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iTwin Vs. Dropbox: A Secure Filesharing Alternative

Cloud-based file-sharing has its advantages, but should you be thinking lower tech? Here's a look at a USB device that lets you share files securely via the Internet.

iTwin USB file sharing device
(click image for larger view)
iTwin USB file sharing device
iTwin's ad copy describes the company's gadget as "Two ends of a cable, no cable." It's a USB device that allows secure file sharing over the Internet between any two PCs, and has been pitched by its makers as competition for many other kinds of products-flash drives, network-attached storage, and cloud-storage services like DropBox or Windows Live Mesh.

BYTE.com
With Dropbox's security in the news this week for a four-hour glitch that left files exposed, iTwin's security approach may intrigue more users.

The way iTwin works is clever in a way redolent of Apple's best products. The device consists of two modules with USB connectors at one end and a proprietary connector at the other; they come out of the box conjoined via the second connector. You plug the conjoined iTwin into the PC whose data you want to share and it appears as a virtual CD-ROM drive from which you install iTwin's client software.

Once the software is set up, an iTwin icon appears in Explorer's "Computer" object. Drag into it any files you want to share out across iTwin. This doesn't change the location of the files themselves; they're shared out from wherever they happen to be. The documentation included with the device (a tiny sixteen-page booklet) is rather meager, although the iTwin website provides expanded details about most everything.

Next step: detach one end of the device and take it with you. Plug it into your notebook (or any other PC that has a USB port and allows software and devices to be installed), set up iTwin there as well, and you'll see on that computer a folder with all the files shared out on the first one. File sharing works in both directions. From either computer you can open files, add files to your home machine from your remote one (files added in this fashion show up on your desktop), and make local copies of files from your home machine. If you're copying or opening a particularly large file, a balloon pops up from the system tray to let you know how big it is and how fast of a connection you have.

The makers of iTwin stress how secure it is. All data passed between both clients is AES-256 encrypted, with the keys stored only on the device itself. None of the documents accessed through iTwin are stored on the device, which can be optionally password-locked for further protection. And if you lose either end of the iTwin dongle, you can remotely deactivate it. This can be undone by simply re-pairing both halves of the device, so you don't have to run out and buy a new one in case the other half does show up.

So how does iTwin shape up against online storage services? It has one major advantage in that the more you want to share, the easier it is to make the files available remotely. You don't have to upload anything anywhere; if it's on your PC, it's available remotely, period. Those of you with limited or flaky bandwidth will be grateful for this, as one of the major bottlenecks of any cloud-based storage system is getting your stuff up into the cloud in the first place.

One disadvantage, though, is that you always need the dongle to access the other machine. There's no web client, as there is with services like DropBox. While some of that is for the sake of security and by design, it also means much less convenience and flexibility. It also means you're sunk if you take the other half of iTwin to a machine that doesn't allow non-administrative users to add hardware or install apps. You need to be able to do both to use iTwin.

Another possible disadvantage: iTwin doesn't provide anything but file sharing. Other services (e.g., Windows Live Mesh) allow remote access of both a user's desktop and their files. I find myself needing access to my desktop more often than any given file on my system, and getting to the desktop gives me access to my files anyway. Consequently, my own use case for iTwin is not as strong.

The last issue is the price: iTwin costs $99, while the basic tiers for many online services are free. That said, you only pay for iTwin once and use it forever-it's not a subscription service. It also provides a big advantage in terms of privacy and control over one's data, as nothing is stored anywhere except on your own computers and everything is encrypted in transit. Because most of the functionality is provided via software, it's entirely possible that features like desktop sharing or other, not-yet-developed ideas can be added later to iTwin.

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