Combining OS X and cloud storage

I recently wrote that I reinstalled my MacBook Pro due to a new SSD. During this process I once again learned to love the combination of Mac OS X and “The Cloud”. The main ingredients being Jungle Disk, Dropbox and a little nice thing called symbolic links (if you’ve worked with unix/linux before you by now know where this is headed). Lifehacker also a nice intro to this.

After installing the basic OS (leaving out unnecessary printers and other options) I installed the necessary applications. I intentionally didn’t just copy over my old user profile. My goal was to get rid of all that crud this machine has been accumulating over the months (if not years). This obviously required a clean profile.

The great thing about *nix based systems is that all configuration settings are saved in some sort of flat file, not in some dubious proprietary format other operating systems like to use. This makes it possible to easily backup and restore only necessary application configurations.

After I got the basic apps installed, including Dropbox and Jungle Disk, I only had to relink some of these application settings. I’m storing parts of my system configuration on these cloud services. Relatively unimportant information is stored in Dropbox, more critical data is stored on Jungle Disk. You might wonder about why I’m using both services and not exclusively one or the other. Basically both services are using Amazons S3 storage, but it’s the way how they use it. Dropbox doesn’t show you which S3 bucket (that’s the actual “volume” where data is stored) they are using. Now, if Dropbox decided it doesn’t like you anymore they can easily remove your data and you won’t have any way to access it. The good thing about Dropbox is the fact that it’s really easy to share files with other people, even if they aren’t using Dropbox. Just right-click any file in your Dropbox share and get a link that you can then send to your friends. Additionally Dropbox is a free app if you only need a few gigabytes of storage.

Jungle Disk on the other hand requires more manual work to get it working. You have to set up an Amazon S3 (or Rackspace) account by yourself. But this is actually the best thing about Jungle Disk. Even if – for some reason – Jungle Disk itself doesn’t work for you anymore, you can still access your data with any application that can access your S3 account. JD also supports syncing of folders, so you can use it the very same way as Dropbox.

While JD isn’t a free app and you also have to pay for storage yourself, it might be cheaper and there’s no limit as to how much you can actually store online. Then again, you only pay for the storage you really use.

But back to my actual system. I store various configuration files, like my Adium config and chat logs, 1Password database, Apache/PHP config, /etc/hosts, etc. online. This way I just have to create some symbolic links in my home folder to make each application run based on the same settings across multiple computers. Of course all these files are also backupped locally to a Drobo and separate Time Machine Backups. Remember: a file doesn’t exist until it’s in more than one (or even better: two) places.

This whole process makes it rather easy to set up a new machine and be up and running in no time. What took almost a day of work before now can be done in 1-2 hours. The next steps in the future include getting my iTunes library into the cloud. But even with a fast internet connection (50M/10M here) that could take a while, depending on the size of your music/video/app library. For the time being I’m waiting to see what Apple will do with their data center in North Carolina.

Note: If you wish to sign up for a free Dropbox account use this link. It gives me a few more megabytes of free space. Thank you!

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