Got that syncing feeling? Cloud's client-side email problem

Come, swim with the sharks

Shark, photo via Shutterstock

Despite predictions of its demise, we've been happily using email in business since it first became widespread more than two decades ago. In many ways it's defined the way we compose, reply or send digital messages. A number of technologies have consolidated and extended it to something that became called "collaboration".

Windows for Workgroups or Novell Netware server brought file share. We've been creating, saving and attaching files pretty much the same way ever since. VPN work remotely as if at our desk – albeit a hell of a lot slower, unless we had Citrix or Terminal Services remote desktops.

Now we have cloud and we naturally expected it to work the same way we've always done – just with cloud benefits. In the early days, it wasn't possible to connect to a cloud file storage account with local applications, including your email client. Just as well the cloud storage crowd gave us a solution – local sync clients! With little effort, we could have the magical portability of the cloud with the convenience of File/Save As straight to a local folder. What a blessing for those poor souls on a piece of string internet connection!

Let the sync magic work in the background without slowing down how long it takes for us to open a file. With local sync in place, we didn't even need to change our filing habits. There were two big bonuses that came with a local sync – we could work when disconnected and if the cloud failed us, we had an up-to-date local copy of our files, safely tucked away on our own on-prem systems. What a sweet little security blanket. Surely that's a tick in the box for risk management? Now we don't care if the cloud storage provider falls to pieces or nukes a server by accident.

Sadly, sharks infest the waters surrounding this little paradise.

The impact of syncing ALL the things

It used to be an "all or nothing" choice in regard to which files you synced with your computer. Add the office-shared folder, plus maybe a personal cloud account, and you're gobbling up a chunk of internet data with a machine's first sync. Not a problem for an enterprise with a decent connection. A potential problem for a small business with less bandwidth (meaning most small businesses outside a metropolitan area). Taking the hit for one new PC is usually inconsequential. Replacing a bunch of machines in a hardware refresh is another story, unless you bypass the Cloud with a machine to machine file copy (or image) instead. Oh, unless you are using Google files. The way that Google Drive syncs Google Docs, Sheets and Slides locally is entrenched inside the Google Chrome browser, making it impossible to do a machine-to-machine file transfer of these Google files. For that, you'll need to connect your new computer to your account and drag the lot back down from the cloud again.

The other great thing about having all computers sync files locally is the domino effect of changes. Sure, we're happily pulling down incremental updates on a normal day. But it just takes that one person to have a "tidy up", moving gigabytes of data into a different folder structure, and all of the computers now have a new folder to download. It's hard to find specifics on which services this impacts, and the outcome can be different if the folder move or rename was done in the Cloud (in a browser) or on the local drive and then synced, but if the service doesn't recognise a folder move or rename as just that (instead of "old folder has gone", we've got a new folder over here), you're in for some internet data quota hit. At least with SharePoint Online's document libraries you can restrict who's allowed to create, modify or delete folders, so you can lock down that structure. No such luck for Google Drive administrators.

Those points just covered about data volumes also apply to the impact on your local storage. Again, not an issue if you have decent sized disks. Sadly, I've seen people "upgrade" to a whopping 128GB or even 256GB SSD drive, tell their phone to sync photos and videos to the cloud, and then wonder why they are running out of space on their computer. If work provides someone with a cheaper laptop that's sufficient to do their work, and they've filled it up with files synced from their personal Cloud account, the business shouldn’t be expected to upgrade it.

Selective sync – it's a thing

The good news is that cloud storage providers have realised selective sync is rather useful. Most local sync clients now support letting you choose the files you want to store locally, on a folder basis. It's still pretty tempting to say "I just want everything", though. There's no way to enforce across an organisation which Cloud file storage folders can be synced locally and which ones can't. That seems like a pretty big oversight considering our enterprise IT departments thrive on control. Ideally, let me set that if user is in group marketing, then marketing folder sync locally equals yes else no. That's assuming that other people (for example, sales) could see the marketing folder, too, but we don't want them syncing it. Yes, Microsoft-lovers, the closest we get is SharePoint Online letting us choose if the files inside a particular team site can be synced locally or not.

Errors, errors everywhere

Microsoft's Groove-based OneDrive sync client was an unreliable, error-ridden nightmare, so much so that it put people off using the product altogether. Microsoft did something about it, changing the tool so drastically that it released with the name Next Generation Sync Client. Worried we'd love it as much as Star Trek: TNG, I'm happy to report it is significantly more stable.

This doesn't mean it's perfect, as I stare at an error stating: "You already have a file or folder with this name in the same location". Yes, that would be the one I want to sync with the one in the cloud with the same name. OneDrive suggests I rename the local one or the offline one, or delete the local one entirely and I'm not exactly sure what I did wrong to get this one folder into such a mess.

Google Drive doesn't get off free either. It plays a lovely game with Macs where it loses the plot entirely. Mouse over the Google Drive icon and you may randomly get the spinning wheel of death that just doesn't go away. The fix? Uninstall Google Drive and sync your entire library again, from the Cloud. No rhyme or reason to this crash and it can occur multiple times on the same machine, and never on another machine syncing exactly the same library.

Just stop syncing already

The cloud storage providers are so keen to push their local file sync tool on us. But why the heck do we still sync files locally? On a travelling laptop, sure – for those long, disconnected plane trips. But for every single other machine in the office? Crazy. It doesn't even make sense for the laptop you shuffle between work and home, because I'm guessing you have internet at home and therefore access to the Cloud.

Some people just can't get past the feeling that if I can see it, I need to sync it. Or maybe we're just holding onto the easiest way we found to save and attach files. ®


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