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PC World

Punch offers knockout Web file sharing

April 22, 1999
Web posted at: 6:03 p.m. EDT (2203 GMT)

by Alexandra Barrett

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(IDG) -- You probably already know you can store personal files on the Web for free. Bullwhip Solutions offers the consumer-friendly Bullwhip Extranet, for example, and My Docs Online gives you up to 20MB of storage.

But now there's a new option: Punch Networks is releasing an industrial-strength Web storage offering that has helpful new twists for businesspeople who need true file sharing and collaboration capabilities.

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A beta version of Punch WebGroups 1.0 is available now; in the second quarter the company will release the Punch server software and sign up Internet service providers and others to offer its services.

The X(tra-heavy) files

The idea for Punch WebGroups was born when its founders were working at Adobe Systems and trying to exchange huge Photoshop files. Things often went sour, recalls Punch Networks President Dan Campi. Sending files on disk back and forth through the mail was too time-consuming, and corporate firewalls usually refused large e-mail attachments.

With that in mind, the developers created a Web-based file access and collaboration tool that "takes advantage of the ubiquity of the browser, in a bandwidth-friendly way," says Paul Onnen, company chief technical officer.

Sharing smart

Punch WebGroups offers three major features, the company says.

First, it will update a file directly to your PC and the PCs of those colleagues with whom you are sharing. This happens either automatically, or by notifying you of a change via e-mail. "This is what end-users really want: to have a files up-to-date locally on their PC," rather than simply up on the Web, says Campi.

Second, Punch WebGroups offers a basic versioning tool for keeping track of file revisions. This feature is easy to use: if you want to edit a file, just "check it out" by clicking the Edit Document button. Punch locks the file until you check it back in, at which point someone else can edit it. This keeps two people from making edits to the same file simultaneously and overwriting each other's changes. (These tricks have long been available in document management systems.) Past versions of a file can be recreated at will.

Finally, for the bandwidth-conscious among us, the Punch site uploads and downloads only those portions of a file that have changed, rather than the entire file. Called binary differencing, this technology scans each file at bit-level to see which portions of the file have changed, and transfers only those bits. A client-side Java applet recombines the bits into a useable form.

"Often when you edit a file, all you change is a couple of words," explains Campi. "It doesn't make sense to upload the whole thing." Someone with a fast Internet connection won't necessarily appreciate this feature, but anyone working over a dial-up line will deem it a godsend.

Heavy browser lifting required

With all these features, it's not surprising that Punch WebGroups makes extensive use of Java applets, LDAP, and certificates, and requires versions 4.0 (or higher) of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. Running all these Java applets can also make the interface seem a bit sluggish, I found.

That said, Punch WebGroups is purely Web-based; all setup, configuration, and file access happen through a normal browser interface. Unless you are a total newbie, the Punch interface shouldn't come as any problem to learn.

Once you've installed the client software, the left pane of the main window shows all accounts, folders, and files. The right pane shows the corresponding actions you can take on each of these, with relevant information.

Punch WebGroups is overly fond of throwing up new browser windows at you, and you need to remember to check out a document before you revise it, but otherwise it works transparently. And its combination of helpful business services appears to be unique on the Web.

To see if it works for you and your colleagues, check out the free trial available on the Punch Networks site. Your e-mail, and your colleagues, both may be relieved.

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Punch Networks
Bullwhip Solutions
My Docs Online

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