Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dropbox Cloud for Small Business Backups

Making a Dropbox Cloud for Small Business Backups is simpler than you might imagine. Nowadays there are all kinds of technologies available for synchronizing your data online and by making use of some of the more mainstream ones (Dropbox and SugarSync) the average user has the ability to create a powerful linked set of backups for a small customer-centric consulting business without incurring high overhead costs from the cloud service industry. This write-up shows one way of maximizing the available free services paired with a single paid service account. It was also the result of some research into the limits of sync/backup tools.


The disclaimer in this talk is that in no way should a person or organization ever violate the terms of service for either of these companies - let's play nicely with two services that can really help create a sense of security and organization for important data backups as well as produce a simple way to coordinate on projects between those in-the-field and those in the home office. Also, "high overhead costs" are actually not so high for most data-conscious individuals, so a paid account in either of these services might be enough for most users. This is just an example of pushing the envelope using cloud sync tools.

Goal: Create a central point by which all data for three (or more) different accounts can be safely and successfully backed up using current Dropbox and SugarSync technology.

Symptom: A business has three different sets of data for three different customers and wants to keep that data separate when working at each of the customer sites and also backed up together at the home office.

Reason: Customers should not see other customer data, but there are important files needed remotely at customer sites. If network connectivity is no issue, then we needn't port everything via "sneaker-net" to the customer site.

Results: Using three separate Dropbox accounts and one master SugarSync account, the data is successfully kept separate remotely and backed up properly in the home office.

The History

Dropbox is an excellent tool for synchronizing data between devices. It's quick and efficient and uses minimal resources to get the job done (20-30MB per process when active). It is also functional on the major three platforms (Apple, Linux, Windows) which makes it perfect for use in the field - whichever mobile platform your engineers prefer is supported.

SugarSync is also a very versatile tool for performing cloud sync and backup of important data. It is limited to Apple (Intel only) and Windows platforms and runs (at times) a little heavier in the processor/memory category. However, the price-per-gig is slightly lower than that of Dropbox which makes it better for cost-savings - an important thought for small businesses trying to keep spiraling costs of doing business through the Internet to a minimum. Or it could be as simple as one person just super-thrifty and wanting to get the most space for a dollar.

Both tools offer encrypted access to the data via SSL web access and fully customizable options for synchronizing and backing up. Both tools also offer mobile access and connectivity.

The Setup

Here is the basic configuration used in the setup of the multi-account synchronization:

Three Dropbox accounts - customer A, customer B, customer C. All the accounts are managed by the central office and all accounts are setup using the free 2GB option. Each account has it's own email address and password which is given to the field engineer for each account.

One Sugarsync account - The HQ account purchases the backup account from SugarSync using a fourth e-mail address. In this example, a 250 GB account was chosen thanks to a 50% off coupon offered by SugarSync at the time of purchase. That nets to a total cost of less than $1 per GB per year which is within this author's meagre budget.

The hardware used for the center point in the cloud is an Intel iMac with 500GB HDD and 4GB RAM. I didn't try it on a Windows machine, but it would probably work the same way. There is no requirement for using an Apple computer... it's just what's available.

NOTE: After a bit of further study, it is entirely possible to create this type of hub on a Windows-based machine, and some tests were run to verify this. For more details on how to get a few dropbox processes running in Windows XP, have a search for the "runas" command. If anyone tries out this method using XP/Vista/7, it would be nice to hear about any pitfalls encountered. UPDATE: I did have some permissions issues when the Windows Dropbox users tried to update files in the SugarSync shared directory. These issues need further research and cannot be completed at this time.

The Steps

Step 1: Create 4 users on the Central Data Hub (the iMac in this case) under System Preferences->Users and Groups. For simplicity sake, name the users the same as the email address used for each cloud service account.

NOTE: For the initial setup, make all four of the accounts administrator privileged. Later on after things are working smoothly, we can investigate further.

Step 2: Enable Fast User Switching in the User settings. This allows each user to remain logged in and functional regardless of which user is currently active in the desktop.

Step 3: From each of the three users on the CDH, configure the Dropbox link by downloading and installing Dropbox in each account. The Dropbox directory should be placed in the "/Users/Shared" directory so each user on the CDH is granted access to the files. You can organize the folders to be similar to the following structure:
/Users/Shared/CloudBackup/client1

/Users/Shared/CloudBackup/client2

/Users/Shared/CloudBackup/client3
NOTE: When you switch between users, you can have a look using Activity Monitor (Applications-> Utilities) to verify there are, in fact, 3 Dropbox processes.

Step 4: Now log into the fourth user to configure the SugarSync account. Install SugarSync and configure the default options. Include the "/Users/Shared/CloudBackup" directory in the files that SugarSync backs up.

Step 5: Put the Dropbox account for each client on the respective field engineer's machine. Now when in the field, important client documents can be passed back and forth to the master machine safely and thereby backed up by the SugarSync data account. Similarly, the home office can drop important documents into the respective client folders and have that data made available

Optional Steps: Research the Dropbox command line version which is supported in both 32-bit and 64-bit Linux versions. Using this tool, you could theoretically maintain a number of web servers from a central location adding and removing files from the respective Dropbox folder. Similarly, software upgrades could be managed in this way as well.

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