Devonthink for collaboration in 2021 and beyond

I’ve been a user for over 15 years. Devonthink has worked reasonably well for me in “solo” mode (though there were some major glitches with DTTG for a while, that finally got resolved).

Where I struggle long term is using it to store/retrieve team-accessible data, especially in the COVID distributed team age.

My setup recently has been a synology NAS with Webdav for the sync stores, connecting via VPN to prevent exposure of the NAS directly to the internet.

However, this setup is simply unreliable when on the go. In fact, if I sync a large database even locally - especially on iOS devices - I have a lot of instability issues. It becomes far worse trying to connect by VPN remotely… basically it’s unusable. So for example, I recently archived 1000’s of past support emails we received in a DTTG database, and want that accessible to our support team. It seems impossible (or at least very expensive) to make that happen.

Today I explored cloud options for sync. I was really looking forward to just putting it on my Dropbox account, sharing it, and being done with the issues…

Unfortunately, that was a fantasy. After extensive reading here, it turns out that the only two supported cloud services, icloud and Dropbox, have no way of sharing to multiple distinct authenticated people. Icloud can’t be shared at all, and Dropbox can only be shared if you share the same login. And the main cloud service we use - Gdrive - has no support whatsoever.

So, imagine giving your employees access to your private Dropbox account just so they can access the shared Devonthink store… not an option. It’s not adequate security practice to have people share a login. Plus, it appears to be against the Terms of Service for Dropbox as well.

Now I’ve read all (or at least most of) the threads here. I’ve seen the rationale provided by DT reps about why this is difficult, including:

  • That Dropbox won’t allow a shared app folder. Somehow, other apps like Vimeo get around this. I can access any folder I specify from Vimeo, including a shared Dropbox folder. I’ve seen other apps do this as well. Why not use the more recent Dropbox API’s that allow you to access a specified folder, rather than only the default one inside of Apps?

  • That this can’t be done in iCloud (even with the new Cloudkit) because, well, the only reason I saw was that it would be too much effort

  • That it can’t be done with Gdrive because Gdrive doesn’t have webdav, and otherwise it would be too much effort

  • That it CAN be done with Nextcloud/Owncloud (I’ve done it), but after years of running our own Nextcloud server, we evaluated the expenses and difficulties of maintaining that, and decided to opt for a paid cloud service. Plus, in terms of other needed integrations, Nextlcoud was way behind Gdrive (and dropbox). It’s a tiny fraction of users that are going to roll their own Nextcloud/owncloud install.

• I’ve seen the rationale that we should be doing LAN sync, but that only works if everyone is on the lan at the same time. It doesn’t happen with a remote team spread all over the world, even if there’s a common VPN-accessible network available.

• I’ve seen it stated that there’s too small of an audience for this kind of functionality. Yet if this would work reliably, I’d immediately pay for more seats for my team. This would be a true selling point, compared to “leaky” things like Evernote (where data security is of little concern to them). It is a substantial need during the COVID era, and even after it’s over, many people will continue to work remotely more than ever before. But what good is data, if not accessible?

• I’ve seen DT’s Web feature recommended. Here are several issues with that:

  1. This requires a dedicated mac to run it. Many of us, after the discontinuation of MacOS Server, have moved away from stationary Macs as server machines. They are very finicky and expensive as server machines. That’s why I replaced them with Synology’s. However, the web interface to DT runs only on a mac, that has DT running full time. I’ve done a MacMini colocation before, for the time and expense, that’s just not worth it. So the web program is not an option.
  2. Besides, in DT 2.0, the web version had no encryption and weak security. Maybe it’s better in DT3 (but very expensive). More importantly, I am very leery of having our data etc be available on a website. Having run websites for many years, the number of attacks that happen is astounding. I’m just not interested in all the IT hassles that adds.

So for now, I’m back to contemplating ditching Devonthink (at least for team use) and just using Cryptomator shares. I wish it weren’t so.

I see an ever-diminishing place for a firewalled/isolated data storage service, given the cloud-based, distributed nature of work (and even families) in 2021.

If I thought the DT team recognized this issue, and had some kind of plan to address it, I would try to hang on with our duct-taped, poorly functioning current system for a while to see what they come up with.

However, if DT doesn’t recognize the need for this in the 2020’s, then it’s time to find another solution - one that combines great indexing, shareability, and security.

I would love to hear what the plans are - and whether there are other solutions I haven’t considered.

I share a fairly large database (125Gb) with multiple team members. It works well.

  • Synology WebDav is fast for both intranet and external internet access. You can assign user login/password as desired

  • CloudMe is supported by DT3 and works well; you can create a login/password to be shared by your team

  • If some of your users basically need to upload/download files but do not need the more advanced features of the DT3 interface, then you can use the built-in DT3 web server and assign a login/password with granular access per database for each user

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Thank you for sharing your experience. It will surely be helpful for some who are looking for solutions. As to the specifics:

  • Synology WebDav is fast for both intranet and external internet access. You can assign user login/password as desired

Yes, the synology WebDav is fast and works well. For external internet access, this means poking a hole in the firewall and exposing web services to the world. Some of us are not willing to do that.

In terms of speed, Mac syncing is reliable and fast. However, for syncing larger databases to the ipad, it is unreliable in my experience, especially over a VPN connection. Due to the combination of ipad going to sleep and occasional VPN drops, the sync rarely completes, and leaves things in a tenuous, crash-prone state. Maybe it works for those who have either smaller databases, or larger granularity of data. However, for databases with many small entries (e.g. 10,000+ emails) this is not satisfactory.

  • CloudMe is supported by DT3 and works well; you can create a login/password to be shared by your team

The same words could be used to describe Dropbox, and as I explained above, I’m not interested in adding yet another cloud account to keep track of just to accommodate DT’s quirks. We already pay for and have to maintain multiple cloud accounts, yet DT won’t support those without violating the basic security principle of having each person with their own login.

  • If some of your users basically need to upload/download files but do not need the more advanced features of the DT3 interface, then you can use the built-in DT3 web server and assign a login/password with granular access per database for each user

As I explained above, there are several reasons to not go this route. To recap what I wrote before:

  • This requires maintenance of an “always on” Mac. I’m not interested in that, I just finished getting rid of those and replacing them with Synology systems, which are much more appropriate for such use. DT does not run on a synology (or any proper server system AFAIK). Since our work is now 100% laptop based, it is not a viable solution.

  • In addition, this involves exposing a web interface via NAT. That adds to the security risk substantively.

  • Finally, it is expensive. However, if it were the expense alone, it might be worth it if it weren’t for the above factors.

I am puzzled.

You don’t want an always-on Mac as a server.

You don’t want a NAS as a server.

What solution would you propose instead for DT3 Collaboration?