How to Synchronize Your Data

by Ronald Pacchiano

Ron Pacchiano shows how you can synchronize files stored in multiple locations so you always have up-to-date data no matter where you go.

I once lost a significant amount of data to a hard drive crash. Since then, I’ve been obsessed with backing up my data and storing it in a variety of locations. Most of this data resides on my desktop PC and two external hard drives. I also have some on my laptop and a few USB thumb drives.

Keeping all of these data stores up-to-date can be a challenge. You can quickly end up with gigabytes of redundant data folders, and consolidating these folders later on is a daunting task.

A reliable synchronization program is an easier, more efficient way to manage this data. Synchronization (or “sync” for short) is a process where the software automatically monitors your files and replicates it perfectly to another location. As you add, delete or modify data, the system constantly updates each container, guaranteeing data consistency without any human intervention.

You can store synchronized data on a variety of devices and mediums. You can even store it in different locations on the same machine, or on external devices such as hard drives, USB flash drives, network drives, FTP servers, laptops, PDAs and MP3 players.

Synchronization comes in two flavors: one-way and two-way. In a one-way sync, data flows in only one direction from the source device to the target device -- a PC to an MP3 player, for example. If you delete a song from the MP3 player, it’s not removed from the PC. However, should you remove it from the PC, it will be deleted from the MP3 player. In a two-way sync, let’s say from a PC to an external HD, data flows in both directions. If you add, modify or delete data in either location, the change occurs in both locations. One always mirrors the other. 

While Vista includes tool called Sync Center, it’s difficult to use and not worth the effort.  Fortunately, there are a variety of synchronization programs available, and many of them are free for personal use.

For my money, the best is Allway Sync. It offers an extensive list of features and a very simple, intuitive user interface. The program is very small, just under 6MB, and uses minimal memory. It’s compatible with all versions of Windows, and it can automatically monitor and synchronize multiple file locations simultaneously.

 Comic book-like dialog boxes walk you through the basic setup. Advanced options let you specify the sync direction, manage deletions and conflicts, and it works flawlessly with flash memory and USB drives. The software is free for personal use, but business users must purchase a license ($29.99).

Get Synced

We’ll assume you have a folder on your computer’s C drive called “WORKFILES” that you want to backup and keep synchronized on an external HD. You also have a USB flash drive to transport files to and from the office that also needs to be kept up-to-date. This is how you would do it.

Before we begin, you’ll need to download and install Allway Sync onto your PC. Once downloaded, launch the program to begin the installation. It’s pretty straightforward. If you’re not sure what to do just stick with the default settings, and when it’s done installing, start the program.

The first thing you’ll notice is the dialog box on the left side of the screen instructing you to press the Browse button in order to select the source folder. In our example that will be C:WORKFILES. Next follow the wizard and select the destination folder. That’s going to be stored on your external HD.

If the destination folder doesn’t already exist you can create it from within the application. We’ll make our target folder E:WORKFILES to match the source. Now press the Analyze button to start the difference analysis and review the planned changes.

You can open and review every file from within the program, which makes it easier to verify what’s being moved or overwritten before it actually happens. Once you’re satisfied with the plan, press the Synchronize button to begin copying the data.

When finished, your data in the two folders will be identical. However, you’ll notice that the Automatic Synchronization is off. We need to perform a few additional steps to turn it on.

On the file menu click View and select Options. Select Application from the left pane. In the right pane you’ll find two options you should check off. The first is Automatically check for software updates; this is pretty self explanatory.

The second and more important one is Start application system tray icon on system start-up. Without this there is no automatic monitoring for changes, so be sure to activate it. Optionally, the default name given to this sync operation is “New Job 1”. You can give it something a bit more descriptive like “WORKFILES SYNC” if you like. To do this simply select Default Profile and click the Rename button next to the job you’d like to re-identify.

Finally, select Automatic Synchronization. Here you have various options for assigning when synchronizations will take place after changes have been detected. You can set it for as soon as one minute up to as late as one hour after. I recommend 30 minutes to an hour for an external HD, and 10 minutes or less for a removable device like a USB flash drive. Press OK, and you’re done. From now on any changes made in one folder will automatically replicate to the other. 

Sync in a Flash

Had this been a removable device like a USB flash drive, the procedure would have included a few additional steps. When you originally selected the target drive, the software would have recognized it as a removable device, and prompted you to Bind to drive characteristics. You should check this option, because the drive letter of a removable drive could change the next time you connect it to the computer.

Checking this option means the program will search for the physical device by its characteristics regardless the drive letter. If unchecked, any device with the specified drive letter will be used for synchronization, which could lead to syncing the wrong data.

Back under Automatic Synchronization, you need to set one other option. Since this is a USB Flash drive, check the box that says:  When removable device is connected. This allows automatic synchronization whenever you insert the device into the USB port. Other then these additions, all the other steps remain the same.

You may want to sync your files with a company PC, but I.T. policies prohibit installing any unauthorized software. In this situation Allway Sync wouldn’t be appropriate. However a portable version, Allway Sync 'n' Go, works just like the standard version, except it runs directly from a USB disk or an external HD without installing any software on the office PC. And it’s still free.

Allway Sync does have one notable drawback. The free version of the program limits the number of files you can synchronize to 40,000 every 30-days. For many people, this won't be an issue. However if you have large data archives to manage, this could be a problem. Should this limitation affect you, simply purchase the Pro version of the application for $29.95. That’s an incredible bargain for one of the finest synchronization utilities I have ever come across and would definitely be money well spent.

Most of us have data that we can’t live without and as a result we store multiple copies of it in a variety of locations. Keeping all of these separate data depositories up-to-date can be a real challenge, but thanks to quality and affordable programs like Allway Sync, you can rest assured that your data, no matter where it resides, will always be current and available.

Ronald Pacchiano is a contributing writer for SmallBusinessComputing.com.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Sep 23rd 2009
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