Unique Remote-Access Thumb Drives Come To Mac
When you need remote access to your computer, you've got lots of options, some easy, others not so simple. iTwin lets you connect two computers--without cables or sending your data into the cloud--for super-easy data sharing. You plug one half of the USB device into one computer, the other half into another PC, and voila, file-sharing nirvana, wherever you are, as long as both computers stay turned on and connected to the Internet.
The iTwin, now available for OS X, plugs into a USB 2.0 port and gives you encrypted access to your data from any other computer that is equipped with the other half of the device.
ITwin has been available for Windows since late 2010; with this release it works with Macs, too. In fact, you can share files between Mac and Windows machines. I tested an iTwin with three systems: an iMac running OS X Leopard 10.6.8; a Macbook Pro running OS X Lion 10.7.1; and an HP Pavilion laptop running Windows XP SP3. My review unit worked smoothly and did the job as advertised. It's great for individuals who need a super-secure way to access files back at the office. It offers strong data security; the 256-bit advanced encryption standard, or AES, key is created when the two halves are paired and plugged into a computer. The key only resides on the two halves and they use it to handle the encryption process. Neither half of the iTwin will allow data transfers until both have been authenticated at the iTwin servers on Amazon Web Services. For added security, users can set a password that must be entered before data can flow. The iTwin even erases temporary files that were written while it was plugged in.
But iTwin still works only with two computers at one time, and does not sync or even lock files, so it's not the best choice for heavy-duty file sharing or collaboration among several people. Also, enterprise environments might want to be careful with allowing its use.
Installation was a bit quirky: neither the instructions nor the program prompted me to log in as an administrator, which is required for authentication purposes. (Mac users often expect to have an authentication dialog pop up so they don't have to log out and then back in as an administrator to do routine administrative tasks like application installations.) Stranger still, if you want to remove the iTwin program from your system, you can do that from any user account through a popup administrator authentication box. iTwin also goes a bit overboard on icons. Installation places icons for the DVD, remote files, and local files in the menu bar, on the desktop, and in the Finder, which seemed a little redundant to me.
But the rest of the installation was a breeze. Once the iTwin is successfully installed as one connected piece on one computer, you give it a name and provide your email address. Shortly thereafter you get a disable code in your inbox. This lets you protect your iTwin data if one of the USB halves gets lost or stolen.
You can then separate the iTwin and plug the other half into the second computer. It authenticates, updates, and is ready for use. On either computer you may drag items to the iTwin icon representing the local computer. Those files become available to the remote computer in its iTwin Remote icon.
iTwin places icons, perhaps a few too many, in Finder as well as on your desktop.
Overall I was very pleased with the way iTwin worked; it sure made it simple to share files across operating systems and platforms. Connecting it to various two-PC combinations among my three machines I was able to move files, edit files, and save changes. Switching pairs was quick and easy: I connected my iMac and Macbook Pro first, then unplugged the iTwin half from the Macbook Pro, stuck it into the Windows XP machine, and was accessing the Windows files in less than a minute.
The only time I got confused was the first time I noticed iTwin changes a PC's designation on the fly, depending on how you're interacting with it. The local computer is any computer you can punch the keys on, and the remote computer is the one with the other half of the iTwin. Either computer can have either of the labels--it just depends on whether you are touching it or not.
Also keep in mind that whenever you want to work with a file on the remote computer it will need to be downloaded to your local computer, and that might limit the types and sizes of files you work with--although the company specifies a connection speed of at least 1Mbps. The good news is that data transfers are unlimited and not subject to caps or allowances. The iTwin halves gracefully handle interruptions in Internet connections, resuming transfers when traffic is restored. Neither half of the device stores any data other than what is needed for authentication and encryption.
My biggest problem with the iTwin is that it requires the remote computer to be on all the time. So if you're out of town for several days you'll have to leave that desktop whirring away at home or at the office. That seems like a huge waste of energy. But for short meetings around town or to collaborate and share with someone on my team over the course of a few hours, it's not such a big deal.
My only other gripe: iTwin disabled the icon preview and show preview columns options in Finder on my Snow Leopard machine. I understand why that happens--if it didn't, every remote file would have to be downloaded to the local computer so the preview could be rendered. But it was annoying to have to manually turn them back on every time.
iTwin often breaks file previews under OS X.
To restore them, enable them using the View/Show View options and checking the boxes.
Releasing the iTwin to the enterprise environment might offer some challenges, not the least of which could be the physical insecurity of having large quantities of these tiny data connectors loose in the world. Sure, as soon as one is noticed as missing you can quickly disable the pair, but what if the user doesn't notice for a day, or a week?
Allowing ad-hoc connections to your network also can be risky because you never know what users are transferring in and out of the network. Bypassing perimeter security could lead to compliance violations and it also defeats data-loss prevention.
ITwin does what it says it will do but is just a little bit awkward for the Mac. While data encryption and authentication is strong, nothing is ever completely secure, so users should decide ahead of time just what kinds of files and information will be put into the local iTwin folder on each computer--and what will never go into it. Certainly, businesses and professionals who control information that falls under HIPAA or the PCI Security Standards Council or that could have the third-party doctrine applied to it will have more to consider before allowing these devices to handle such data.
As for me, I'm returning the demo model and won't be spending the $99 on an iTwin anytime soon. I just don't need it. But for many people who want the convenience of the cloud without storing their stuff in the cloud, this is a simple yet elegant solution that works.
Based in Blanket, Texas, Duane Craig is a widely-published writer and senior BYTE editor. Besides technology he has written extensively about agriculture, construction, finance and food. He contributes BYTE How Tos and writes about the cloud, the social atmosphere, tech history and content creation. Follow him on Twitter@DuaneCraig and send email to him, or suggest content at firstname.lastname@example.org.