Review: BitTorrent delivers cloud-free 'Dropbox for business'

New BitTorrent Sync 2.0 aims for business users with user-management and NAS-synchronization features, but its decentralized design complicates integration into larger organizations

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BitTorrent originated as a file sharing and distributed download technology, powering downloads of content both legitimate (such as Linux ISOs) and not (Taylor Swift albums).

With BitTorrent Sync, the technology's creators have turned to a new use case: a decentralized substitute for file sync-and-share services like Dropbox. The new BitTorrent Sync 2.0 ups the ante by providing a "pro" tier, with what BitTorrent describes as "additional functionality for business workgroups and individuals that need more capabilities and controls from Sync."

BitTorrent Sync itself, even in its nonpro incarnation, is a handy little tool. Install it on two or more devices -- Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, iOS, Android, or Windows Phone -- and you can elect to synchronize up to 10 folders among those machines. The synchronization process -- the actual shuttling of data -- is done entirely peer-to-peer. Any folder can be synced, even those on a removable drive. Versions of Sync are also available for many popular NAS devices from Seagate, Western Digital, Netgear, and others, allowing content on those devices to be synced.

BitTorrent Sync

BitTorrent Sync lets you protect folders and files with user-level permissions and set shared links to expire after a specified number of days. The QR Code option is for syncing to a mobile device.

Setting up a folder to sync involves passing an alphanumeric “secret key” between the peer machines. Aside from copying the key as text or emailing it, you can also scan a QR code if you’re setting up sync on the mobile-app version of the program.

Once that's set up, the whole sync process is more or less automatic and silent, in much the same way as Dropbox itself. The main limitation is the number of separate folders that can be synced, but if you follow the Dropbox model and have everything to sync in one folder anyway, this limit isn't as onerous. The speed of syncing is entirely dependent on the speed of the network between the machines in question. Whenever possible, BitTorrent syncs only block-level changes in files to speed things up.

Sync Pro, which costs $39.99 per user per year (there’s a free 30-day trial), removes the 10-folder limit and adds more granularity to folder syncing. A folder can have selected files synced (again, à la Dropbox) so that devices with limited storage won't end up suffocating under the load. Pro also provides per-user controls, so users can be given folder permissions -- read only, read and write -- and can be allowed to delegate folder access to other users.

BitTorrent Sync's decentralized structure works both for and against it in an enterprise setting. The main drawback (or advantage, depending on how you look at it) is that, like its file storage, its users and permissions system is decentralized. This means users and permissions can't be managed by way of, for instance, Active Directory; all access has to be set at each peer by hand. For small ad hoc teams of a few people within an enterprise, this isn't bad, but for larger groups, access control will be far tougher to manage.

If BitTorrent Sync can find a way to allow its peer-to-peer structure to work elegantly with existing enterprise infrastructure, it’ll be a major plus. As it stands, it’s best suited for teams of a few people that don’t mind doing a little heavy lifting.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.