Data synchronization is no problem for computers that are permanently linked by means of a fast network. In this case, use a network file system, like NFS, and store the files on a server, enabling all hosts to access the same data via the network. This approach is impossible if the network connection is poor or not permanent. When you are on the road with a laptop, copies of all needed files must be on the local hard disk. However, it is then necessary to synchronize modified files. When you modify a file on one computer, make sure a copy of the file is updated on all other computers. For occasional copies, this can be done manually with scp or rsync. However, if many files are involved, the procedure can be complicated and requires great care to avoid errors, such as overwriting a new file with an old file.
WARNING: Risk of Data Loss
Before you start managing your data with a synchronization system, you should be well acquainted with the program used and test its functionality. A backup is indispensable for important files.
The time-consuming and error-prone task of manually synchronizing data can be avoided by using one of the programs that use various methods to automate this job. The following summaries are merely intended to convey a general understanding of how these programs work and how they can be used. If you plan to use them, read the program documentation.
CVS, which is mostly used for managing program source versions, offers the possibility of keeping copies of the files on multiple computers. Accordingly, it is also suitable for data synchronization. CVS maintains a central repository on the server in which the files and changes to files are saved. Changes that are performed locally are committed to the repository and can be retrieved from other computers by means of an update. Both procedures must be initiated by the user.
CVS is very resilient to errors when changes occur on several computers. The changes are merged and (if changes took place in the same lines) a conflict is reported. When a conflict occurs, the database remains in a consistent state. The conflict is only visible for resolution on the client host.
When no version control is needed but large directory structures need to be synchronized over slow network connections, the tool rsync offers well-developed mechanisms for transmitting only changes within files. This not only applies to text files, but also binary files. To detect the differences between files, rsync subdivides the files into blocks and computes checksums over them.
The effort put into the detection of the changes comes at a price. The systems to synchronize should be scaled generously for the usage of rsync. RAM is especially important.