A program called DropBox has recently entered public beta and has been making the rounds on networks like Digg and Reddit. I’ve been a private beta member since January and have been using it pretty heavily in my daily processes – and it has worked absolutely wonderfully. Dropbox is currently available for Windows and MacOS X, and we are told that an Ubuntu or Linux client is in the works.
I recently interviewed the Founder of Dropbox, Drew Houston, to answer some questions I had about the service. You can read the interview below, after my short review of the service.
After installing Dropbox, there is a folder placed in your My Documents named “My Dropbox”. To sum the service up in 1 sentence: any files placed into this folder will both be uploaded to the Dropbox servers, and will be synchronized with any other clients in your account.
So, in a single computer situation, this Dropbox folder is effectively a backup solution. If you have more than one PC in the account, any files placed into this folder on one computer will automatically be synchronized onto all others running Dropbox in the same account.
This creates a nice way to send files to and fro – my old method was either a) email to myself or b) put them on my USB keychain. Although those old methods work, Dropbox makes the process of transferring files to and from work absolutely effortless.
Installing Dropbox is easy and after the installation, there is nothing to manage. Files placed into this folder are sent to the Dropbox servers in a secure manner, and once they are there they are encrypted. Dropbox currently uses Amazon S3 storage system “in the cloud” for their data storage.
In addition to this basic use, I have found the following features to be very handy:
The ‘killer’ feature for me is that Dropbox also includes a versioning system. For those not familar with versioning systems, it allows you to keep multiple versions of a file. This helps in case you need to ‘roll back’ a change if you are coding, or just for general use and tracking of updates. It also helps on the backend because if only changes of a file need to be sent to the server, so much bandwidth can be saved.
Another neat feature is a built-in photo gallery. Drag photos to the “photos” folder and they are automatically available for viewing on the web in a simple manner (Hi Grandma!)
In summary, I think Dropbox is the best online storage solution I have seen. It combines online file storage, folder syncing, and versioning control in one simple to use package. They are constantly rolling out new updates, so look for more features soon! If you would like more information before you sign up, please check out the screencast bellow. It’s both entertaining and informative — and there are lots of easter eggs! :)
Plus since you got this far, read my interview with Drew and get an invite at the bottom of this article!
Interview with Dropbox Founder Drew Houston
1) The first obvious question – what makes Dropbox different from the other online backup / storage solutions?
Drew: Unlike other companies, which tackle only backup (e.g. Mozy), or only sync (e.g. Foldershare), or just putting files online (e.g. box.net), we provide one solution to all of the problems people have managing their files. I was looking for some kind of continuous rsync + subversion + tortoisesvn-style-shell-integration + web access holy grail, found it didn’t exist, and then got to work.. Arash even dropped out of MIT with just a few months left :)
2) I understand you are using Amazon S3 for storage on the backend; do you have any other sort of data backup plans in case S3 would go down or sustain data loss? Can customers use DropBox for sole storage of their data, or do they need to be concerned with other backups? [An alternative view of this question — is Dropbox considered a file sharing solution or a backup solution?]
Drew: We’ll be exploring other options (e.g. our own data store), especially for paid customers who want extra redundancy. I will point out though that Amazon does a pretty damn good job of handling large volumes of data and does a great job storing billions of objects and petabytes of data redundantly across multiple data centers. This isn’t easy, and many companies that first built their own data center (e.g. smugmug) found that they could lower costs and drastically increase reliability by using s3. We may not be on s3 forever, and will build our own store in addition, but for now this lets us focus on both the client software and the performance of the layer we’ve developed on top of s3.
The other major point that people might not realize is Dropbox is replicating copies of your data both across all your computers in addition to the online copy. So copies your data are always stored on your own computers, unlike other services which are online-only, Where the one and only copy of your data rests on their servers. This also means you aren’t locked into using Dropbox; if you decide you don’t want to use the service anymore, you’re in complete control of your data.
3) Security is a big concern for many people — how is data secured in transit and on the data store? The more geeky the explanation the better! :)
Drew: We have our own protocol that runs over “https” that combines binary diffing and compression, so no file data or metadata is *ever* sent over the wire in plaintext form. On the back end, we encrypt all file data using AES-256 before storing it on S3 (this is in addition to the security that Amazon provides.) We are working on a way for people to provide their own private keys or passphrases for people who choose to do so as long as we can preserve the simplicity of the user experience. What some people might find unusual about our team is all of us have been using Linux since the 90’s and so the usual server-side security precautions, etc. are second nature to us.
4) Do you have an ETA on a Linux client? A lot of Ubuntu users would love to get on the boat with this.
Drew: No eta right now. (Though we will tease you and say we’ve had a working client in-house for months, and nearly all of the client code is written in Python.) We want to make sure we can provide at least a decent experience on Linux, even though many Linux users would be comfortable with a CLI version or don’t care about having icon overlays/tray icons.
5) What are the details on the paid accounts? Do you have any specs on online storage, transfer limits, and prices?
Drew: Still finalizing this, but we’re planning to have a free account with some amount of storage and paid accounts for people who want richer sharing options and more storage.
6) Do you plan on targeting home users, business consumers, or both? Why?
Drew: Initially, consumers/professionals, with businesses/teams/enterprise coming later. As you go up the spectrum, you need more bells and whistles/collaboration options, management/configuration options, and things like direct sales teams and/or resellers and other channels — which we’ll definitely tackle later on, but right now we think Dropbox seems to resonates with individual users and small groups in its current form.
6) As a company, what are your goals?
Drew: We want to change the way people think about files and storage. It’s 2008, and despite all the hype around services/storage “in the cloud”, the most common way people manage their files is by carrying around USB drives, emailing themselves attachments, and manually uploading files to websites.
We’ve always thought that in “the future”, you sit down at any computer and your stuff is always there, always backed up, always version controlled, etc, but for some reason no one had made it practical. Plus it’s a hell of a lot of fun designing a distributed filesystem to support tens of millions of people.
7) Finally – Your screen cast was reminiscent of the “You suck at Photoshop” screen casts. Coincidence?
Drew: I’ve seen a few of them and they’re hilarious, though there is no deliberate connection. Trying to sneak surprises under the radar made making the screencast a lot more fun and hopefully more entertaining than the usual pragmatic, slow-paced, corporate demos we’re all used to.
Invites to Dropbox Beta!
Dropbox kindly offered us 100 invites to hand out. Click the link below to sign up, or use the invite code “makeuseof” to sign up!