Dropbox can be a good tool for developers

Dropbox — yes, that’s a referral link, providing you and me with extra storage space — is a service that let’s you share your files between different devices of yours. You also have the ability to share individual files with friends via a link. Dropbox basically adds a new folder to your computer and any files or folders you store within it, are synchronized with all of the other devices that you’ve installed Dropbox on.

Here are some aspects that make it useful for developers:

1. Runs on all types of devices

You can install Dropbox on Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, Blackberry, iPad, and the iPhone, giving you access to your files from virtually any device. Furthermore, you can login to dropbox.com to view, download, and upload your files.

2. Version control

Every time you edit and save a file from your Dropbox folder, whether it’d be a text file, word document, picture, etc, Dropbox will maintain a revision of it. You can then view your previous revisions via the web interface. The revisions contain timestamps, which device made the modification, file sizes, and an option to revert back to a file.

3. File conflict resolution

It may happen that you’re editing some code in a file from device #1, forget to save and close the file, and then edit the file from device #2. In that case, when you save a modified version of the file from device #2, Dropbox will save it like it normally would. Now, once you go back to device #1 and save/close the file, Dropbox knows that it’s been modified since then, which is why it will save it as a copy followed by the device’s name. This allows you to manually merge your changes from device #2 later on. The manual part isn’t ideal, but it’s better than losing data.

4. Restore deleted files

If you delete a file with intent or by accident, but need to restore it later for some reason, you can login via the web interface, enable “show deleted files,” and restore any one of the previously deleted files.

5. Collaborate with friends

If you’re working with another developer, one of you can share a folder with the other, which means you both see exactly the same files. The same features apply as mentioned above e.g. version control, file conflict resolution, and restoring deleted files.

6. Photo gallery

If you have a folder with lots of pictures in your “Photos” folder, right-clicking on any subfolder gives you the option to copy a public link. This allows you to quickly share a gallery of photos with another person, whether they have Dropbox or not.

7. Friendly user-interface

The software is very well designed. At all times you can see whether any files are synchronizing in your Dropbox folder. Furthermore, if you actually view the Dropbox folder, you’ll see that every file or folder has either a check mark, a loading icon, or an “x,” indicating the file’s current status.

8. Get additional space for free

You get 2GB for free initially, but by referring friends, you can get up to 10GB of space. On the other hand, if you find the service useful, you can get 50GB or 100GB for $99/year or $199/year respectively.

Now, this all sounds pretty neat, right? But here is one more thing to consider:

9. Security

Even though your files are transferred over SSL and are encrypted when stored, Dropbox has the encryption key. Their employees are only permitted to view meta data e.g. file names and dates, however, in the worst case scenario, they can decrypt and therefore view any files they like — they’re not supposed to, but you must accept the possibility. This means that you should be mindful in the kinds of data you store in Dropbox. Don’t store classified or confidential data. Now, you could encrypt your files on your device prior to storing them in Dropbox, which would solve this particular problem (TrueCrypt comes to mind).

On another note, it’s not just Dropbox employees who can access your data, because there was a time that a glitch exposed user’s data to the public, so since that happened once, it could happen again.

Lastly, I don’t need to mention that if someone has physical access to your device, they will have access to any data stored on your computer, but that brings is to another security problem in Dropbox. Once you install it for the first time, you’re asked to login. Upon login, Dropbox saves a special file on your computer that contains an ID number that is tied to your account. Using that number, it authenticates with the cloud and then keeps your files synchronized. The problem is that the file is not tied to your system, so anyone with knowledge of this bug and physical access to your device, can copy that file to their device and have limitless access to your files in Dropbox. To make matters worse, even if you changed your password after the fact, the hacker would still have access to your account, because the ID number in that file would still be valid. You can read more about this vulnerability from Derek Newton.

I leave it up to you whether you become a Dropbox user, however, for my purposes as a developer and being able to gauge my projects and the security they require, Dropbox is perfect most of the time.

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