Dropbox because I don't know who Dropbox is;
    • Second, Mesh encrypts all data between end-points, but not on the server, i.e. a server admin could easily look through all your files if he wanted to;
  • Better encryption:
    • Ideally I would like to see the thick client encrypt all data in the sync folder locally using the login password as a key;
    • All files would be thus transmitted encrypted, and assuming the server only stores a password hash, a server admin would not be able to decrypt your files without first sniffing your password;
    • Taking it one step further, a double-hash could be used to prevent any way for a system admin to get into your files:
      • Your password is used as the encryption key for all your files and all encryption is done locally by the thick-client;
      • When logging in to the online service, the thick-client takes a hash of your password and sends it over to the server;
      • The server takes a hash of your password hash and compares against a database passHashHash field to authenticate;
      • This way, your true password never leaves your PC;
      • Logging in through the web interface could implement the same system, Javascript takes a hash of your entered password before making the login call;
      • I doubt this will ever get implemented though as it locks the service provider out of exploiting your content for ad revenue (which I'm sure gDrive will do);
      • Government agencies may also have something to say about this - I'm sure they love the idea of cloud-computing where everyone stores all their files on servers they have full access to. I can just imagine a Google contract with the government to provide them with a Search engine for everyone's stored docs and other files...
    • This would have the added benefit of creating a virtual vault on your PC to which only you had access to, much like a TrueCrypt volume;
    • Unlike TrueCrypt though, your data would also be backed-up and synced between multiple computers;
    • This is really useful when using a work PC or laptop, you can easily protect your private files without worrying about the boss confiscating your machine and snooping through;
  • Slow syncing - not much can be done about this, the performance will depend directly on your broadband connection, and let's just say Australia has extremely poor ISP services, especially when it comes to upload speeds (256kbps is norm);
UPDATE: Just a quick update on my Live Mesh experience. After installing the client I found my Explorer kept crashing and freezing every 30 minutes or so and eventually resulted in a blue screen. I cannot definitively contribute my crashes to the client, but after uninstalling and rebooting my system regain stability. This, together with the overly intrusive interface (too much Explorer integration for my liking), was enough to put me off Live Mesh and make me try out Dropbox.

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