A Guide to Mac Networking and File Sharing

by Milind Alvares

A Guide to Mac Networking and File Sharing

by Milind Alvares on July 27, 2010

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Any productive workflow depends on a reliable network. Whether you’re a design firm, a home office, or just a single professional, it’s crucial to have those two or more computers seamlessly talking with each other. Mac OS X makes it relatively simple to network. You hardly have to do anything to have your Macs singing to each other. They automatically show up in the sidebar, and after a quick authentication, you’re browsing your Macs. You can even do screen sharing in a single click.

But networks have this knack for not working when you need them the most. It’s either some router issue, or that Mac’s time of the month, but ‘connection failed’ is a message everyone has seen by now. So what seems to be the problem? And a solution? This isn’t an advanced troubleshooting guide that will help you sort out your complex network issues. This is a guide that will try to help you share data across your devices. So, let’s get started.

Mac to Mac networking

Let’s take a look at how Macs network in the first place. While it’s still TCP/IP that’s employed, Macs use AFP (Apple Filing Protocol) to establish connections. I believe this is kind of like Bonjour for OS-wide networking, though it’s possible that I’m misinformed. Your sharing settings reside under “Sharing” in System Preferences; ‘Network’ takes care of the technical aspects.

Without a password, your Mac will allow networked Macs to read the public folder, and write to the drop folder. They automatically show up in the sidebar of any local Macs.

If you want to add more folders that are shared without a login, go to File Sharing under your Sharing preferences, click the + button to add folders (or drag them in from Finder). You can add multiple folders, with different sets of permissions for different users. To quickly set a folder to shared, simply bring up the Get Info window for that folder in Finder, and set it to “Shared” under general settings. You can then add users, and change permissions in the Sharing and Permissions section. When it comes to users, you can also create “Sharing Only” users in your User Accounts. These accounts don’t have any files on your hard drive, but can be used to access files over the network. You can also create these accounts by clicking “New Person” when asked to choose a user account.

If you can’t connect to a Mac for some reason (the Mac just doesn’t show up in the sidebar), make sure Finder is the app that’s currently active, and choose Go » Connect to Server (Cmd + K). Either enter the IP of the remote machine, or its .local name, which you will find in the Sharing preference pane. Remembering the name is useful, since the IP usually changes every time your Mac reconnects to the network.

Mac to Windows Networking

Macs will recognize windows computers on the network without any configuration. They will show up in your sidebar, and you can browse their files without any settings. Mostly. If your Windows PC doesn’t show up in the sidebar in all its BSOD glory, you can force it to connect. Hit Cmd+K, and enter “smb://local-ip-address”, and hit return. With Vista and 7, if you haven’t set a password, you can’t connect to that computer without a little pre-configuration. Go to your Windows’ Network Control » Advanced Sharing » and turn off “Password protection”. Of course, it’s a better idea to just add a password to your Windows user accounts.

To have your Mac’s content show up on a PC, now that’s a different matter altogether, a tricky one at that. The basic guide goes something like this: Get into your sharing preferences » File Sharing » Options and turn on turn on SMB (Samba) sharing. Then enable the accounts you want to share it with. Your Mac will now show up under the Networks tab in Windows 7, or you can force it to connect by entering its IP address in the address bar (e.g. “\\192.168.0.101″ or “\\imac\”). Windows will then ask you to log-in, and depending on what credentials you’ve entered, you’re granted access to the file system. If you don’t enter credentials, you get to see what “Everyone” is allowed access to.

There will always be issues with this network setup. It either works, or it doesn’t work. I’ve seen so many guides on the web, different ways of solving an issue, and sometimes even if the person follows every step, it still doesn’t yield any results. I’ve had two similarly installed Windows 7 machines behave totally differently when it comes to sharing. One of them didn’t even allow me to authenticate, so I can only access folders with permissions set for “Everyone”. I solved this by creating another user account on Windows, logging into my Mac from that network share, then switched back to the previous main user account, which now allowed me to enter credentials. This kind of setup only gets complicated with different firewall configurations (though if you’re troubleshooting it’s advised not to disable your firewall). I wish you luck.

Sharing a Mac via FTP

The third option, which is supposed to be the least secure, is FTP. This is for those systems that do not cooperate with the above protocols, to access and edit files. The iPad is a prime example, but you can substitute it with any system that’s not playing nice with your network. After enabling FTP in the Sharing options, enter the server url as provided, and your username and password for authentication. I can read and write from any FTP app on the local network, including apps like Gusto on my iPad. And it works every time.

iChat for Sharing

One of the unsung features of iChat, is its ability to connect with local networks without any set up. Just turn on the bonjour account, and it will automatically find any machine on the local network. You can send messages, have audio and video conversations, and even see and control a remote screen. One of the features of screen sharing with iChat, is its ability to transfer files without dealing with the file system. Simply drag a file from the remote screen to your local reference screen, and it will save it into your downloads folder. I mention this feature since a lot of people aren’t aware of this feature, and even if they are, when the time comes they forget that it exists.

DropCopy

There is yet another, more streamlined, way to connect with computers on the local network. I’ve been wanting to review this app for a while now, just didn’t have the right story to fit it into.

DropCopy is one of those apps that you instantly realise the power of. Install it on all of your networked Macs, and without any configuration whatsoever, you can transfer files between them. How is this different from a regular file sharing set up? While regular file sharing works for transferring files, Dropcopy brings in the communicative aspect into the workflow. You drag a file over the translucent vortex on your desktop, and select which location you want to send it to. While there’s tons of customisation, at its outset you don’t have to find specific folders, or authenticate. Once you drop the file, the remote user will be notified of this new arrival. Not just that. You can send and receive quick messages without any of the UI baggage that comes with IM.

DropCopy for Mac - Review

It’s also, not just between Macs. Dropcopy also has an iPad and iPhone app that allows you to transfer files over Wifi. It’s not nearly as polished as Pastebot, but it works. The one flaw with the iOS version, is that you can’t copy the data to your iOS clipboard. You have to deal with that data within the app, which kind of blows. In my experience it’s better to use Pastebot, unless you need to have more than one desktop involved in this environment. Dropcopy has a Windows client in the works, though I have no idea when that’s going to see the light of day. Dropcopy is free for personal use on up to 3 computers, and $25 for bigger networks. The iOS app is universal, at $4.99, and they also have a Lite version available.

Teleport conflates your Macs into one

Phil reviewed this app a while ago, and concluded that “it’s an underused, underappreciated gem of an app.” The reason being that it works like magic.

Teleport lets you use a single mouse and keyboard to control several Macs, much like you would a multi-display set up. Just move your mouse over the edge of your display, and it immediately appears on the other Mac, allowing you to control it. The beauty of Teleport is that there’s hardly any setup required. It works over Bonjour so discovery is automatic. After a little bit of authentication, your Macs are ready to sing along. But Teleport doesn’t just stop at controlling screens. You can drag and drop files between machines just by dragging them across — it truly is magical.

This is an amazing app for those who work with two Macs at the same time, or as Phil notes in his review, to control a media center Mac which doesn’t have a keyboard and mouse of its own. The only downside to Teleport is that it’s Mac only. Which brings me to…

Synergy, conflates any of your computers into one

Synergy supports Windows, Mac, and any Unix machine with TCP/IP support. You can share your keyboard and mouse, as well as the clipboard, much like you can with Teleport. You can even synchronise screen savers, though I haven’t tried it out (since that feature doesn’t work on Macs).

This kind of cross platform application inevitably brings some amount of complexity along with it. It’s got a slightly more complicated setup, is incomplete (Macs can only share text via the clipboard), and is not nearly as seamless as one would have liked. In my experience it’s also prone to disconnections, though it might be that I didn’t use it all that much to begin with. There are other cons, like security issues, so read up before you attempt anything fancy. Mostly, use Synergy if you need to have that Windows machine involved with your workflow.

Opening Ports with Lighthouse

Everyone runs into port forwarding issues:

Ever tried to let a colleague connect to an HTTP or SSH server running on your Mac when you’re in your home network behind your NAT router? Or to work together on a document in SubEthaEdit? Or get good download rates in your favorite BitTorrent client?

Or perhaps getting the infamous “wish it worked” Back to my Mac to be useful?

Personally, I don’t know how ports work, and how they need to be forwarded. I just know that Lighthouse works. Simply set your Mac to automatically acquire an email address, then create profiles to suit your apps. However, since you wouldn’t know how to go about setting up a profile, you can download ready-made profiles for the most common of applications, including profiles for Transmission, SubEthaEdit, Back to my Mac, etc.. Instead of me explaining how exactly to go about this, it’s best you look through their tutorials to achieve greatness. I’ve also seen reports of when Lighthouse hasn’t worked, but I can tell you that it enabled a Back to my Mac connection which didn’t work before — all I did was enable the profile. Lighthouse costs $12.99, and comes with a 14 day trial.

There is a free (and open source) option, Port Map by Coding Monkeys, which performs a similar task. However, it doesn’t have the application association feature, and doesn’t come with support or much documentation, so it’s a use as you please.

ShareTool — The King of all sharing

If all else fails, ShareTool will prevail — though on Macs only. Originally developed by Bains Software then acquired by Yazsoft (who are kind of network experts), ShareTool turns the world into your local network. No matter where you are, simply log-in using your account (a very simple frictionless sign up), and your Macs will appear as though they’re on the same local network. iTunes will show up as a bonjour share, and you can even print to a remote printer — I’ve seen it with my own eyes. All of this requires no special port forwarding nor any IP monitoring. I’m no security expert, but Yazsoft also emphasizes that this is a highly secure connection. They also compress large files on the fly, though I can’t be too sure it wasn’t the placebo effect in my tests.

ShareTool costs $15 for a single license (which is practically useless since you need one license per computer), so it’s $25 for two licenses with more discounts as you progress. It costs more than the other solutions, but I must concede that it does its job well. This is an application that needs a full review some day, but if your work depends on having a secure reliable local-global network, this is one tool you must check out.

There’s more, obviously

There are more apps and ways to get data across multiple machines, especially with the cloud, which manages to bypass almost all network issues. There is also a key area which I haven’t touched upon, which is VNC. It’s not something I know much about, so hopefully an SA writer will help me out in that area, somewhere in the near future.

Do share your thoughts, apps, and workflows in the comments. Also, I’ve done personally tested all these apps, but it’s possible that I might make a mistake somewhere; do let me know of any factual errors on my part. And, before you ask, the awesome wallpaper in the screenshots is Light by Mark Jardine.

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