DIY Dropbox alternatives

Give your cloud storage a personal touch.

Dropbox, when it's working and you feel good about it, is that kind of advanced technology that's indistinguishable from magic. You drop a file into a folder, and it's available on the web, on your other machines, and on your phone, often with multiple version backups. But the curtain has been drawn back on Dropbox's conjury lately, with Terms of Service (TOS) changes, a brief but scary any-password-opens-any-account moment, and then another TOS change that left many confused.

It might be the case, then, that you don't want to trust just one blue-hued box for your file syncing. Your clients might have concerns about their data being stashed on a third party's servers, or you might just be a fan of redundancy. In any case, it's not that hard to create a kind of Dropbox clone that relies on your systems and your bandwidth, but provides the same kind of drop-and-forget peace of mind.

You've got a few options, depending on your proficiencies and desire to tweak. Lifehacker points us to a very complete, in-depth guide at Fak3r.com to rolling your own open source Dropbox clone. If you're already pretty familiar with SSH, rsync, and basic Linux/Unix networking, it's a viable option. For the rest of us, other tech firms have already built some tools that we just have to connect together.

Microsoft, for instance. Windows can mount remote network drives as if they were local folders, and the Redmond firm offers every Windows Live users 25 GB of storage space through their SkyDrive service. So why not connect the two? Microsoft doesn't officially offer it, but all one needs to do is open or create some kind of document, then choose "Save to Web." Choose SkyDrive, then, when Windows' own Explorer window pops up to help you choose your location, click at the end of the path, then select and copy the long URL string from that window. You may have to hit the View menu on that Explorer window to show the address, but in any case, copy it with Ctrl+C, then also paste it into, say, a Notepad scratch file.

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Got that URL? If you already have a Windows 7 online ID provider installed, you're pretty much good to go. If not, that's an easy installation. Once your ID provider is in place, open your Start menu and right-click on Computer, then click "Map Network Drive." Choose a drive letter, paste in the location you copied from that Save dialog, and, voilà -- you've got a folder that saves whatever you drop in, and is accessible from any computer you've set up with SkyDrive. Drop files into that folder, and they sync to your SkyDrive storage.

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SkyDrive's web access is pretty solid, and you can easily create new Office documents, even OneNote clips, through your browser, too. Sharing is set up fairly nice, too, and if you have Silverlight running in your browser, multiple uploads or downloads from a Windows or Mac browser is a drag-and-drop affair.

But maybe you're interested in replicating more of Dropbox's functionality -- dedicated clients on Windows and Mac, encryption, deeper OS integration -- the way to go is GoodSync. GoodSync is connective software, and it's meant to turn your existing web spaces into Dropbox-like spaces for files. It takes files located on your system drive, removable drives, home servers, or whatever else you have local, and syncs them to web space through FTP or secure FTP (SFTP), WebDAV connections, Amazon S3, Google Docs, or Windows Live spaces, including our friend SkyDrive from above. You can also use GoodSync as a one-way backup tool, or sync only between two computers.

GoodSync's feature list is impressive, especially given that a Pro license is a one-time $30 purchase. You can use it free, too, with a few capacity limitations. Those might not be a problem, though, if you're a light user; check out the free-versus-pro breakdown for details. In any case, grab the free download, install it, and start it up.

You'll be asked to choose to set up Goodsync in Online or Offline mode; stick with Online for now (Offline mode generally relies on Goodsync's USB key). Create a GoodSync account, then choose to "Create a new job." A job is something like "Sync Documents to Web Server," or "Sync Pictures to Amazon S3." It will be two-way, and near-instantaneous, but you have to set up each folder-to-folder connection this way. Then again, you could simply sync a big, root folder to a folder on your remote space, if you want that Dropbox-like feeling of having one magic box. In any case, choose "Synchronize" rather than "Backup" for the job.

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Your new job needs two sides to it -- a left side, generally the local files you want to sync, and a right side, preferably the network side. Click on your new job in the list, then click the "Left" side drive icon at the top of the window. Choose the local folder you want synced and hit Okay. Now choose the "Right" side drive icon, and this time pick out the FTP/SFTP, WebDav, or other cloud service you want your files to sync up to. You'll need to provide a username and password, as well as choose a specific folder to sync to.

So you've chosen your two sides -- now what? Hit the "Analyze" button in the upper-left corner of the GoodSync app. GoodSync will get an idea of what needs to be copied or replicated, and in the main jobs list, you'll see a detailed list of all the changes GoodSync plans to make. Click on the job itself at the top of the list, then click the "Auto" button to set the automatic actions. If "Auto" is greyed out, it's possible GoodSync started syncing already -- stop it from your system tray, or the Jobs->Stop All menu command.

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In the "Auto" options, the only check box required for Dropbox-like instant syncing is in the "On File Change" row. Check both "Analyze" and "Sync," and now GoodSync will automatically sync your file creations, moves, deletions, and whatever else you do. If you're using the free version, you might run up against the job and capacity limits, but, again, a Pro license is only $30 for basically a lifetime, if the issue comes up.

Separating your syncs into separate jobs, with different timings, certainly takes more fiddling than with Dropbox, but it's also a license to set up a steady flow of backups that make sense. Keep your Office docs in Windows Live, your personal backup on S3, and work-related material on a WebDAV or SFTP space at work. Back up certain files in a safe, no-delete, one-way flow, while keeping other folders fresh everywhere. It's not as magical, but it's far more personal.

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