Using Dropbox (or Other Cloud Sync Service) to Get Remote Data

Remote observing can be inconvenient when it's time to get your images. The usual process has the images being acquired at night, then the next day transferring them (usually via FTP). This can take several hours, and requires a human or a clever cron job. It's not practical to transfer large batches with ACP's FTP server while it is also doing automated observing. Fortunately, a new breed of "cloud" file sharing services have come on the market, and these may be used to provide access to data acquired at the remote observatory. Their capabilities vary widely, and we aren't able to evaluate them all. Here, we outline how you can use the Dropbox service to distribute the images (not logs!) from your remote observatory to you and other observatory users.

Imagine... shortly after each image is acquired by your remote observatory, you see a little balloon appear on your local computer advising you that a new file is available. When you see the balloon, the image is ready to use. You don't have to lift a finger, it just happens.

A Little Bit About Dropbox

The key feature of Dropbox is its integration with the computer's file system. After registering for an account and installing the Dropbox client, a new folder appears on your system. This folder is automatically synchronized with DropBox's cloud storage servers. You can install the Dropbox client on other Windows, Macintosh, iPhone/iPad, and Android systems. The Dropbox service automatically keeps the contents of the Dropbox folders on all of these systems synchronized. The other great thing about Dropbox is that it works through most firewalls, since no incoming connections to the observatory computer are needed. You should already be getting the idea of how this can be used with Share Your Sky! remote observing.

How to Set Up ACP for Dropbox

Using Dropbox as an alternative to FTP is easy in concept. The details can take some planning and focus. The idea is to use ACP's Custom File and Folder Naming features to tell ACP to save its images in the DropBox folder tree somewhere. The layout and naming really depends on how you plan to use the data, and whether you use the observatory yourself or as part of a team. Also, you have the choice of creating a Dropbox account for the observatory then sharing folders with other Dropbox "users", or just using your general purpose Dropbox account on the observatory and putting your astronomy data into some folders for that purpose. There are so many ways you could set this up, we won't try to give step by step directions here. Really all you need to understand are the file/folder templates. From there, your imagination is the only limit.

note Do not configure log files into the Dropbox areas! If you do, Dropbox will sync them over and over as they are being written, resulting in many "delta-copies" on the Dropbox servers, and continuous "new version" balloon popups on all systems with access to the Dropbox folders. Use the usual web interface to view and download logs!

Template Generator Tool

In order to help you get started with the templates, we've included a tool that constructs a template based on your choices. Obviously, the limitless ways that you can set up folders and files can't be covered by this tool. However, we've tried to anticipate some useful and common setups. At a minimum, playing with this for a few minutes should help you "get it". At the bottom of the page are options for setting up DropBox or other cloud services.

How to Use Dropbox

There's not much to this; your files "just appear" a short time after they are acquired at the remote observatory. Just keep in mind that anything you do to the files at your local computer will be "reflected" (synced) out at the remote observatory, and any other computer with that dropbox account or with whom you have shared one of your Dropbox folders. Deleting a file locally will cause it to be deleted at the observatory. Note that Dropbox keeps a version history of your documents. You can get a deleted file or version of a file back 30 days for the free account and forever if you have the paid "pack-rat" service.

An Important Limitation

Don't use the Dropbox folders as the place to work on data reduction. Move or copy the data to another place on your local hard drive to work on it. For example, let's say you calibrate 100 images and they're in your Dropbox area. Shortly thereafter, Dropbox will silently create new versions of those image files, then sync those files back out to the observatory and to anyone else that has that folder. Probably not something you want.