The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Tuesday, 05 June 2007]

Life in the cloud

Keeping data in sync between different computers and different people is tricky. Nic looks at some ways it can be done.

The trouble with tribbles

If you split your work time between different computers, data management can become a major headache. You might have been there, needing that bit of info, be it a phone number or the notes from a meeting, or what have you, but it’s sitting on another machine. Not exactly how you wanted your shiny cyber-future to turn out, is it?.

Being machine-promiscuous myself means that my data has become like tribbles—it’s way too easy to update something on one machine and then need it when I’m on another.

After reaching breaking point, I’ve been making a conscious effort to streamline things as much as possible, and have found a couple of tools that bring sanity and order. In the hope that it can help somebody else, here’s a short list.

Your own personal wiki

The first and major tool is a personal, hidden wiki. Think of it as your Secret Volcano Lair on the Internet.

It’s what I’m typing into right now. If it’s plain text and I need to keep track of it, it goes on the wiki.

Sure, typing into a web browser is a suboptimal experience, but it’s just text, so you can copy and paste it into a real text editor and then dump the edited version back into the browser’s text field.

As a bonus, using a wiki gives you automatic revisioning for those times when the muse takes you down a blind alley, beats you up, and takes your wallet.

After some research, a good solution seems to be DokuWiki—written in PHP, so it runs pretty much anywhere, and it uses plain text files for its data store, so backups are easy. After adding in a Markdown plugin I don’t even have to learn DokuWiki syntax.

Another benefit of DokuWiki is that it comes out of the box very easy to keep private—just a matter of clicking a couple of checkboxes, and you’re the only one who can view and update.

It should be noted here that obviously putting anything on the Internet means that it’s accessible. Anybody determined enough could break in. It’s definitely not a good idea to put anything super secret or harmful on your wiki, like credit card numbers or your plans for World Domination.

Let common sense prevail.

Subvert the masses

The second tool is for projects that generate different kinds of files, like keeping track of my class planning and web design projects. For this, it’s all about Subversion. The nerd factor is pretty high, and it can take a bit of time to get friendly with, but once you do, Subversion is a life saver.

Essentially, you create a repository, and when you add files to the repository, Subversion manages them for you. The big bang for the buck for developers—the people Subversion was originally created for—is that Subversion allows you to go back to different revisions of your files, so just like with a wiki, if you take a wrong turn, you have a built-in time machine to take you back to the happy days before you Did That Bad Thing.

The other major thing—the thing that matters most for non-developers—is syncing. Once your files are in a Subversion repository, it becomes brainlessly easy to keep all copies in sync across different machines. The only thing you have to remember is to sync the repository before you walk away from the machine, and you are in business.

The big win here is that you don’t have to remember which files you changed. Just sync, and badabing, everything is safe.

For data like my class planning, where I really don’t need revisioning after the semester is over, it’s easy enough to export out the semester and stash it in an archive, so the repository doesn’t grow uncontrollably over time. But at the same time, storage is cheap and your time is expensive, so no reason to go overboard about cleaning out the repository.

The calendar in the sky

The third tool is an online address book and calendar. For a lot of people Google’s or Yahoo!’s offerings are fine and will let you manage your data online. Of course, Google by default gives you more nerd cred, if that’s important to you. Both Yahoo! and Google offer free accounts, so to find out which one works best for you, just create an account on both and play around to see what fits.

My personal choice, though, is a Joyent Connector account. Gorgeous web interface, handles email, calendar, address book, as well as a few other things, and allows for easy collaboration with colleagues or family. Worth checking out if you’re in the market.

The Connector does cost money, though.

The missing piece

Right now what’s missing is a good web-enabled GTD solution. There are some apps out there that succeed to varying degrees, but so far nothing’s really clicked. I’d love to hear what other people are using, so please let me know in the comments.

KTHXBYE

Whew. That was more verbose than usual. Thanks for reading the post, and I hope it can help somebody.

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