Dropping Box

The cloud is a major part of how I manage my personal productivity.  One of the earliest and constant elements has been cloud-based file synchronization.  Initially, I avoided putting sensitive information on cloud file storage sites but as their security has improved, it is the place where I keep a backup copy of my current work files.

It may seem a bit manic but I have maintained cloud file storage accounts at a number of sites, including:

I had multiple accounts for a couple reasons.  One is that I separate personal and professional work in the cloud, so I use each service for different content.  Another is that I often need more than the basic 2 GB of space, so if a service comes along with more, I may sign up.

I dropped Sugarsync after an upgrade of their software created havoc with my files.  UbuntuOne closed.  I’m down to just three and will probably stop there.  But where Box has been my primary sync site, I am switching to Microsoft’s OneDrive and leaving Box as a backup storage drop.

The Devilish Details

The reason I am leaving Box is their upgraded software app.  This has more to do with my personal work environment than the app, but they’re no longer compatible.

Here’s why.  My home PC is full-disk encrypted.  My work PC is not.  So, to protect the information I have on my work PC, I have a Truecrypt encrypted storage container.  When I log in to Windows in the morning, I open the storage container and mount it as a new drive.  When I want to use my work files, I navigate to the drive (let’s say it’s P:\) and open the file.  It appears to Windows as though it is a networked or attached drive.  At the end of the day, I dismount the container and the drive disappears, re-wrapped in encryption.

The Box Sync version 3 works fine with non-local drive letters.  In other words, it does not need to see your Box folder on the C:\ drive.  Not so with Box Sync 4, which is now rolling out.  While you can change the location on the C:\ drive, you cannot point it to another drive letter.

Playing in the Weeds

I had been fooling around with a hybrid environment anyway.  Box Sync 3 was doing its thing.  And OneDrive was doing its thing, synchronizing a different batch of files.  OneDrive was my spare site, and I really just used it to store OneNote notebooks and writing that I was doing when away from a copy of Microsoft Word, using the Word Web app.

Then I blended them.  Windows has the ability to use what are known in Linux as symbolic links.  Some people have used these to bypass cloud file storage drive letter issues.  In essence, it creates something that looks like a folder but which, in reality, points to a drive.  The file synchronization tool will see a new folder and crawl it without realizing it has shifted to the contents that can also be accessed by the drive letter.

Windows has a command called mklink.  My Box files were stored at P:\ and my OneDrive files were stored at c:\users\my_username\onedrive.  What I wanted was to have OneDrive think that the Box files were actually IN that c:\users\…\onedrive folder.  To do this, I opened up a Windows command line and typed:

mklink /D c:\users\my_username\onedrive\box p:\

mklink creates the soft or symbolic link.  The /D means it is a directory.  The next bit is the new path for the fake folder (…\box) and the last bit is where the fake folder should point.  If you type mklink at the prompt by itself, you will see all of the help information about it.

When I turned OneDrive’s sync back on, it immediately saw the new “folder” and grabbed all of the subfolders.  A change made on OneDrive was synchronized down to my home PC and, if it was in that pseudo folder for Box, was then synchronized back out to the cloud to Box and from there to my work PC.

Goodbye, Box

But Box Sync 4 is here and it is the bell tolling the end of my use of Box as my primary file storage.  Feature-wise, it doesn’t offer me anything that I can’t get from OneDrive.  But the inability to handle external drive letters is a deal breaker.  If our company encrypted PCs, it wouldn’t be an issue but until that point, I need to be able to handle an encrypted container and mount it as a drive.  I even tried to use a symbolic link but however Box is creating the sync folder with version 4, it won’t take it.

On the other hand, OneDrive does support both drive letters other than C:\ and a more nuanced synchronization process.  I can just sync the folders I want, rather than everything in the one folder.  Our company’s shift to Microsoft Office 2013 means that I can also have OneDrive integrated with my Office productivity suite:  Word, Powerpoint, Excel, etc.

One thing I will investigate is whether I even need to have file sync any longer or can I work directly with OneDrive.  I like having a local copy when I’m working from a laptop or tablet but, with a desktop PC and high speed bandwidth, it is not as important in the office.

And, in reality, I am not walking away from Box.  I have 50 GB of storage on it in my free account and it is a good backup in case I need to store a lot of extra stuff.  But it won’t be for synchronizing.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.