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iTwin Comes To Mac

For those who want to keep their data out of the cloud, but still have it easily accessible across systems, the iTwin delivers. Enterprises though need to pay close attention to security, especially when it comes to compliance requirements.

The iTwin lets you connect two computers without cables and without putting your data in the cloud. The promise is that you plug one half of the USB device into one computer, the other half into another and voila, file sharing nirvana, wherever you are, as long as you have an Internet connection for both computers, and both computers are on.

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ITwin has been available for Windows since late 2010 and with this release, it now works with Macs. Not only that, you can connect a Mac to a Windows machine with these devices.

I wanted to get a sense of the full functionality, so I tested a demo provided by the company across three systems: a Mac iMac running OS X Leopard 10.6.8; a Mac MacBook Pro running OSX Lion 10.7.1; and a HP Pavilion laptop running Windows XP SP3.

First off, what isn’t in the instructions is that you have to be logged in as an administrator to do the installation. The install process won’t popup a dialog so you can authenticate as an administrator. This is a bit quirky since it isn’t pointed out in the instructions, and Mac users expect to have an authentication dialog popup so they don’t have to log out and then back in as an administrator to do routine administrative tasks like application installations. I’ve always followed the security rule of not using my administrator account for everyday use and not being warned on screen that I needed to be logged in as administrator wasted some time. What is perhaps more strange though, is that if you want to remove iTwin from your system, you can do that from any user account by using a popup administrator authentication box.

Another unique installation item is that while installing you will receive a rather unusual notice asking you to decide who you want to be able to use the device. Only problem is, at least during my installation process, there was only one choice.

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But don’t worry, it’s not forcing you to always be logged in as administrator to use iTwin, even though that’s what it implies. The rest of the installation is a breeze and once the pair are successfully installed on one computer you fill in a name for the iTwin and provide your email address. Shortly thereafter you get a disable code in your inbox so in case one half gets lost or stolen you can cut the virtual cord between them and save your data from being compromised.

Once installed on one computer you separate the iTwin and plug the other half into another computer. It authenticates, updates and is then ready for use. On either computer you drag items to the iTwin icon representing the local computer. Those files become available to the remote computer in its iTwin Remote icon. Ease of use is one thing, but the way iTwin scatters icons across your screen you’ll be wondering what to do with them all.

Once installed, it places an icon in the menu bar, a disk on the desktop and two more icons on the desktop — one each for local and remote files. But that’s not all. When you open Finder there will be another iTwin disc and two other items under devices — one for local files and one for remote files. It seems like too many ways to do basically the same things — access remote files and place local files into the local folder so they’ll be available to the remote computer.

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I was very pleased with the way iTwin worked and it sure made it simple to share files across operating systems and platforms. While testing it out on three machines I was able to move files between them, edit and change files and save changes.

Another nifty thing about this device is you are not limited to sharing across just two computers. Only two at a time, but not always the same two. I connected my iMac and Macbook Pro and later 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.

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You have to get used to the labels for the machines you are connecting while using the iTwin. They change depending upon how you are interacting with them. 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. So, any computer can have either of the labels, just depending upon whether you are touching it, or not.

Keep in mind too 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 may limit the types and sizes of files you work with. 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 also manage data transfers through Internet traffic disruptions, resuming transfers when traffic is restored. Neither half of he device stores any data other than what’s is needed for authentication and encryption.

The biggest limitation to the iTwin is that you have to have the remote computer on all the time. So if you’re traveling and gone for a few days you’ll have to leave that desktop whirring away at home or at the office so you can interact with it. For me that’s a big issue because it just 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.

Something a bit quirky happened with iTwin running on my Snow Leopard machine. After I plugged it in and it validated and connected to the remote computer the “Icon preview,” and the “Show preview columns” in Finder are disabled. I had to turn them on again by checking the boxes under Finder’s View, Show View Options menu. I see why it happens because if it didn’t, every remote file would have to be downloaded to the local computer so the preview could be rendered. But, I rely on Preview a lot and having to keep going back and turning it on is a time waster.

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For the typical private user, and for small businesses that are going to use iTwin for collaboration and sharing it has strong data security and will even erase any temporary files that were written while it was plugged in. 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.

Releasing the iTwin to the enterprise environment may 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 disbale the pair, but what if the user doesn’t notice for a day, or a week?

Then too, allowing ad-hoc connections to your network 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, according to Larry Seltzer, BYTE’s new editorial director and IT security pro.

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 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, 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 that data.

For my part, I’m returning the demo model and won’t be spending the $99 on one anytime soon. I just don’t have the need for it. But for many people who want the convenience of the cloud without storing their stuff in the cloud, this is an elegantly simple solution, that works.

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