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Keep Important Data on Hand with Folder Synchronization

By Joseph Moran

Whenever there are files that you need to access from multiple computers, a common and sensible approach is to store them in folders in a centralized network location — like a server or NAS device — so you can reach them from any system on the network.

Another option is to use synchronization software, which takes data stored on one computer and mirrors it to another (or several others). It ensures that whenever you add, delete or edit files, the changes are reflected on all the synchronized systems. One utility that will do this type of synchronization for you is Microsoft's own Windows Live Sync (which until recently was known as FolderShare). Windows Live Sync can ensure the files you need are always with you, and because it replicates your files onto multiple systems, it serves as a rudimentary form of data backup too.

Windows Live Sync links systems via a peer-to-peer connection and performs data transfers via the Internet. (Connections between systems are encrypted so your files are secure from prying eyes.) This means you don't need to go through the hassle of configuring File and Printer Sharing in Windows (or configuring firewall settings in most cases), and synchronization still takes place even when systems aren't on the same home or office network.

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You can download Windows Live Sync from here; it's available in both Vista/XP and Mac OS X versions. A Windows Live ID login is required to download and use the software. Begin by installing Windows Live Sync on all the computers you want your synchronized folders to be available on, then run the software on each system and log into it with your Live ID. From this point, the software will run automatically each time the system starts. The first time you run Windows Live Sync, you'll have the option to set up your special folders like Documents, Music and Pictures for synchronization, but you can skip this for now.

Once Windows Live Sync is up and running on your computers, go to the Windows tray on any one and look for the Windows Live Sync icon (two opposing arrows). Right-click it and select Sync web site. A browser window will open to sync.live.com.

Synching Folders

To set up a synchronized folder, click Create a Personal Folder and use the menu to select the system and choose the folder you want. When you find the right folder, click Sync folder here. Note that when you sync a folder, any subfolders it contains are automatically synched as well.

The next step is to select the destination system and target location for your synchronized folder. In most cases you'll want to use the Create new folder option on your target system because if you choose an existing folder, any files already there will be copied back to the source system as part of the sync process. Finally, choose Automatic or On-demand synchronization, click Finish, and within a few seconds your synched folder will begin copying over from the source to destination systems. As long as the two systems are running Windows Live Sync and have an Internet connection, any changes a synched folder on one will be reflected on the other.

Although you can't specify multiple destinations when you set up a Personal Folder to sync, you can add additional targets after the folder has been created. Just select the Personal Folder and choose Add a computer.

Windows Live Sync has a few limitations to be aware of, starting with the fact that it works only with folders on local hard drives, not mapped network drives. The software can synchronize a maximum of 20 folders, and each one can contain no more than 20,000 files (most people will be unlikely to bump up against the latter limit). Individual files within folders can't exceed 4 GB, which may be an issue if you try to synchronize certain types of video files. Finally, Windows Live Sync can't sync between Vista's Documents folder and the My Documents folder on an XP system because the folder structure is different — you can, however, sync individual subfolders within those folders.

Sharing Folders

Aside from allowing you to keep your own files available on several different computers, Windows Live Sync also gives you a way to share files with others without having to e-mail or upload them somewhere first. To share a folder, click Create a shared folder, then proceed to select the specific system and folder you want, just as you did above for Personal folders. But this time, when you click Sync folder here to select the folder, you'll be prompted to enter e-mail addresses for one or more people you want to share the folder with.

The "members" you specify will receive invitations to download and install the Windows Live Sync software to sync with and access the contents of your shared folder. To control the level of folder access a member will receive, you can assign each one of four roles — Reader, Contributor, Editor or Senior Editor. The role you choose will determine whether the member can simply view files, or change, add, or delete them as well.

Windows Live Sync's sharing feature can be a handy conduit for getting files to friends and family — drop a file into a shared folder, and it will be available on the recipient's system as quickly as the speed of your respective Internet connections will allow. You also have the option to share folders you're already synching for yourself; just select one from the list of Personal Folders then click Invite new members.

Remote Folder Access

Even when you don't have one of your own computers handy, you can use still use the Windows Live Sync Web site from any PC to access folders on any computer running the software. Remote access is turned off by default, so to enable it click the Windows Live Sync tray icon on the computer you want remote access to, select More, then Settings, then check Allow remote access to this computer under the General tab.

After you make this change, the computer's icon under the Remote access heading of the Windows Live Sync page will display a green check mark. Clicking it will take you to a page where you can browse the system's entire folder structure — not just the folders that have been synched or shared.

Incidentally, Windows Live Sync identifies your systems by their NETBIOS names and automatically assigns each a generic icon. You can customize system labels and icons by clicking the Manage Your computers link.

Other Considerations

When you right-click the Windows Live Sync tray icon, you'll see a list of all your synched folders (clicking on one will open the folder in a window), and by selecting Activity, you can view a log of all past synchronization activity for that system, as well as any currently taking place.

Because Windows Live Sync doesn't store your files on a server "in the cloud," remote access to files only works as long as your systems are up and running and connected to the Internet. Similarly, folder synchronization can't take place while a system is offline. On the plus side, your files are always stored locally so you don't need a constant Internet connection to get at them, and any changes you make will automatically be synched whenever a connection becomes available.

Joseph Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.
For more help, check out the PracticallyNetworked Forums.

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