Dropbox alternative - Syncthing

I've been paying fro Dropbox since Rick and I recorded Lococast together. Dropbox was a quick and easy way for us to share files with each other. I even started using Dropbox for managing my todo.txt files between my Android Devices and all of my desktop machines (including my work machines). It's a fabulous piece of software and I had no intention of ditching it.

Dropbox made a major update to their site (Meet the new Dropbox earlier this month. At the time I thought "no big deal", since none of the features they added were things that I was remotely interested in using. But with those changes came a few wrinkles. First, they raised the prices of the service. Before Dropbox was $99 a year for the Plus package (which was what I was using). The new price was $119. People were understandably mad, since they were essentially paying $20 more for features that they too were unlikely to use. I listened to Back to Work #431 where Dan and Merlin were also wondering what was up with Dropbox. Dropbox seemed like they were moving from being a big dumb hard-drive in the cloud that synced everything to something much less aligned with that vision.

That got me wondering about alternatives. I posted a note on The Fediverse asking for alternatives. The responses I got had some really good suggestions, but the ones that stuck out for me were Nextcloud, Owncloud, and Syncthing. What drew me to Syncthing was that it doesn't appear to require a server a all, whereas Nextcound and Owncloud do. Now, I run my own servers so that's not much of a problem, but servers tend to be more maintenance and while some of the other features of Nextcloud and Owncloud are appealing the onus for me at the moment is to replace something like Dropbox, not create a cloud-based lifestyle.

Setting up Syncthing is a bit of a chore. The first thing you need to do is download and install the software. Unfortunately like most things in the world of Ubuntu LTSes the packages that ship are pretty much archaic artifacts rather than useful packages. The downside of this was I spent way too much time trying to diagnose what might have been issues with older packages rather than just start with the packages from the Syncthing website. Live and learn. The second thing you'll need is a way to get a unique key from each device to the other devices in your syncing network. On an Android phone this can be done by installing two packages - The Syncthing client and a barcode scanner that is recommended by Syncthing. Once you have that you can use a handy QR Code to get that ID. Also machines can "Introduce" other machines. Eventually I got four machines talking to each other.

Syncthing uses a documented protocol that is akin to things like Bittorrent and other syncing protocols. It requires two ports and has instructions for how to open both of those ports to the outside world (either via UPnP or just opening those ports manually). There is another option for the semi-security conscious user where Syncthing will communicate with a "relay server". These relay servers act as intermediaries and are secure conduits when a direct connection is not possible. This allows me to still sync to my home machines when I'm out and about with my phone. It's not quick, and it does leak your IP addresses to a third party machine, but this was a tradeoff I was willing to make in the name of not opening my firewall.

Overall I'm very happy with how this experiment has played out. I've wanted to share my ebook collection with just my laptop in the past and have relegated that to using rsync to get a local copy. With Syncthing that is kept up to date without me having to worry about it. I did run into some issues with trying to sync certain directories where the directory still showed as needing to sync but a simple permission change seemed to clear that issue up. The GUI is web-based (there is a GTK GUI as well, but I don't need any of the features it provides).

I was due to give Dropbox $119 for my Plus subscription but I opted instead to cancel the subscription and send what Dropbox would have charged me extra to Syncthing as a donation. I'll probably have more to say about how Syncthing works and how it's integrated into my lifestyle, but for now I'm quite pleased with the results.

Thanks to everyone on the Fediverse for their suggestions and for helping me to get the confidence to switch to something that I'm finding is an improvement over Dropbox.