Yorgen Edholm

Are we syncing too much?

August 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Sync is one of the most valuable additions to any mobile operating system.  Sync is what enables us to keep information automatically synchronized across phone, tablet, laptop and desktop computing devices so that we can continue working and playing from any device we pick up.  Yet, relying on sync to provide mobile data accessibility can create a surprising number of new problems that can impact the overall productivity of a company.

The technology to sync content is not new.  However BYOD and the cloud has brought sync to the forefront.  Sync is familiar to most users of mobile devices. For instance, anyone using an Apple computer can expect to see an iCloud window pop-up asking if the user wants to sync information.

My favorite example of using sync is from the seven-year-old son of a friend.  When I asked how he used sync he said, “when I am playing Angry Birds on my cell phone and run out of battery power, I can start playing on my mother’s phone from exactly where I stopped because I have sync set up.”  I had been thinking of sync in business terms, but clearly Angry Birds benefits from syncing too.

Today, as mobile device usage has grown exponentially and workers demand the ability to access content on their device of choice, sync has finally moved from obscurity into the mainstream.  As companies request that workers be faster, smarter and better, IT departments are supporting mobile policies and enhancing the syncing capabilities of employees. However extending sync to an entire organization has created new problems.

When the number of people syncing content increases, so does the number of files. This leads to increased sync traffic slowing down the network and creates version control issues. This can also contribute to a less productive workforce that is wrestling with a bloated system to find the content they need.

Two years ago my company was working with a large advertising agency that wanted to implement a sync capability for their employees. This was one of the first very large-scale enterprise-wide syncing deployments.  This company had a large number of employees and a very large amount of data, including very large image files, video content. 

To avoid overloading the network we strongly advised the company to restrict sync capabilities to allow auto sync only on critical documents and make all other syncing “on-demand.”  Initially the company was not in favor of restricting syncing and I was convinced this would be a difficult sale, as they were also testing out a competitive solution that did provide them with unrestricted syncing.

To my surprise, the customer told us six weeks later that they had thrown out our competitor because of the unrestricted syncing. With unrestricted enterprise-wide syncing the company’s network had gone down, and less than a tenth of the company was actually using the sync technology.  As we anticipated, with no restrictions on syncing the employees were using sync to back up their c:-drives, subscribing to myriads of corporate documents, and syncing every update to a file. The lesson learned was that sometimes syncing less is more.

Since that experience, I’ve spent hours speaking with enterprise organizations about how to give mobile access to up-to-date corporate documents, without overloading corporate networks. Most IT professionals tell me that sync is the wrong solution to solve this challenge.  First, sync makes many copies - one new copy for every subscriber every time a file changes.  Moreover, if any edits are done to any of these copies, you have the problem of incorporating those edits into the master version.

Finally, the master version of any document is typically residing in enterprise content management systems such as Microsoft’s SharePoint, Documentum, and OpenText are hooked up to important metadata and workflows.  Working on synced copies of this information that is disconnected from the content management systems frequently creates more problems than it solves, beyond shutting down the corporate network.

This is because syncing across devices will leave enterprise content scattered across multiple locations and file stores. It’s a nightmare for version control, and has some hefty data security risks associated with it, depending on what type of content employees are syncing and saving.

So if sync isn’t the solution –- what is? The good news is that several companies are starting to offer mobile access directly into enterprise content management systems, which makes syncing this content unnecessary. These kinds of solutions may solve many of the issues that organizations are having with sync technology, and eliminate the disconnect we’re currently seeing between mobile devices. 

I predict we will soon see a huge decline in the content bloat and bandwidth tax that comes with too much syncing.  When this happens, we will all experience enormous jumps in mobile productivity.