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Understanding Decentralization

September 13, 2022 — Jim Neumann
Visualization of a network, using DEVONthink as nodes.

Nowadays, people often talk about data being “in the cloud”. This is marketed by companies like Apple touting “Your data everywhere” or Dropbox saying they’ll store your data in their cloud. So people often ask or expect their DEVONthink databases to be online. But if your data is all in the cloud, have you ever wondered why there are still local folders on your machines? Let’s briefly discuss why decentralization is the model that DEVONthink follows.

What is a decentralized system?

In a decentralized system, each device has a copy of the data. For example, the local Dropbox folder on your machine gives you access to your documents outside the cloud. With DEVONthink, each Mac or Apple mobile device has its own copy of a syncing database. This makes each machine independently operational. If one machine is off or broken, the others are still running happily. And if the network is down or unavailable, you still have the data to work with.

A decentralized system also affords some measure of backup. If all your data is stored in one location, and that data is lost somehow, you better have your backups running and available. And while decentralization isn’t a replacement for good Backups, with multiple machines having copies of the data, you could potentially be up and running much faster.

How DEVONthink uses decentralization

So where does the cloud figure in to this? In a decentralized system, the devices can sync to a commonly accessible location. For cloud services, this is their cloud servers. The items are stored in the cloud as a transfer point between machines. So when you add an item to iCloud Drive on your machine, a copy is synced to Apple’s servers, then a copy is synced to your other devices as local data.

While DEVONthink’s sync isn’t merely making file copies, it follows a similar decentralized model. You have a database on a Mac. It syncs to a remote sync location, e.g., Dropbox, as a transfer location. Then the database on your other Mac or Apple mobile device downloads those changes when they’re available. Additionally, you can sync directly between devices with DEVONthink or DEVONthink To Go, but each device still has its own independent copy of the database to work with.

And yes, some cloud providers offer the option to only store your data online, claiming it will save you space. While this may be technically true, the benefits of decentralization make that an option we don’t advocate. With external hard drives being small and affordable nowadays, limited disk space can be easily expanded.

So as you can see, this is a model already used by many companies, including cloud services. And we hope this makes it a bit more clear why we advocate the system as a way to not be reliant on one single data store that can be lost or become inaccessible, leaving you without your data. And that is something we want to avoid if we can.