What is this file sync thing and why should I care about it?

File sync and share

Not so long ago, the office was the only place you could work. But when smartphones and tablets came along, the only thing holding us back from getting work done anywhere, any time was having access to our data. That led to the creation of a whole new class of solutions designed to keep files current across our rapidly proliferating fleets of devices — through a technology known as ‘sync.’ All of a sudden, getting a file from your work laptop to your iPad became as simple as clicking “Save.” So it’s no surprise that 55% of information workers in North America and Europe who use a tablet at work are using file sync and share tools.1

At its heart, sync is pretty straightforward. Every time you save a file on one device, it’s uploaded to an online server. Since it now lives somewhere other than your hard drive — someplace that’s always connected to the Internet — you can access the file from any other device. Plus, you don’t even need to do anything to get the latest version. Each device repeatedly checks in with the server to see if there’s anything new; if there is, they download it, automatically. There are a few riffs on this theme, but that’s how Dropbox for Business sync works.

What all of this does is open up a whole slew of possibilities, especially for people who need to work on the road. And even if you don’t, chances are you’re using more than just a PC perched on your office desk. Not only are laptops becoming the de facto standard for work computers, they’re also being augmented by smartphones and tablets. Sync makes keeping files up to date from device to device (to device) easy and automatic.

What does that mean for you? In a word, flexibility. Sync gives you the flexibility to work wherever you need to. Say you’re over at a friend’s house, and you realize there was one last figure you needed to add to a presentation your head of sales is giving first thing the next morning. No need to rush out to the office, or even back home. Most sync solutions let you access your data through their websites, so you can make that last-minute change even from a friend’s computer.

The really exciting part of sync, though, is how it connects multiple people. Many sync solutions offer individuals the ability to share data, giving entire teams of people access to the same set of up-to-date files. So where before, collaboration required being on the same corporate network or relying on inconvenient workarounds like emailing files back and forth — or even overnighting hard drives — sync now allows people to work together without even thinking about it. File’s in the shared folder? You’re all set.

On its surface, sync is pretty easy to understand, but you might see some technical terminology used to describe how it works its magic. So while you’re searching for the right sync solution for your business, this glossary of common terms will help you navigate the waters. Be sure to ask vendors about them — which they offer, which they don’t — so you can get the most bang for your buck.

  • Auto-resuming transfers: Ability of a file sync tool to resume a transfer mid-file after a device loses its connection to the service.

  • Cache: File storage, usually invisible to the end user and performed automatically, that speeds access to data. In most cases, the software creating the cache will also empty it periodically.

  • Compression: File processing that compacts data. Used to reduce amount of data transferred and thus makes transfers quicker.

  • Data integrity: How well a copy of a file matches the original. Errors in transmission during the sync process can reduce data integrity and make data unreadable.

  • Deduplication: Process that searches for identical, previously stored files before uploading. If a matching file is found on a server, a copy is placed in the account without requiring the data to be uploaded again.

  • Delta sync: An advanced feature that speeds the transfer of updated files. Only modified portions of files are downloaded/uploaded, instead of transferring entire files every time they’re changed.

  • Encryption: Process that makes data unreadable to ensure only authorized parties can use it. Data is converted back to a readable form through a process known as decryption. File sync tools will typically encrypt data “in transit” from users to the provider and/or “at rest” on the provider’s servers.

  • Hashing: Analyzing a file to create a unique numerical value as a stand-in for its data. Hashing allows two files to be compared without revealing the contents.

  • LAN sync: An advanced feature that looks for new and updated files on your Local Area Network (LAN) first, bypassing the need to download the file from servers and speeding up sync considerably.

  • Local storage: Hard drive space on a device. Contrasts with remote storage, where files are kept on a separate device, requiring a network connection to access them.

  • Offline access: The ability to access data when an Internet connection isn’t available. Data is downloaded and held in local storage for use when the device is offline.

  • Selective sync: A feature that allows you to select specific folders to be synced to a computer. Especially useful for saving space on computers with limited hard drive capacity.

  • SSL/TLS: Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security, two common methods of encrypting data in transit on the Internet. SSL is a predecessor of TLS.

  • Streaming sync: A feature that speeds up transfers for larger files by beginning a download on a second device before files have finished uploading from the first device, instead of waiting for the upload to complete.

  • Sync: Process of making data on a device match data on another device.

See sync in action with a free trial of Dropbox for Business!

“Market Trends: Secure File Sharing And Collaboration In The Enterprise, Q1 2014,” Forrester Consulting, February 4, 2014