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June 6, 2012

Cloudy with a chance of WOMBAT

For remote work, file management in the cloud is way easy. Other methods, not so much…

Remote control

For the past year, I’ve been working remotely from sunny Austin, TX. Flying back and forth has become the monthly norm — I can definitely tell you where the four least-crowded Starbucks are in DFW — but for the day-to-day, we’ve kept the workflow rolling through a combination of cloud tools and brute, manual labor (read: 7-ZIP + Basecamp). Consequently, I’ve had some time to think about what works well and what doesn’t in the context of file management for remote work. As you might have guessed, the cloud can be a tremendous help.

Go cloud or go home

This begs the question: why not go totally cloud? The short answer is: it’s complicated. I’m dealing with whatever our clients throw at us — Microsoft Word files and random Excel spreadsheets, FrameMaker files, the occasional XML or DITA file, you name it. Any team currently working with a random gob of files like this will tell you that it’d be nice, but…. The reason being, primarily, that options for cloud integration are limited. For Microsoft Office docs, you could go with Microsoft SharePoint, which can get costly. Or, you could go with the Microsoft Office 365 Web apps or Google Documents solutions (the cloud office suite list goes on and on), which are definitely feasible, but only if you have the time and inclination to upload, convert and review. FrameMaker 10 integrates with FrameMaker Server as well as a host of content management systems, which is really great, but only if you have the budget for FrameMaker Server and/or a full-blown CMS. For other local-only files, there’s, unfortunately, not a whole lot to be done. Pre-cloud, my usual procedure looked something like:

  1. ZIP files
  2. Upload archive(s) to Basecamp or FTP
  3. Bang head on desk

Ideas, anyone?

There’s always SVN. Using a program like Tortoise or oXygen’s Syncro SVN client in conjunction with a cloud storage solution like Unfuddle works quite well, especially for non-binary files. But SVN was intended as a version control technology, and so using it like this is sort of bending the rules. Oh well, I say. It does work. Sure, the problem remains that it’s easier than not to bring files into conflict when anyone touches anything without diligently committing changes, or when someone starts working on a local copy without first updating from the repository. Then you have to break out the diffing program, which is never fun. And while it still looks an awful lot like the old 7-Zip + Basecamp method I mentioned above, it definitely beats massive ZIP uploads.

Heavy cloud, no rain (flickr: Robyn's Nest)

Heavy cloud, no rain (flickr: Robyn's Nest)

The other solution is filesyncing. At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, using Dropbox or Google Drive makes it ridiculously simple (and free). With a shared Dropbox directory, you can work on active files straightaway from the directory itself, without having to worry about uploading to a repo or your team members not having the latest and greatest. Additional storage is generally super cheap, should you exceed the limits. The only hang-up to note with this solution is that older versions of files become irrecoverable. There is a way around this, however, as you can always couple it with a cloud backup solution like Jungle Disk (again, dirt cheap) and include the Dropbox directory in your daily backup. This gives you the ability to fetch older versions of your files in a snap, as with SVN, but without the hassle of dealing with a repo. It can get messy if you’re not careful with how you set everything up, but most solutions like this can be set to run automatically, in the background, on a daily basis (or more frequently), which definitely gets a thumbs up.

Pass the Tylenol…

Overall, working remotely has been a great learning experience, and I have a much better understanding of the pitfalls of remote work. File management, rudimentary though it may be, can be a supreme headache — at best, something to remain attentive to; at worst, a complete and total WOMBAT that’ll have you lamenting the endless 404 that has become your workday. Most likely, however, there’s some brew of cloud services that can help you and your organization save a little time and dough. Feel free to hit me in the comments or on Twitter (@ryan_fulcher) if you’d like to discuss further solutions and hybrids.

In vinegar veritas

As for me, Austin has been great (food trucks! live music!), but I’m glad to be heading back to NC (trees! seasons! groundwater!). It’s funny because, as a native North Carolinian, I showed up in Austin with a hefty chip on my shoulder about what barbecue actually is, but the Texas style has definitely grown on me. And while I do dig Austin, as the joke goes, there’s no place like