Just-in-time disk

I feel like this is an ongoing complaint from me – but it’s really time for someone – some combination of corporations and likely-existing technologies – to solve the issue of mobile computing + storage.

Here’s my standard problem:

I have, currently on a Drobo in a corner of my home office, my Lightroom catalog. It’s just over 2.5 TB in size – I take a lot of photos. But! I’m not often at my home office. Most of the time, when I’m taking photos, I’ve got my phone, my iPad, my laptop. & I want to edit photos. Lightroom Mobile syncs mobile photos through the cloud to my main Lightroom catalog (on said Drobo).

But – my primary computer is my laptop. It’s got a pretty beefy 500GB drive. And, because it’s a laptop, it’s not always in the same place as my Drobo (it’s actually never plugged into my home Drobo – but it is plugged in sometimes to one at my office). an because my laptop has a retina screen, and the home iMac does not the laptop is an infinitely superior experience when editing photos.

  • So how can I access all those photos, that catalog, on my laptop, when I’m editing?
  • How can I import photos, while travelling somewhere, and have those sync back to my primary photo repository?

When Adobe announced Lightroom Mobile‘s Sync feature, I was pretty excited – this felt like exactly what I wanted. I take photos on my phone, and, magically, they get pushed to my primary catalog. I can also selectively pull photos from that catalog for editing on my iPad (which is also a lovely editing experience). But!

  1. I have to be on my primary catalog computer to indicate which photos I want to push back
  2. You can only sync to 1 primary catalog
  3. You can only use this to push from mobile devices to a computer, not from 1 computer to another.

I also use Dropbox, and pay for 1TB of storage. This is great! I long ago set up the automatic back up of photos to DropBox – however, as I discovered today, this only works if the camera uploads folder is synced to my computer(s). Which means all those photos are also taking up precious space on my laptop. It turns out I have just over 60GB of photos in my camera uploads folder – which, at 1/5 of the total storage on my laptop, was a nice gain to NOT sync. But now the automatic photo-upload feature doesn’t work. Which is dumb – because I don’t want ALL of my camera-upload photos to be synced locally. The last, say, 5GB? sure. but not all forever in history.

So Dropbox doesn’t really solve this problem either.

 

So, here’s what I’m thinking should be possible:

The Adobe Solution

With Creative Cloud, I already am bought into their ecosystem. & Clearly, with how Lightroom Mobile works, they have a way of sending me “pointers” to a photo, without the actual file. So, let’s complete this circle, Adobe. Let me say where I want to keep my photos – this might be in your cloud, this might be a cloud service, this might be a drive attached to a particular device. Then let me open Lightroom anywhere – one of several computers (I currently regularly use 4 different traditional computing devices), mobile devices (where I regularly use 3 different devices). Let me plug in a camera or card, and add photos to my catalog, but edit where I am. If this means some back-and-forth syncing, so be it. Show be small “previews” of recent photos, perhaps a simple text-catalog of older ones until I request more. But stop making me think of how/where I’m adding photos and just let me work. For bonus points, let me easily/selectively share access to my catalog with friends & family.

The Apple Solution

Any third-party solution could be made easier if Apple let me configure and reserve a certain portion of my hard drive as a sort of cloud-storage scratch disk – so that when Adobe needed to download photos, it knew it could safely remove anything else in that drive to give me access to what I need – sort of how memory management currently works. By default, maybe take 10% of the computer’s hard drive – but again, let the user tweak these preferences.

Related, but different, would be a built-in Apple-y way of mapping cloud storage as a local folder or drive – indeed, I hope this is really the promise of iCloud – but it’s certainly not there yet. It works this way, for the most part, with Apple apps – Pages, Numbers, etc – where things are just stored there and we no longer care about “where” it is locally – but this needs to “just work” with other services, and needs to not be completely closed off (so that I could make “my” cloud be a device I control, like in the scenario above) (Also: this is never going to happen. Apple likes walled gardens). But in the same way Mail supports built-in Gmail configuration, I should be able to configure *any* cloud storage as just a place I can drag & drop to like any other folder – a little like how Dropbox works, but without the local copy of *everything*.

The Dropbox solution

This, to me, feels like it should be the easiest, but I could well be wrong. Dropbox, and all sorts of storage tiers, now offers vastly more storage than most computers have (on the assumption that most computers are laptops, and new laptops in general seem to have <1TB storage – particularly if you’ve gone solid state). And Dropbox helpfully offers “Selective Sync”, which prevents this silly duplication of files locally and on their servers for particular folders. But if you turn off Sync for a folder, it can break useful Dropbox features, like automated Camera Uploads & the screen shot sharing service. Which is dumb. Because I really do want all my photos backed up to drop box – but I don’t want to have to keep every last photo locally too in order to do that.

& again, I often don’t need, in order to find what I want, the actual files. Some kind of index of files, that integrates with services like Spotlight, are all I need, so that when I do need a particular file that exists only on Dropbox, I can find it easily, download it and do what I want, before returning it back to Dropbox, removing itself from my local drive again.

Wrap up

I realize as I write this that what I am describing in many ways is a thin-client. But, because connectivity is not ubiquitous, thin clients aren’t totally a fit – I need some local storage/access, but not all the time – for most common scenarios, I can predict when I need to download things locally, and when I can rely on the cloud to store things. And that’s really what I mean by “just-in-time” disks – It feels like there’s very little need for any content-files to exist only locally, but they might need to occasionally. When cloud storage is so cheap as to be essentially free, and laptop hard drives are still so expensive, why do we keep pushing things there? And when multi-device computing is so common, why is sync across them, user-controlled, still so broken?