To Sync or Not To Sync

This year I am helping to coach my son’s hockey team.

A few weeks ago we were setting up the dressing room before the game. We were distributing the jerseys, a task which requires that we match the number on the jersey with the kid sitting in the dressing room. None of the coaches could remember which number matched which hockey player.

Being a paperless guru, I knew that I had a digital copy of the player list with their jersey numbers on my server at home. All I had to do was login to the server and retrieve the document. I was going to be the hero of the day. Paperless was going to save us, big time!

I opened my smartphone and went looking for the document. It wasn’t there. Why? Because I didn’t have access to the internet way down in the depths of the arena. It’s a bunker down there and my phone was showing zero connection bars. No connection equals no document. Nothing.

This is a classic frustration of paperless. You have everything available to you digitally, if you have access to the Internet. If not, you are totally screwed.

Which is why we engage in the most horrible of habits – data syncing.

Cloud Storage Tools

I have used two products to store my personal information in the cloud: DropBox and BTSync.


My first cloud storage experience was with Dropbox, an amazing product that saved us all as we moved from laptops to tablets. When the iPad was introduced, we had no way of moving our documents to the device (typical Apple – “why would you want your documents on the iPad?”) and DropBox became the tool of choice. It was free and very effective.

DropBox does a partial or full synchronization of all of the documents in the folder depending on the device. For your tablet, it does a partial sync – it shows you which documents are available in the cloud and then you download the one that you want (unless you don’t have an internet connection – see the story above – ugghh). For your desktop or laptop, it downloads all of the documents in the cloud right onto your computer’s hard drive. Which is fine if you have a lot of space, and don’t mind having all of your documents on all of your devices (we will talk about this later! It is the crux of the sync issue).


With the shame of not being able to retrieve an important document hanging over my head, I started looking for a more selective and sophisticated cloud storage solution. A few things were at the top of my priority list for a new cloud service:

  • Selective sync – I decide what is on each device, and what isn’t
  • No data limit – I want to be able to move any size file, including photos and videos
  • Not ad driven – I appreciate “free” software but prefer using enterprise versions that are well built are sustainable because they are funded through licensing fees.
  • Apps for everything – I need to be able to access my files on any device, by any manufacturer, at any time.

I store all of my personal documents on a network hard drive, called a NAS (network attached storage). I found a piece of software that met all of my criteria and would run on my NAS, thus creating a personal cloud storage solution. It is called Bittorent Sync, or BTSync for short.

The software uses Bittorent technology to move files between your devices. This is the same technology used by software pirates to illegally share movies, music, and software. But this is a legitimate use for great technology. It is a peer-to-peer service, which means that as long as there is another device on the internet with the file you need, you can access it.

Because there is a BTSync app for my NAS at home, I set that up as my personal cloud server. This would ensure that I always had a “peer” available on the internet with the file that I needed. My NAS is always on and is connected to the internet through my firewall.

I then loaded the BYSync apps onto my laptop, my tablet, and my iPhone. So far so good. I have a cloud server that allows unlimited file sizes, has apps for everything, and allows me to selectively sync files.

To Sync or Not to Sync

Back to the hockey problem. And the crux of the cloud storage issue. What files should be synchronized locally on the device, and what should remain in the cloud?

Really this question comes down to the tradeoff between convenience and security, with a dabbling of storage space thrown in to complicate things.

Starting with security, I don’t want any personal files stored anywhere but my NAS at home. If I can access files through the cloud, then I am fine keeping them stored in a single, secure place. However, the hockey problem says that I won’t have guaranteed access to the internet. Which means that I must store some files on the devices that are most convenient. But which files?

I have 73 folders of information on my NAS at home. This stuff ranges from our family photos and videos, to our favorite recipes, our kids’ documents, and digital copies of important legal documents. Over 1 TB of data. That is over 1,000 GB of data. It isn’t feasible or desirable to sync all of that to all of my devices.

In order to decide which files I wanted available offline (stored locally on my devices), I considered security and convenience, along that dabbling of storage capacity.

Storage Capacity

My iPhone is the device with the smallest storage capacity. It is a 64GB unit, but my available storage is probably close to half of that – say 32GB. Which means that my offline files cannot exceed that storage limit. While I have online access to the entire 1,000 GB of data, my offline access was going to be a very small subset of that data.


My big fear is that my device is lost or stolen, and all of the data on that device is compromised. So I decided to avoid synchronizing really sensitive family data to my portable devices. So stuff like passport information and health information was not eligible for synchronization.


This is the key driver behind synchronizing data. If I make the information available offline, then I know for certain that if I need the player list for my hockey team, it will BE THERE!

I looked through my list of folders and assessed each folder, assessing the need for convenient access against the need for security and the limits of offline storage capacity (32GB).

I came up with 31 folders or subfolders that I considered eligible for offline access without busting my criteria for security or storage capacity. It ended up being my volunteer Board documents, files for current kid’s activities, personal projects, my favorite computer wallpapers . . . stuff like that. Very current working or reference documents. All historical or archive information stays on the NAS.

The 31 folders contain 4.03 GB of data. Most of it is Word, Excel, or PowerPoint documents – which really don’t take up a lot of space. I don’t need real-time access to photos or videos (the big data hogs), so it seems easy to keep my offline storage needs quite small.

I created a folder on my NAS called DoddBox, a nice reference to my personal DropBox. I placed the 31 folders needed for offline access into DoddBox. I then instructed BTSync to make that folder available to my portable devices. I then configured each of those devices to store the files locally.

The Hockey Rink Revisited

This past weekend we were back to the hockey rink for the final game of the regular season. One of the coaches asked about our playoff schedule – when was our first game? I had the post-season schedule in a folder for the hockey team on DoddBox. And again, although I had zero bars of data available on my phone (why do they build hockey rinks like war bunkers?), I was able to retrieve the file, answer the question, and finally look like a paperless, hockey hero.

The Last Word on Synchronization

So there are three things to consider carefully when creating an offline-document strategy:

  • Security – expect that your device will get lost or stolen, and who will you have to phone to say that the data is in the hands of bad guys?
  • Convenience – realistically, what data do you need to access everywhere, anytime, and on any device?
  • Storage – how much storage do you really have available before you fill up your portable device?

Next week – looking at how to apply that thinking to our corporate information.

Connections Blog

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