Laptop Tools to Stay in Sync

Your sales staff is hitting the pavement, but if the data they have on their laptops is out of date, they 're walking time bombs.

With the wrong information, they may not be able to close a deal, or worse yet, they may close a deal at the wrong price. To prevent that you need to make sure your staff has the right data on their laptops by letting them synchronize data easily.

We tested three packages that synchronize data with laptop computers: Mobiliti 's Network/Unplugged; Software Pursuits Inc.'s SureSync; and Synchrologic Inc.'s iMobile Suite. We wanted to look at Symantec Corp.'s Mobile Update, but the company has discontinued that product. In addition to laptop synchronization, SureSync and iMobile Suite can handle server-to-server synchronization. IMobile Suite can also handle server-to-PDA and database synchronization. However, because our testing focused on laptop synchronization, we did not evaluate those functions in this test.

Mobiliti 's Network/Unplugged wins our Blue Ribbon Award as our hands-down favorite. It 's administration features, easy installation and general ease-of-use make it the top product.

"Is that all it does?"

When we first looked at the manual for Mobiliti 's Network/Unplugged, we weren 't impressed. "Is that all it does?" was our shoot-from-the-hip response. But when we looked more closely, we found Mobiliti 's slogan, "Take the network with you" was apt, and we grew to like the product.

We favored Network/Unplugged because it works the way we as network managers think -- we prefer to have everything of importance on the network servers and not on users ' PCs. We realize this manner of thinking doesn 't always work for laptops. Network/Unplugged let us use the same drive mappings we enjoy when we 're connected to the network.

Network/Unplugged makes an image (Mobiliti calls it a project) of the portions of your network servers you want to have available when you 're not on the network. Network/Unplugged fakes out the PC 's operating system into thinking the network resources are still available with the same drive mappings.

Network/ Unplugged is NOS-independent -- if you can map to the resource, Network/Unplugged can fake the mapping in stand-alone mode.

This is a very simple and intuitive approach for users. For example, if Joe Salesman left a memo on the H drive in the office, it will be on the H drive (on his laptop) when he 's in the field. The intent is for users to create their own synchronization projects for themselves, with the understanding that users know what data they need better than the system manager, and there is no reason to make the user ask the system manager to provide data. This approach frees a system manager from being responsible for every change every user wants to make to his laptop.

On the other side of that coin is Network/Unplugged 's lack of centralized control. This product lacks tools that would let the system manager set up, change and enforce projects for end users. At a smaller company, things tend to be self-correcting: Salespeople or technicians who don 't have the information they need while on the road will update their projects the next time they are in the office. This sort of laissez-faire approach makes system managers at larger companies break out in a cold sweat. All of this left us in a quandary about scoring Network/Unplugged 's administration. Because there is no real administration, it 's very easy to administer, which is good. On the other hand, there aren 't tools in the package to handle administration, which suggests the score should be low. But we gave it a 7 because we were happier with the easier approach.

We encountered one surprise during the testing of this product. We wanted to synchronize our network-based e-mail system onto our laptops and use the same package, configured the same way, in both the office and the field. The data synchronized beautifully, but the e-mail package refused to run. While Network/ Unplugged will mimic networked data, it can 't mimic network calls. When the e-mail package tried to use a NetWare system call to find out if we were logged on, it found that we weren 't connected to the network. We feel this isn 't an onerous restriction because you would be better off using the Post Office Protocol 3 or Internet Message Access Protocol configuration of the e-mail package when your users are on the road anyway. To put this issue in perspective, we used word processing and spreadsheets, and ran our usual Office programs with no problems.

We were impressed by the speed of installation, which took less than 10 minutes. However, we were a bit confused about whether to install a server.

While the box said we didn 't need a server, the manual told us how to install it. A deeper look at the manual told us that the Network/Unplugged server gives dial-up users better performance by speeding the scan of the remote machine, compressing the data to be synchronized and allowing only changed data to be sent to users.

We installed the server software on our Windows NT 4.0 server and found it worked smoothly. However, we did have some configuration issues in having the Mobiliti Network/Unplugged server synchronize to a NetWare server to the laptop. The issues were largely how to handle drive mappings because the NT server saw the NetWare drives differently than the end users did when they logged on to the NetWare server directly. We think this would be an issue in any multiserver environment, not just a NetWare shop.

Once Network/Unplugged was installed on our laptop, we selected which network directories we wanted and it synchronized them. When we shut down our laptops while connected to the LAN, we were asked if we wanted to do a final synchronization. When we turned our laptops on while connected to the LAN, we were again given an opportunity to synchronize the laptops to the LAN. The synchronizations generally worked very well.

While installation ran smoothly, several times we received error messages at the end of a synchronization process. Once, we were told the synchronization failed, and some files could not be synchronized. Looking closer, we discovered that some files on the master server were deleted during the synchronization run. It would have been better if the software had let the matter slide and not issued an alert -- most of the alert messages were more appropriate for developers than for end users.

Finally, a matter of concern to any system manager is deploying a new package.

We found a deployment kit on Mobiliti 's home page and a manual in PDF format that explains how to access and use the hidden deployment menu in Network/Unplugged.

Despite some rough edges, Network/Unplugged did the job for us easily and well.

Sync options galore

Software Pursuits ' SureSync is powerful software that synchronizes files across WAN and LAN links, coordinates file updates between multiple users, ensures consistency of critical data and facilitates software distribution.

Additionally, SureSync RealTime is an extension of SureSync that adds a critical timing element that schedules synchronization, distributes changes instantly and syncs large volumes of files quickly. Given our interest in synchronizing data on remote laptops and the difficulty in ensuring that remote laptops would be connected when synchronizations were scheduled, we concentrated on SureSync and didn 't test SureSync RealTime.

SureSync 's architecture is more complex than Network/ Unplugged. SureSync 's synchronizations are governed by what the company calls relations, in which the system manager defines the roots of the data to be synchronized. The system manager can define a one-way synchronization, in which data flows from the source to the destinations, or a two-way synchronization, in which data flows from any root to another.

SureSync has a rich, almost overwhelming, set of file synchronization options.

We wished they were better named so the meaning of the choices would be more obvious. They include Mirror, Multimirror, Exchanging Copies, Recent Master Copy, Differing Master Copy, Forced Master Copy or Move synchronization. Move is the most obvious choice. It 's a one-way synchronization, and when the synchronization is complete, the source file is deleted. This clears out clutter and lets the system manager know when it 's completed.

For laptop synchronization, the option we used was Exchanging Copies, which copies files from any synchronization server to another synchronization server.

But unlike Network/Unplugged, SureSync won 't delete files on other roots when it is deleted from one of them. This can be a problem for applications that use many temporary files, such as e-mail applications -- it 's annoying when an e-mail you thought you 'd deleted comes back to haunt you.

Realizing that the options can be complex, Software Pursuits offers a preview function that examines the relation and shows you what files will be affected -- and how -- by the relation. Once you are happy with the relations, you can trigger them manually or use the scheduler to set up times when they will be run.

SureSync 's scheduling abilities are very useful in server-to-server synchronizations or server-to-workstation synchronizations over a LAN. Because it is difficult to predict when a laptop will be connected to a phone line or LAN, the scheduling options were not useful for our laptop synchronizations.

We used SureSync 's client/server edition to schedule data synchronizations across LANs, and it handled many LAN-based data movement tasks with good results. But when we detached the laptop from the LAN and dialed in, things didn 't work as we expected. Our client software couldn 't connect to the server software. We called Software Pursuits and asked for help. We were told the client-only version of the software was better suited for laptop synchronization. As a bonus, it 's also less expensive. Following Software Pursuits ' suggestion, we uninstalled the client/server version and installed the client-only version. The client-only version had the same control interface and handled the same as the client/server version, but this time we could synchronize between the server and remote laptop.

SureSync was very easy to install, but the configuration was a bit more complex than that of Mobiliti 's Network/Unplugged. One minor issue was the fact that to use SureSync over a WAN link, you needed to install Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) extensions to Windows. However, Microsoft did not include some of the DCOM components on the Windows 98 Second Edition CD, which made getting DCOM to work a bit more difficult. While annoying, this is as big a problem for Software Pursuits as it was for us.

Overall, we liked SureSync, but we believe it was at once more -- and less -- than we needed to synchronize laptops to the network. Shops that need to synchronize from server to server or perform multiway synchronization would find SureSync a good fit for their needs.

Major league syncing options

Synchrologic 's iMobile Suite is hard -- hard to install, hard to configure and hard to manage. But once in place, it has its charms.

Synchrologic addresses a range of data synchronization chores in this package.

It lets you synchronize tons of data such as SQL and Oracle databases, server-to-server, server-to-desktop and server-to-PDA devices. It also handles software distribution and performs backups and restores.

The iMobile Suite uses Microsoft Management Console (MMC) as its control console. Using the console, we created users and groups. The iMobile Suite publishes information, such as data to be kept in synchronization, or software to be distributed or updated. The data to be published is set up through MMC as well. Once the data is published, the groups or users can subscribe to it. The system manger can make the data mandatory or optional, which allows a good level of control, assuring the system manager that essential updates will take place, while allowing users to defer updates to convenient times.

The user and group databases can be created from the keyboard, imported from data files or imported from the NT server. It seemed odd that we could import users from the NT domain, but not their passwords, which forced us to create duplicate user and password combinations on the product 's database. The documentation didn 't hint as to what iMobile would do with Active Directory, but we hope the duplicate user list will be eliminated.

We started with some work-in-progress files, pointing the server to them and telling it to let the MIS group access those files. Once you select data to be published, iMobile Suite 's scanner compresses the data, puts it into the database and makes it available. You can run the scanner manually or use the scheduler included with the NT Options Pack. Scheduling the scanner to run periodically ensures that the data remains as up-to-date as possible. Neither Network/Unplugged nor SureSync needed a scanner to keep data current because they use live data. Scanning the first set of files took just a few minutes.

We started the client software and pulled the files down. The operation was smooth. We then tried to transfer a larger file, a 380M-byte image. Scanning and packaging the file took about 15 minutes. Despite the large size of the file, we felt it was unusual that it took that long. Next we used the client software to fetch the file on the LAN. We were surprised when our test PC ran out of disk space. We had checked and knew it had more than 700M bytes of free space. We deleted some files and continued the process. We found that iMobile had downloaded the compressed file from the server, and then had the client PC expand it. The additional storage requirement used up the PC 's storage space.

The amount of additional storage space required varies depending on the type of data you are synchronizing. If it is largely plain text, there will be little additional overhead. If the data is already compressed, the storage requirements on your laptop could double. It seems odd that iMobile Suite would create a temporary file -- going directly to the final file makes a lot more sense because it is faster and wouldn 't waste disk space. In this day of 27G-byte drives for PCs, running out of disk space isn 't a major issue, but it does happen.

We liked the option of sending a message-of-the-day to the user community. The only concern is that this message is the last thing fetched from the host system. It would be better if it were fetched first and displayed at once to let the system manager send messages to the user community about the data and software waiting to be sent.

Installation of the suite was difficult. We started with no manual and a CD.

The CD had a number of cryptically named subdirectories. We poked around until we found the data synchronization program. As we began installing it, things got weirder. The install program wanted information about the database server on both ends of the synchronization. We hadn 't planned on installing SQL or Oracle on each PC, so we were confused. Synchrologic support told us that data in this case meant database.We were told to install the file and software distribution programs on the server, which were located in the CD 's iMobile iFDiSD directory.

Synchrologic support said most customers attend a two-day class, and that it 's usually a firm 's database analyst who handles iMobile Suite. It 's a network task to synchronize data, and the network management staff should handle it, though. Still, all the iMobile Suite programs are tied to databases, so there is a lot to be said for the database analyst being responsible for the package.

While Synchrologic provides a runtime copy of the Sybase Adaptive Server database engine with the iMobile Suite, the company also warns you this is just for evaluation purposes, and has some limitations that make it unsuitable for production use. Synchrologic recommends the use of the full Sybase Adaptive Server, Oracle 8i or Microsoft SQL. IMobile Suite is also dependent upon Microsoft 's Internet Information Server (IIS) and Internet Explorer. We were surprised to find that weneeded a secure server certificate from VeriSign to use the product.

As with many products that use IIS and a database engine, you may install the whole thing on a server. But if system loading and performance are issues, iMobile Suite and the database engine can be loaded on one server, with another server running IIS. We found it necessary to manually set up Open Database Connectivity to recognize the database and then manually set up much of the iMobile Web site. Given that Synchrologic has specified the databases and the Web server it supports, it should make the components interact correctly.

Once we were directed to the proper path, things got better. Still, a readme file in the root of the CD, a pamphlet or even a clear statement of what each package does near the beginning of its documentation would have helped.

The first time we installed iMobile Suite, it took about 14 hours. The last time we installed it that was whittled down to about four hours, including an hour to get another secure server certificate. There was nothing terribly hard in doing it, just lots of finicky little details that the installation program should have handled. Thankfully, the client software is based on Internet Explorer, and the package is largely Web-based. Client installation went smoothly, which was a pleasant surprise.

In the end, we saw promise in iMobile Suite, but several rough edges -- from installation to usage -- need to be ironed out.

Avery, a network consultant from Gunnison, Colo., has designed and supported networks of all sizes. He can be reached at mavery@mail.other when. com.

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