How to automate desktop folder synchronization

Keeping folders in sync is the job every administrator loves to hate. Whether it's synchronizing files between a network file share and a desktop computer or a USB thumb drive and a laptop, the hassle of it all can be tiring to anyone. Rather than do this by hand (and possibly mess up the only copies of what you have), why not use an application to automate Windows deskop folder synchronization?

There are two types of applications that can automate this process: one for synchronizing between directories on systems, the other for synchronizing between folders on a system and removable drives. Folder synchronization programs that fall in the first category work much like backup programs, since what's happening is essentially a kind of backup operation. Programs for synchronizing between folders on a system and removable drives are a bit more complicated, since they often require that the user establish a relationship between a folder and one or more removable devices that can be synchronized automatically.

One of the best folder-to-removable-drive synchronizers is SyncToy, a free application originally created by Microsoft as a way to deal with files on devices such as digital cameras. The user creates folder pairs in the program -- for instance, a local folder and a removable drive -- which you can then synchronize in a number of ways. If you wanted to copy only changed files in one direction, for example, you could do that. Microsoft's SyncToy also works for removable drives of any kind, plus network folders, so it can be used for many scenarios.

The big drawback is that the program doesn't come with much in the way of manageable features. You can't deploy it to multiple workstations with preconfigured folder pairs; the user needs to set up folder pairs by hand. That said, the program is free, it can be redistributed within an organization and it's easy to learn.

A similar application is Usov Lab's Allway Sync (free for personal use, corporate licenses available), which adds features like a proprietary file-synchronization algorithm. The program does not rely exclusively on file time/date stamps to determine which files have been updated most recently -- in the event one of the machines you're using has a clock that's too slow or too fast.

A more comprehensive solution would be SmartSync Pro from SmartSync Software, which not only works as a folder synchronization application but also as a backup tool. Like SyncToy, the user can set up various synchronization scenarios -- which folders to match, what to copy between them, how to deal with duplicate files and so on. SmartSync adds administrative templates, so the program can be deployed on multiple workstations and set to synchronize a directory with a server folder. Up to the last 100 versions of modified or deleted files can be preserved and restored, and files copied to removable drives can be split across multiple disks if they won't fit on one drive. A single installation of the program is $35 (the demo is free), and volume discounts down to $8 per seat are available.

In the same vein is BeInSync (30-day free trial; various subscription prices include support) from BeInSync Ltd. The professional version includes the ability to define synchronized shares between multiple users so several people can share changes to the same folder(s) without conflicts.

Five Windows desktop tasks you should automate

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About the author: Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Insight, (formerly the Windows Power Users Newsletter), a blog site devoted to hints, tips, tricks and news for users and administrators of Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 and Vista. He has more than 12 years of Windows experience under his belt, and contributes regularly to SearchWinComputing.com and SearchSQLServer.com.

This was first published in November 2005

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