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Geek Throwdown: How to sync two or more Macs?

Enter the Octagon

Here’s an experimental new feature: The Throwdown. Take a problem that lots of people face and tell us your personal favorite way to deal with it — in as much detail and with as much persuasion as you can muster.

Today, a lot of us are living on two or more Macs -- which is great, except for the challenge of keeping the contents and settings of multiple machines effortlessly in sync.

Now before you pop in, holler "dot mac," and jump back on your Segway®, consider that many folks (including your author) are looking for a lot more than simple document syncing and perfunctory preference sharing. How about if your needs are more nuanced:

  • Can it intelligently sync "~/Library" stuff like "Preferences" and "Application Support" for your apps (so that Quicksilver, for example, is with you and tweaked to perfection wherever you go)? Is it smart enough to know which items not to sync?
  • Can it do smarter comparisons than "which one is newer?" -- consider that someone on 4 or 5 Macs may run into complex versioning problems that currently make .Mac very confused. For text, can it do diff3-style merging?
  • Will it update often enough (and automatically enough) that I can trust when I sit down at a new machine, I'll know everything's up to date without checking (or manual re-updating)?
  • Can backups be easily automated? And is it easy to restore across all machines?
  • Does it work for people on airplanes? If your solution requires a live internet connection for active usage (e.g. traditional WebDAV), what happens when that access is no longer available?

You get the idea. You have a system; now tell us about it. Bow to your sensei, then spare no detail.

How do you sync your Macs?

rsync? ChronoSync? Synchronize? Unison? Something you made yourself?

What are using to sync your Macs, and how are you using it?

augmentedfourth's picture


You can just store files on an external device (iPod or otherwise) and create symlinks on the workstation that point to the device.

I'm a sysadmin in a research lab, and our lab's primary scientist keeps all her data on an iPod; however, the "Documents" and other folders on her home and work Macs are merely symbolic links to locations on the iPod. Unix-fu FTW!

It would be trivial to symlink "Library" as well to a location on external storage so that your prefs are mobile as well. However, as others have mentioned, that also sets up the external device as a single point of failure. It is also a good idea, if using such a system, to periodically back up your mobile storage somewhere else; even on the local hard drive of one or the other primary workstation. This is currently done manually by the scientist herself, though I'm working on an Applescript solution to make it more "set-it-and-forget-it" automatic.

Basically what this comes down to is keeping your data under sysadmin control (e.g. on a server) or under user control (e.g. on your own portable hard drive). Always opt for the former unless you've got a user who's persnickety and also powerful within your organization.

(P.S. I've only been running this lab for 6 weeks; believe me, if I had been the one to set up this "mobile home folder" thing, there would already be an automatic solution in place...)




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