Developing From Multiple Machines

There has been some discussion recently on Twitter regarding developing from multiple machines. I work this way and it can be liberating. While in the office I typically work from a Mac Pro with a 27″ display. Ah, screen real-estate. But, I like to be mobile so I also work from a 15″ Mac Book Pro. When I’m ready to head out of the office for a while the last thing that I want is to worry about setting up my dev environment. I just want to grab the laptop and sprint out the door. Likewise when I return I want everything ready to go on the desktop. Keeping development environments synced between the two can be a real pain. That is unless you make use of “the cloud”.


My office setup.



I can hear you asking, “Isn’t this what version control systems are for?”. Yes. I am a big fan of version control and have used numerous systems over the years. Currently I use Git. I love the fact that I don’t need to be connected in order to work against the repo like I do with Subversion or Perforce. In addition, I think that the self contained nature of Git lends itself to this type of setup. I’m not so sure that a system like Perforce would fair so well. In a team environment version control is a no questions asked must have. In fact you should always use version control, even if you work solo like I do.

However, in order to keep everything in sync between machines I use Dropbox. Everything goes into the Dropbox folder. Source code, assets, Git repos, project files. The whole enchilada. Everything except for build directories which are regenerated with a simple build. The size of your project, especially assets, can be an issue when syncing over a slow network so keep that in mind. Fortunately, if both machines are on the same network then Dropbox will detect it and use the LAN Sync feature which will sync files over your local network vs the cloud. Unless you don’t have much code or you have managed to max out your referrals with Dropbox you’ll probably need to spring for one of the paid plans. Typically I like to keep all of my projects under a single top level directory. But, I like to keep that directory in my user space. As such I had a major aversion to moving everything over to the Dropbox folder. A simple symlink from the Dropbox folder to my preferred space solved that issue.

I’ve run into two caveats with this rather simplistic setup. First is not to have the same project open under Xcode at the same time on different machines. Otherwise strange and potentially harmful behaviors can and do occur. This means that when I leave the house I need to be sure that Xcode on the desktop is shutdown and vice versa. A small but important point. Second, remember that everything is synced immediately all of the time. So, if I’m working on a large Photoshop file, for example, from a coffee shop with a slow connection this could be an issue (especially with a severe -S habit). In such a case I might temporarily turn off Dropbox syncing until I can get to a faster network or back to HQ. Not ideal but I’m usually working on source files which sync quickly. If you desire more control over what is synced and when then this Stackoverflow post outlines a way to use Dropbox as a Git bare repo rather than just going all in on the syncing fire hose. Additionally, you may want to disable Growl notifications for Dropbox since they can get annoying after a while. There have also been some recent security concerns with Dropbox. I suppose that your level of trust in them and your comfort level with others potentially seeing your code will dictate whether or not you use a setup like this. For me the benefits outweigh the downside.

Even with a great automatic code syncing environment in the cloud you shouldn’t rely on it as your sole source of backup. Keep using your version control systems hopefully hosting offsite somewhere. I also use the great online backup utility Arq to regularly backup my important files including my development environment. In addition, I periodically create a sparse image of my entire hard drive using SuperDuper. That’s at least four copies of my code three of which are offsite. There is also a copy on my alternate machine ready to go. I sleep pretty well at night.

Xcode 4 has brought major changes but one of my favorites are the built in code snippets (maybe I’ll share mine sometime). However, there is no built in way to sync them between machines which can be frustrating and a major hassle when using a setup like this one. If you run into this then xcodesnippets is for you. It’s a simple ruby gem which packages up and organizes your snippets for easy transport to other machines. Unfortunately, there is no online syncing built in so you need to copy the snippet bundles over manually but otherwise it works great. It does seem however that using the magic of symlinks and Dropbox you might be able to setup some auto syncing of snippets even without such a tool. If you try this then please let us know how it works out.

I love the ability to run out the door with my laptop in hand without having to worry about having everything ready to go. It is. Likewise when I’m in the office I love being able to fire up Xcode on the Mac Pro and get to work immediately. As developers we spend all day in our environment and as such it is a very personal thing. So, this type of a setup may or may not work for you. Whichever the case please share your experiences and what works in your world.

Happy coding.