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A Closer Look at iFolder

I'm working on an article highlighting some of the most interesting new applications that use Mono. As part of that I've taken a closer look at iFolder, the peer-to-peer file sharing solution from Novell.

There are three components to the iFolder system:

  • Simias: the underlying synchronization and storage layer
  • Addressbook: the user and contact management layer
  • iFolder Client: the graphical shell layer for iFolder

To get iFolder running you need to build and install all three of these modules. I grabbed daily snapshot tarballs and built and installed these without trouble.

On Linux iFolder takes the form of an applet whose icon sits in the notification area. From the menu attached to the icon you can bring up a menu giving you access to the main dialogs, including the addressbook and folder list.

Setting up users in the addressbook is the first step. Testing iFolder really requires two separate computers. Sharing of a folder is accomplished by the emailing of a special XML file containing an invitation, which iFolder can consume and connect back to the inviting host. So to test, you need a couple of users in the addressbook.

Sharing a folder is reasonably easy. You pick it using a file selector, then you invite somebody to share it. The killer here at the moment is getting the invitation email out. The default configuration assumes your SMTP host is aliased to to mail and provides no feedback at all if the invitation fails to send. There's a way to configure this. But then you need to get around the problem that the "from" header looks something like From: edd@192.168.0.8, which is enough to trigger most anti-spam rules. The correct way to do this would be to hook into Evolution or Outlook to get the mail sent.

The recipient of the invitation selects a folder in which to put the synchronized iFolder. Once the invitation is accepted on the remote side, the originator must again approve it from a "subscriptions" dialog. When all that's through, the two folders start up their synchronization. This all assumes that unfettered network connection is available between the two machines. I haven't yet discovered how iFolder could negotiate firewalls, if at all.

I had no problem keeping a folder synchronized between my laptop and desktop machine.

Despite the impressions I had before, iFolder really is in quite early stages. Although open source, I don't get the impression there's a huge outside community built up around it yet. For instance, although its bugs are going to a public Bugzilla, people outside of Novell aren't allowed to file bugs yet.

There are a lot of user interface issues for iFolder to work out. On the GNOME desktop I would expect the following.

  • Tight evolution-data-server integration. No point in maintaining two different addressbooks.
  • Sharing UI to appear in Nautilus. Again, I shouldn't have to run a separate application to manage folders when I already have Nautilus.
  • Movement of preferences into the GNOME control center.
  • Integration with instant messaging. The people you're sharing files with are most often the ones you're messaging with too.
  • GConf configuration.

The current UI has a very ported-from-Windows feel. Despite the wonder of Gtk# working on Windows and Linux, with an application such as this you can't get away with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Discussion on the iFolder developers' mailing list suggests that the project team don't consider what they have to be suitable either, and are thinking about other options.

If I get more time, I'd like to look into the Simias layer further. There are definitely some interesting applications possible for Simias-enabling things like music playing and instant messaging, as well as other more professional scenarios.

Notwithstanding the current early stage of development, iFolder hits the sweet spot for rapid ad-hoc collaboration. In several small-to-medium companies I know, file sharing is a vital requirement and the solutions are always cumbersome. If you manage to avoid the mess of emailing everything, generally you either get an oppressive sysadmin overhead, or insecure free-for-all shared folders. In contrast to those scenarios, I really like the iFolder approach.

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