Frustrations With Dropbox – cloud cap technology

At first I really loved Dropbox. It seemed wondrous.

But as I’ve discovered the hard way, it very much has its limits.

I have been trying to move files, via Dropbox, from my old iMac (which I intend to retire) to my MacBook Air. I started this process by dragging files into the Dropbox folder on the iMac. That worked OK – the synchronization started, and the little tag that shows up when you touch the Dropbox icon at the top of the screen said that it would take a few days to upload.

But then I made a mistake that has cost me several weeks of frustration – I started moving things around in the Dropbox folder on the iMac… AND I dragged some folders from the MacBook Air into the MacBook Air’s Dropbox folder.

At that point, things started to go bad.

(I should disclaim, up front, that I’m a former SysAdmin and NetAdmin, so I generally understand how these sorts of systems are supposed to work behind the scenes. So, I was better-equipped than most to figure out what was going wrong, and how to fix crutch it along to make it work well enough. But that experience only helped me figure out what was happening after it had gone wrong; it didn’t help me anticipate that things might go wrong and avoid the resulting problems. Hindsight is always 20/20; the quarterback always sees things more clearly on Monday morning, etc.)

There are two key bottlenecks that you need to be acutely aware of with Dropbox.

First, your Dropbox account has a hard size limit – in my case 100 GB (yeah, I know, no haranguing necessary). But… the Dropbox folder on your computer (that is automagically syncing with the Dropbox account) has no size limits except the inherent limits of the disk it’s installed on. So you’re not going to get any early warning that you’ll overflow your Dropbox account as you’re dragging files into your Dropbox folder.

What happens when you “overflow” Dropbox? Well, it gets a bit nuts, because you know what you put into the Dropbox folder on your computer, but you don’t have a good understanding of what’s actually made it onto your Dropbox account before Dropbox cried Nyet! on you. (Yes, you can go looking directory by subdirectory by file looking for the little Dropbox check mark icon modification, but that’s, at best, tedious.)

Second, what makes things even worse is that Internet file transfer speeds are not hard disk transfer speeds… they’re not even Ethernet Local Area Network (LAN) speeds. So, not only are you subject to the above bottleneck, but you’ve got a second bottleneck to deal with, that a change you make on your computer’s Dropbox folder (say, moving some big folders around), can cause Dropbox to spend days trying to upload the changes.

From my observations, during such changes, Dropbox can have the old folders and files in existence at the same time as the new (moved) folders and files (copy from old to new, verify the copy operation completed successfully, only then delete the old. Oops… that can cause you to “overflow”.

To get past these bottlenecks in my situation, I had to do some tricky moving around:

    Moved some big files (music) out of the MacBook Air’s Dropbox folder onto the desktop.

    I deleted the corresponding files on the iMac’s Dropbox folder.

    In the Dropbox web app, I deleted the corresponding files in my Dropbox account.

Yeah, that kind of defeats the purpose of Dropbox, but doing so freed up enough space in my Dropbox account for things to start moving once again MacBook Air <–> Dropbox account <–> iMac. Hopefully with that space, and time (and, perhaps the increased efficiency from a newer version of the Dropbox app recently installed), I’ll finally finish the synch from the iMac to my Dropbox account that’s been in progress for weeks now.

Dropbox lessons learned:

    Dropbox is not going to tell you any of this, especially up front. That’s because it’s a significant “gotcha” / limitation, and that would sully their “it just works, it’s really simple :-)” mantra.

    Dropbox does not really have any logs or troubleshooting tools, diagnostics, and no error messages that I can detect (especially on the computer apps) other than when you go over your limit on your Dropbox account. That makes figuring out what’s going on a bit difficult.

    If you plan to use Dropbox heavily, especially with big files (video), you need the fastest Internet connection you can afford. Don’t take your laptop to work and expect to do a lot of syncing up… your company SysAdmin will come looking for you, with prejudice. (At my day job, some of the less-patient staff keep pitchforks handy for intimidation towards those who would hog one of the T-1’s to themselves downloading big files.) Of course, if you happen to be lucky enough to live in in Kansas City, fast-enough Internet for lots of Dropbox work is absolutely no problem.

    Moving a lot of files, especially moving a lot of large files, is a job for Ethernet, not Wi-Fi. If you try to use Wi-Fi, it’ll take weeks (I don’t care what flavor of Wi-Fi you have). Plan on plugging your laptop into Ethernet to do any heavy duty syncing with Dropbox. And yes, fellow MacBook Air lovers, that means an Apple USB-to-Ethernet Adapter (or for those fortunate of you to have a late 2011 MacBook Air) one of these amazing GigE Ethernet adapters (with the display thrown in).

    Moving a lot of files is also energy-intensive. Plan on your laptop battery taking a severe hit because it’s keeping that disk in heavy use (and, if you’re ignoring the above advice, your Wi-Fi connection will also be sucking a lot more juice than usual).

    When getting Dropbox set up initially to sync large amounts of data, that you want to be kept in sync between multiple computers (like the Dropbox ads say you can), let Dropbox get synced up with one computer first before adding additional computers. Otherwise Dropbox will spend its time “thrashing” trying to sync bidirectionally. Better that it get the heavy lifting done when it only has to handle syncing one computer to your Dropbox account.

    If you run into trouble, don’t expect much help from Dropbox. They can take days to respond to your support email. (But it was amusing to get the email with the helpful response: “Looks like it’s fixed now that you’re again under your limit.”)

    Unlike every other app that assumes Internet connectivity, the Dropbox app offers you NO clue that there’s a new version available. I wish Dropbox would get the memo and make the Mac version available through the Mac App Store so the Mac App Store would handle notifications of new versions and easy updates. It’s not like Dropbox is going to take a revenue hit from providing their Mac app through the Mac App Store. So, check manually on the Dropbox web site “regularly” for new versions of the Dropbox app for your computer of choice.

    If you have to move big folders around, etc., try to do that only on one computer at a time, and wait for Dropbox to get caught up before you do the next big thing, especially on another computer.

    If your computer seems to be thrashing the disk, or stuck on one file, or something, just quit the Dropbox app, and restart it. The Dropbox app can quit in seconds; “pausing” the Dropbox app is measured in tens of minutes.

So… will I continue to use Dropbox? Yes… but… now that I understand its limits better, I won’t be using it so enthusiastically, but rather using it more strategically. One thing I definitely won’t do is to use it to transfer a large amount of files between computers (that I physically have access to). For that, I’ll cable the two computers up and transfer the files from computer directly to computer… THEN engage Dropbox and let it sync the Dropbox account in the background.

Will I recommend Dropbox? To techies – yes, and I’ll explain to them what I know know about keeping Dropbox out of trouble. But for non-techies, no. I’m too afraid that Dropbox really doesn’t do what it claims it can do, that it can be treated like just another folder on your computer, despite how innocent it looks and how disarmingly well it works when you don’t have very much data to sync up.

Some of the fault is somewhat out of Dropbox’s control – those darned limited Internet access / LAN (especially WLAN) speeds. But, in my opinion, Dropbox’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t tell you enough about what’s happening, especially when things are going wrong, for me to feel comfortable recommend Dropbox to people who aren’t comfortable troubleshooting computer / network issues.

Update 1: The MacBook Air has mostly synced up fully with the Dropbox Account – the lovely check box has appeared on the Dropbox icon and there’s a pop-up every minute or so announcing “200 files have been downloaded”. The iMac is still flailing away, but Dropbox claims to be uploading (lots of small files from an old email account, apparently) and “indexing” (but not thrashing the disk). I now have hope that I’ll finally see a fully synced iMac within a few days. When Dropbox Support finally deigned to answer my email, they pointed out that there was a new version of the Dropbox app for Mac (guess that passed for “notification”) and that seemed to help the situation quite a bit.

Once the MacBook Air and iMac claim to be fully synced, I’ll finish moving files (slowly… carefully… from the other folders on the iMac into the Dropbox folder. When I’ve finally moved every valuable file from the iMac to the Dropbox folder, I’ll feel safe to think about retiring the iMac.

Then I’ll start hunting down the many, Many, MANY duplicate files and folders, and moving and rationalizing folder structure. Again… slowly, carefully, and if it seems like Dropbox is getting overwhelmed, I’ll stop and give it a chance to catch up.

And, these two things are undoubtedly going to be iterative. In order to make room on the 100 GB Dropbox Account, I’m going to have to rationalize duplicate files and folders to make room to the additional files and folders that have yet to be moved into the Dropbox folder.

Update 2: Four days after Update 1, it’s done. The MacBook Air has been synced with the Dropbox account for days now (other than the continuing uploads from the iMac causing the MacBook Air to download as necessary). But the biggest accomplishment is that the iMac is now synced with the Dropbox account! I think that the software update on both computers helped a lot. Once that was installed on both computers, I started seeing steady progress on upload and download. With the previous software, I would see x files to upload, y files left to download, and both numbers would careen up and down, and there was no apparent pattern. With the new / current software, the upload and downloads numbers seemed to stabilize and count down as the iMac continually made progress at uploading and downloading the files to the Dropbox account.

Ugh… now to rationalize files and folders. In watching what’s being uploaded, it’s now apparent that I inadvertently duplicated an archive folder… with many, many, many files in it, at least twice, perhaps three times. Sigh…

Update 3: I didn’t expect the completion of the three-way sync to feel so momentous! It’s literally been weeks with the iMac’s hard drive chattering away indexing, uploading, downloading. I have a healthy respect for this particular Seagate 250 GB Firewire drive!

By Steve Stroh, © 2011


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