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Friday, 02 January 2009 12:37

Dropbox on Ubuntu 8.10

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In a continuing series of articles highlighting that GNU/Linux is a viable replacement operating system, today we're exploring how to use Dropbox on the popular Ubuntu distribution.

For those who haven't heard of Dropbox, think of it as online backups made super simple. You can also share files across computers, share files with anyone (publicly) and create photo galleries and share them too.

Dropbox is one of those things that once you start using it, you really wonder why this hasn't been done before. In fact, it is so easy that it just becomes part of your daily life and you stop thinking about it!

Dropbox is a tech startup which has received funding via the TechCrunch Top 50. It has been publicly available since September 11 2008, and the clients for Windows, MacOS and Linux were released simultaneously. It is good to see that Linux was on their radar and is being well looked after.

You can sign up for a free Dropbox account and get 2GB of storage space. The storage space is provided through Amazon using their Simple Storage Service (S3).

When you install the client, you get access to that storage space via a mapped drive. In the case of the Linux client, it maps to your Home directory, so you can access it via /home/<your_username>/Dropbox. That directory contains three sub-directories: Files (which for me shows up as "Hamish's folder"), Photos and Public.

So far, I have installed the client onto two of my machines. Using the same account puts these computers onto the same Dropbox account. All my files then become available across all of my computers.

It's a bit like a mapped drive onto a server, but it is via the Internet and can be accessed from anywhere, including via the Dropbox website. Changes made on one computer are synchronised to the other computer, usually instantly or shortly afterwards. Dropbox only uploads the changed parts of a file, not the file in its entirety (unless its a new file!), so actual transfers can be really quite small.

When you paste files into the folders, they take only the time to upload to the Internet, which is purely dependant on your connection speed (and in Preferences you can limit the upload and download speeds anyway). Once the system has recognised them, they're then available on the other machines.

So how do they achieve this magic and how do you install it? Please read onto page 2...


As stated before, Dropbox takes advantage of the Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) for the provision of the storage itself. This makes it available from anywhere and you can be reasonably confident of your data being available all the time.

Unlike most of the other S3 clients, you don't need to have an Amazon account first. Dropbox uses their own S3 account. However, if 2GB storage isn't enough, you can upgrade to 50GB for $USD9.99/month or $USD99/year.

When using applications in the "cloud" such as S3, security is a big concern (as it should be). Dropbox state on their website that all transfers use SSL and that files are encrypted with AES-256 bit encryption before being uploaded. For added protection, you can optionally encrypt files yourself before you upload them.

OK, so how do you install it? Once you have signed up for an account, you can download and install the client for your distribution. I use Ubuntu 8.10 so will talk about that.

I downloaded the .deb file and installed it. If you are unfamiliar with how to do this, have a look at this article that I wrote earlier this year.

The installer gives you the option of signing up for an account or using an existing account (which is how I added my second computer to my account).

As the installer integrates with the file manager, Nautilus, once the installation has completed you'll need to restart Nautilus. This can be done any one of four ways: restart the computer; log out and then back in again; press CTRL-ALT-BACKSPACE to restart the graphical user interface (requires you to log back in); or using the Command Line Interface type in "killall nautilus", which restarts Nautilus.

I haven't installed it on Windows, but I assume that because of the integration with Windows Explorer that you'd need to do a complete restart of the computer.

Once that's done, then you should have a small blue icon in the top right of your screen. If you left-click, it opens up the folder with the sub-folders visible. If you right-click the icon, you get the context menu with some interesting options.

"Open My Dropbox" simply opens the folder with the sub-folders visible. "Web Interface" opens up the web page where you can do all sorts of things, inluding managing your account, share folders and get the public URLs for photo galleries. You can also see the status of your Dropbox, with it usually stating that it is "Up to date", but when you are transferring files, this is where you can see how it's going. "Preferences" allows you to change the upload, download speeds and a few other options.

So what can I actually do with it? Please read onto page 3...


I use Dropbox for a few different purposes. The one that I use the most is for quick and easy photo galleries. The system doesn't have a lot of options or anything complex. You simply drop the photos into the Photos directory or create a sub-directory with a specific name and wait for the system to upload the files. When that is done, right click on the directory, select Dropbox and select "Copy public gallery link". I then send that to whomever I want to share the photos, such as this one here .

The other thing you can do is to share files. Copy the file to the Public folder, then right click on the file, select Dropbox and select "Copy public link". Then send that around. Here's an example.

When you are doing the right clicking thing, you'll also notice that a "Revisions" option appears. Dropbox keeps copies of your files so you can roll-back if you require. Note that revisions make up part of your 2GB/50GB allowance, so you might have to delete some of them if you need to free up some space. You can do that via the web interface.

One of the most useful features of Dropbox is the fact that it stores file on the Internet. Simply drop them into your folder and they're available on any connected computer.

You can also share the files with specific people, through the website interface. They will get an email invite and will have to sign up. Using this method you can create a VPN between a group of people or collegues. Also, the system only uploads changes in the file as opposed to the complete file, so even if you are all sharing a large spreadsheet or Photoshop image, uploads remain small. This makes it effective over modem and 3G connections.

Dropbox maps as a standard drive location, so you can use normal backup tools. I use Grsync to keep local copies and the online Dropbox copies of specific files and folders in sync.

I could continue to talk about Dropbox for a while, but I think I have for long enough! I find it really useful. Let me know in the discussion forum if you currently use Dropbox and how you use it, or if you want to get some help with it, I will see what I can do.

As always, please leave feedback, comments and questions. However, I will only respond to comments left on iTWire article discussion forums. The direct link for this article is here.

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