Review

Review: iTwin secure file transfer, a Dropbox replacement?

Earlier this month Dropbox, a popular tool for sharing files between computers and friends, updated their Terms of Service a few times. Although the company claims they were simply trying to make the policy clearer, many people had concerns about the new wording that seemed to give Dropbox the legal right to do what they wanted with your files.

A few days later, Neowin was contacted by a company called iTwin to review their product. Their site states, “Just the two ends of a cable. No cable.” Another page states, “Carry your iTwin, not your data. Your Files, Your Storage, Your Way.

According to the company, the iTwin consists of two individual USB devices. These two halves connect together to generate a shared key that allows them to communicate with each other over the network. No data is actually stored on USB devices so, unlike a USB thumb drive, losing one does not mean you’ve lost all of your data. Intrigued, we accepted the offer.

Installation

The iTwin box is very unassuming, not much larger than a deck of cards. Inside the box are the two halves of the iTwin, a short manual, and nothing else. The iTwin currently only supports Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7, but we're told that support for Mac is currently available in Italy and will be announced worldwide in August or September.

The manual explains that the first step is to plug the connected iTwin into a USB port on your PC so that the devices can generate their shared key and to install the included software. When connected, the device is identified as a normal USB storage device. The new drive contains the iTwin software that must be installed on any PC you want to share files between.

We first decided to read through the Terms of Service to see if there was anything of interest there, and we're pleased to report that there are no statements of the company storing your data, modifying it for their own use, or anything of the sort. The tool uses several Open Source products and those packages are listed with links to the licenses.

  Package License Link
1 The GNU Transport Layer Security Library GNU LGPL v.2.1 http://www.gnu.org/software/gnutls/
2 UDP-Based Data Transfer BSD http://udt.sourceforge.net/license.html
3 Zlib Zlib http://www.zlib.net/zlib_license.html
4 Galaxy Tool Kit CPOL http://www.codeproject.com/KB/winsdk/Galaxy_Toolkit.aspx
5 Bug Trap GNU LGPL v.3 http://www.intellesoft.net/bugtrap-license.php?BugTrapSetup.zip

Our first snag was with the installation of the software. We opened up the USB drive, double clicked on the “iTwin.exe” file, entered the Windows administrator password, and then waited for the installation process to complete. Although it looked like things were progressing, after awhile we were greeted with an error message stating that the software installation had failed. Reading closer, we determined that the software required us to be logged in as administrator and that no other users could be logged into the system. It’s not clear why this is required, but after logging off of the system, logging in as the administrator, and running the installation again, we had no problems.

Usage

Repeating the steps on a second PC, we were ready to test the iTwin’s functionality. We plugged one of the devices into one computer and the other device into the second computer. After a brief message stating that it was searching for its pair, the machines were linked up.  One machine brought up a window that showed “Local Files” and the second machine a window showing “Remote Files.” Simply drag the files and directories you want the iTwin controlling for each machine. You can, for example, drag your Documents folder into the iTwin folder so that you will always be able to access the files. For our review you can see that one machine has a “Fireworks” and “Mediterranean Vacation” folder being controlled by iTwin, while the other machine has “HP Discover,” “Internet,” “Photos,” and “iTwin.”

 

Anything you do in the “Remote Files” window will be automatically replicated to the iTwin’s pair. If you’re on the same subnet as the other machine, the files do not traverse the internet, allowing you to take advantage of your LAN’s speed. If you’re on a different network, then the files pass through an iTwin proxy server over port 443. In both cases your files are encrypted in transit using the encryption key stored on the iTwin devices.

One thing to keep in mind is that unlike a service such as Dropbox, files from the remote machine are never stored on the local machine. If you want to use iTwin as a backup service, you'll need to either manually copy files between the machines or setup some automation to keep the files in sync.

Along the same lines it can initially be difficult to grasp the concept of remote and local when coming from an internet based file sharing service. Since Dropbox is in the cloud you have one location to pull files from. With iTwin, you have two individual computers that can both share out different files. The local directory on computer A is equivalent to the remote directory on computer B and vice versa. This gives you a lot more flexibility but isn't entirely clear when you first starting using the tool.

Performance was good and seemed on par with a normal file transfer. A message appears in the taskbar stating what the connection speed is and whether you’re using the intranet or the Internet. We saw a window stating that files were transferring along with how much time was remaining, but the details on what files were being copied was lacking. We’d like to see a little more details here and a software update should be able to easily address this.

One thing to note is that anytime you copy a file or directory to the base “Remote Files” folder, the files will wind up on the desktop of the remote machine. This is a minor annoyance as it can create a lot of clutter on the desktop. It doesn’t appear that this is configurable so you might want to setup a separate directory to house random iTwin files that you might be copying over in addition to the other files and folders you want to share.

Currently you can only connect two computers together with the iTwin, but according to the company the functionality to add extra machines into the mix is coming via a free software update and should be available in the October timeframe.

Security

iTwin was obviously designed with security in mind. Losing one of the devices could lead to a stranger plugging it into their machine and accessing your files, but iTwin has setup a few safeguards. First of all you can setup a password on the iTwin. When you first configure the device by connecting the two halves together and plugging it into your computer, right clicking on the iTwin icon in the system tray brings up the “Security Options,” followed by “Set iTwin Password.” Selecting this actually stores a password on the physical device. That password is required in order to even begin using the iTwin. Once it’s entered, you are logged in until you disconnect the USB device from your PC.

In addition to the password, you have the option of generating a code to remotely disable the devices. Simply type in your email address when you first setup the iTwin and you will be emailed a link. If you lose the device, you can click the link to sever the connection.

Although this remote disable is helpful, the concern is that there is no authentication involved. The email iTwin provides is a simple link meaning that if someone wanted to they could attempt to disable all iTwin devices on the planet with a simple script.

The only other thing to keep in mind is that the only time you should connect your iTwins together and plug them into your computer is when you want to reset everything. Doing so removes the password from the device, generates a new keypair, and makes your current disable code obsolete forcing you to generate a new one. Even more importantly, this will make your system forget everything that was shared between the devices. The files will still be safe on your computers but when you plug the iTwins back in, you will have to tell it what files to share between computers again.

Conclusion

Overall the iTwin is a great device for those who want to share files between their computers but who don’t want their files stored in the cloud where companies or governments can easily access them. The device has a one-time cost of $99 and after that you have unlimited transfers and your storage is limited to the size of your computer’s drive. It’s easy enough that non-technical users can use it and works exactly as advertised. We highly recommend the product, giving it an 8.5 out of 10.

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