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Friday, April 6, 2012

How To Easily Synchronize Folders Outside Dropbox Using Symlinks

There’s a long running discussion on Quora that grabbed my attention. The topic is about thereason why Dropbox is more popular than other free programs with similar functionality. The various answers boiled down to this: simplicity. You put your files in the Dropbox folder, and that’s it. The system will take care of the rest, including synchronizing everything to the cloud and to Dropbox folders on other computers linked to that account.
But this simplicity also means that you have to drag whatever you want to sync to the Dropbox folder. While this kind of arrangement is fine for most users, some users don’t want to re-shuffle their files and folders just for the sake of synchronizing. Luckily, there’s another possibility to synchronize folders outside Dropbox without messing up the structure of your folders: using symlinks.

The Symlink

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term “Symbolic Link” or simply “symlink”, here’s the Wikipedia quote:
… In computing, a symbolic link (also symlink or soft link) is a special type of file that contains a reference to another file or directory in the form of an absolute or relative path and that affects pathname resolution ….
… Symbolic links operate transparently for most operations: programs which read or write to files named by a symbolic link will behave as if operating directly on the target file. However, programs that need to handle symbolic links specially (e.g., backup utilities) may identify and manipulate them directly …
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Using symlinks to synchronize folders outside Dropbox is very easy. Create a symlink of the folder and put the symlink inside the Dropbox folder. Any change which happens to the symlink will be reflected on the original folder and vice versa. Symlink allows you to synchronize any folder that you want to Dropbox while having to move anything,
The question is, how do you create a symlink?

The Windows Method

The easiest way to create a symlink under Windows is to use an application called Dropbox Folder Sync. There’s one caveat though, the app will only work if the disk is formatted with NTFS as other Windows’ disk formats don’t support symlinks.
symlinks dropbox
  • After the installation process is done, the app will ask you to set the location of your Dropbox folder.
symlinks dropbox folder
  • You can do that by clicking the “Change Setting” option on the main interface.
symlinks dropbox folder
  • Then browse to the location of the Dropbox folder.
symlinks dropbox folder
  • Then including any folder to the Dropbox folder will only be a matter of right-clicking the folder and choosing “Sync with Dropbox“. Then the “UnSync with Dropbox” command can be used to exclude it.
symlinks dropbox windows

The Mac Method

There are several options that you can use to create symlinks on the Mac, including doing it manually with the help of Terminal and command lines. But the easiest method is by utilizing a simple app called MacDropAny.
  • Every time you run the application, it will ask you to choose which folder you want to sync via Dropbox. Browse to the location of the folder and/or create a new one.
symlinks dropbox windows
  • Now choose where in the Dropbox folder you want to put the symlink. If you are an organization freak, you could create a new folder called ‘External Folders‘ or something similar, and put all the symlinks there.
symlinks dropbox windows
  • The last step is to give a name to the link. To avoid confusion, it’s better for you to name it something similar to the original folder.
symlinks dropbox

Best Of Both Worlds

There are other apps that will let you sync any folder on your computer to the cloud. But those apps require some complicated settings. By using symlinks to help you sync folders outside Dropbox, you get the best of both worlds: the simplicity of Dropbox, and the power of more advanced apps.
Do you synchronize folders outside Dropbox? Have you tried one of the apps that we discussed today? Or do you have another solution to achieve the same goal? Share your thoughts and opinions using the comments below.
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