Smart Sync And The Quest For Middle Ground

The cloud has created an unprecedented improvement in productivity and collaboration. Cloud services allow us access to our data from any device, at any time while also allowing teams to collaborate on that data in real time. This creates the anywhere workplace that cloud users boast about.  

However, accessing computer files such as Word and Excel documents in the cloud has been a significant problem and disappointment for most users. The technology and performance are in my opinion… crappy. Cloud file systems are actually diminishing our productivity instead of improving it.

Slow Internet = Slow Files

The issue is Internet speed.

Accessing the document over the wide-open internet is slow, which creates real issues with loading, editing and saving the document. Your internet speed may typically be around 20 megabits per second, which pales compared to 1000 megabits per second for your corporate network, or 2000+ megabits per second for your computer’s hard drive.

Let’s take a typical Microsoft Word document as an example. We tested a customer report that was just under 5 megabytes in size – a sizeable document but not atypical for our clients. We loaded the document from our cloud file server (in this case, SharePoint – but it could be others like OneDrive, Google Drive, or DropBox), our network and my local hard drive. The results below:

Load Time – 5MB Word Document:

  • From our SharePoint cloud file system: 12.52 seconds
  • From the file server on our corporate network: 3.2 seconds
  • From the hard drive on my computer: 1.58 seconds

As you can imagine, the use of file systems in the cloud has been problematic. The delay between the moment you select a document and the moment that it finally opens is called latency and is a function of the physical distance and network speed between the cloud file server and your computer.

The Workaround: Synchronization

Cloud file systems like OneDrive, Google Drive and Dropbox have all worked around this problem in two ways.

The first way is to edit the document, using a web browser, directly on the cloud file server. Both Microsoft and Google have cloud versions of their document, spreadsheet, and presentation software.

The second method involves synchronizing the cloud file system directly to your computer’s hard drive. This essentially takes our 12.52 second response time and turns it into 1.58 second response time. Opening the file that is synchronized to your own hard drive is fast and efficient.

So, the upside of synchronization is speed and convenience.

Now for the bad news. The downside of synchronization is that security, technical stability, collaboration and storage all suffer. Synchronization means that a document is copied onto every device which needs access, creating a storage nightmare. It means that a stolen device will have copies of sensitive documents stored directly on its hard drive, leaving a large security hole. It means that document synchronization may get out of sync, creating problems with file versions. It means that collaboration suffers when people store documents in their personal sync folders, rather than corporate shared folders.

Synchronization is a lousy way to get fast access to cloud files.

The Middle Ground: Smart Sync

So, what is the middle ground between storing everything on slow cloud file systems, and storing everything on every computer in the corporate fleet?

The answer is something I call Smart Sync.

It is essentially synchronizing those files to which you need high-speed access while leaving the rest on the server. The “special sauce” of smart sync is that the computer will figure out which files are synchronized locally to your hard drive and which files are left on the cloud server. The final component of Smart Sync is the placeholder file – an icon that represents each file that is only stored on the cloud server – so that the user cannot differentiate between those files synchronized locally and those files sitting on the cloud server. They all look the same to the user.

I have been begging Microsoft for a Smart Sync capability for years. SharePoint and OneDrive are critical tools for our company and our clients, but we cannot have all our documents synchronized to all our devices. Smart Sync would solve that problem. We could open a file explorer window and all the files would be represented. If we wanted to use a file, we would click on the icon and Smart Sync would ensure that the file, and its associated files, were synchronized locally ready for use.

Almost But Not Quite Yet

The techno crowd is on the case, but struggling with the concept.

In January of 2017, Dropbox announced SmartSync, an upgrade to its Dropbox Infinite service that essentially lets users access cloud-based documents right from their desktop without synchronizing the entire file system to their hard drive. It is still in beta and not yet available for all platforms.

This month, Google announced that they will be introducing Smart Files to their Google Drive product under the name Drive File Stream.

Microsoft had a similar technical capability back in the early days of OneDrive and Windows 8.1 called smart files. They removed it due to technical instability with the placeholder files. It has not returned in Windows 10 and the latest version of OneDrive.

To Sync or Not to Sync

Until we get true Smart Sync capabilities or until we get super-high-speed fibre internet connectivity nationwide, we will be stuck between the Sync or No-Sync camps – both camps unhappy, unsecure and ultimately less productive.

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