ONE IN THREE INTERNET USERS in the UK uses Dropbox, according to the cloud storage company, so it's likely that you're at least familiar with the service that aims to keep your files safe, synced and easy to share.
If you're one of the 400 million Dropbox users, you'll be aware of the Dropbox desktop client folder on your desktop that works seamlessly in the background, syncing files and making sure they're always available when you need them, online or offline, from any device.
The backbone of this folder is a technology known to Dropbox as Sync. It's the core feature that has taken years to shape so that the software can bridge the synchronisation of data across various platforms and allow users to work and collaborate from different devices and apps on different operating systems without any lag.
"Sync is the secret ingredient of Dropbox," said product manager Waseem Daher in an interview with The INQUIRER.
"If you look at the internet, it's enabled collaboration, and most of the time when people think about the infrastructure of the internet, they think about data centres and undersea cables, for example. But we actually think of Dropbox as part of that infrastructure as well.
"That's not about a physical interconnect between two systems, but keeping the data in sync from device to device. Keeping your mobile phone in sync with your desktop and computer at work. Making sure all that information is universally acceptable. It's an underlying layer that allows us to work together more efficiently and collaboratively."
Dropbox believes that Sync is important because as society increasingly uses technology, getting work done becomes more difficult. Cisco estimates that over 14 billion connected devices are creating petabytes upon petabytes of data every day across different platforms, making collaboration and the instant management and accessibility of data increasingly complex.
"This means that information is scattered across platforms and devices across tools and apps," explained Daher. "You have Microsoft Word, Photoshop, Excel. Stuff everywhere and nothing really ties them together, and that's the way we see Dropbox Sync as really adding a great deal of value."
Dropbox insists that Sync is the solution to this problem as it liberates the information from the shackles of one device, app or platform.
"Whether you have Windows, Android, Linux, BlackBerry, Mac, you can access all of your data wherever you are and collaborate with your co-workers," added Daher.
Sync is essentially about bringing together the diversity of devices and applications to work efficiently as though they are operating on the same platform.
But how does it work? There are three main technologies that underpin the technology: Delta Sync, LAN Sync and, more recently, Streaming Sync.
Delta Sync speeds up the transfer of updated files by uploading and downloading only modified portions of files instead of transferring entire files every time they are changed.
For example, if you edit a file that's already in your Dropbox, the system will detect which bits of the files have changed, and then upload only those changes instead of the whole file again. So if you have a 1GB HD video in your Dropbox folder, and change some of the metadata in the file's header, Dropbox will just upload a few kilobytes across all the folders with which the account is associated.
This is much more intelligent than Google Drive, for instance, which would instead upload the whole 1GB file again no matter how insignificant the change, meaning that much more bandwidth is used unnecessarily.
LAN Sync looks for new and updated files in a local area network first, bypassing the need to download the file from the cloud if they are being synced between devices on the same router, thus speeding up the process considerably.
This means that LAN Sync works only with computers on the same subnet, or broadcast address, making it much faster for businesses using Dropbox, for example, which operate on computers networked together over the same router in the same location.
Streaming Sync is the newest addition to Sync, and possibly the biggest benefit to be introduced to Dropbox.
Dropbox claims that Streaming Sync improves latency by up to two times, and accelerates transfers for larger files by beginning a download on a second device before files have finished uploading from the first device.
Prior to Streaming Sync, file synchronisation was partitioned into two phases: upload and download. The entire file had to be uploaded to the Dropbox servers and committed to the databases before any other clients could learn of its existence.
Streaming Sync now allows file contents to 'stream' through Dropbox servers and between clients.
"We were determined to make large file syncing even faster," said Daher. "With Streaming Sync, we can overlap those phases and ‘stream' data through our servers to your devices. That means an improved multi-client sync time for large files."
For example, the next time you need to sync a large video file, or any file over 16MB, from a computer to your connected devices or in a shared folder, Dropbox will make sure you get an extra sync speed boost.
"We found that Streaming Sync only affects files that are large enough to require multiple store/retrieve requests, so we limited the feature to large new files," explained Daher.
"The improvement approaches two times the speed as the file's size increases given equal upload and download bandwidth, but in practice the speed-up is limited by the slower side of the connection."
Dropbox ran tests across two machines with the same network setup, and found a 25 percent improvement of sync speeds after the introduction of Streaming Sync.
The company claims that after completing speed tests across 11 "distinct actions" in the US, Europe and Asia, Dropbox Sync ensured that the service was on average five times faster than top competitors Google Drive, Box and Microsoft OneDrive. µ
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