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How to Sync Files Between Computers Without Storing Them in the Cloud

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So you have multiple computers and you want to keep your files in sync, but you don’t want to store them on someone else’s servers. You’ll want a service that synchronizes files directly between your computers.

With such a service, you can synchronize an unlimited amount of files and people can’t gain access to your files just by gaining access to an account on a server and viewing the files via the web interface.

We’re focused on syncing files over the network here — either over a local network or the Internet. We’re looking for Dropbox-style solutions that don’t store files on a central server like Dropbox does.

BitTorrent Sync

BitTorrent Sync uses BitTorrent to transfer files — in private and in encrypted form, so no one can snoop on them. Just install it, select a folder, and generate a secret. Provide that secret to anyone — either another computer you own or a friend you would like to sync files with — and your folder will be automatically kept in sync across all configured PCs. This happens directly — either over a local network or over the Internet — using the powerful and fast BitTorrent technology.

BitTorrent Sync offers clients for Windows, Mac, and Linux, so you can use it to sync your files with computers running any popular operating system. Unlike many other services, its features are completely free and it doesn’t require you run a separate server.

bittorrent-sync-tour

AeroFS

AeroFS is free, assuming you don’t need its more advanced features. It creates a Dropbox-like folder on your computer and files sync automatically between the computers you set up. You can share each folder with one additional person, but you’ll need the paid version to share with additional people after that. It doesn’t use BitTorrent and relies on a user account system — there’s a central server that manages user accounts and sharing, but files aren’t hosted on AeroFS’s servers. They’re only stored on your computers. AeroFS promises that it “can’t even see your file names.”

Its interface is very similar to Dropbox’s, even down to the tour that appears when you install it. It’s a very Dropbox-like solution, but it skips the cloud so you can sync unlimited files. Like Dropbox, it supports Windows, Mac, and Linux.

aerofs-tour

Cubby

LogMeIn’s Cubby offers cloud storage, but it also offers a “DirectSync” feature. DirectSync allows you to synchronize an unlimited number of files directly between computers, skipping the cloud. Microsoft’s Windows Live Mesh used to do this, but Live Mesh has been discontinued. Cubby is available for both Windows and Mac OS X; there’s no Linux support.

You will have to create an account, and cloud storage is enabled by default in Cubby. While DirectSync was previously free when we recommended it as an alternative to Windows Live Mesh, DirectSync is now a paid feature. Unless you really love Cubby, you’re probably better off with another solution.

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Roll Your Own Server

These are the two biggest options. However, these aren’t the only ways to sync files directly between your own computers. There are other options you have, although those solutions aren’t as easy to use and will require more manual configuration:

  • SparkleShare: SparkleShare is an open-source Dropbox-like file syncing solution. The only difference is that you host it yourself. You could host Sparkleshare on one of your computers or on a server you have access to and get Dropbox-like syncing that’s entirely under your control.
  • rsync: rync isn’t an instant syncing solution, but it can be used to run automatic incremental backups to a server. You could run a nightly rsync job and sync your files to an FTP server.

There are many other options you can use. Anything with a self-hosted server component or any sort of solution that automatically creates incremental backups and uploads to a remote server will do, but you’ll have to host your own server software in both cases. Solutions like BitTorrent Sync and AeroFS are the most convenient because they’re not made to require a separate server — they just run on your existing computers.

Disadvantages

Of course, there are a number of disadvantages to doing it this way. You’ll have to ensure you have backup copies of your files, as there’s no central backup copy in the cloud on someone else’s servers. There’s also no way to access these files from your phone or tablet with a mobile app, as you can with the Dropbox, Google Drive, or SkyDrive mobile apps. They’re not stored on a central server the apps can pull from; they’re just automatically synced between your computers.

And, of course, your computers must be powered on at the same time or they won’t be able to sync directly with each other.

In return, you get the ability to sync an unlimited number of files and keep them entirely under your control. It’s up to you which tradeoffs you want to make.


Do you use another solution to sync your files and skip the cloud? Leave a comment and share it with us!

Image Credit: Elliot Brown on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 07/1/13

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