As anyone who has tried to do it will know, sending files across the Internet is unreliable, especially if the number of files is large or the files themselves are many megabytes or more in size. The traditional way is to use a file transfer topology such as FTP or plain email, but this isn’t always efficient, convenient, or worse, secure.

Foldermail was invented to allow large files – possibly very large files in fact - to be moved across the Internet as a background activity, without fuss. Who might use it? Anyone who wants to send the contents of a CD in a hurry, or a large number of large files such as PDFs, and who doesn’t fancy using the postal service. It is also a way of de-congesting email servers, where users are wont to clog up queues with outgoing or incoming files in an inefficient format.

Unlike FTP, files are moved via an intermediary server hosted by Foldermail, so that store-and-forward can be applied if the recipient is not online. This also allows for advanced security, with file transfers transparently encrypted from one end to the other through plain old port 80, striped across several Foldermail servers for extra integrity.

Files are sent in folders from a PC desktop, though individual files can also be sent if this option is chosen. From Foldermail’s point of view, a folder is exactly what it would be on a PC hard drive; any files in a chosen folder will be sent, including those in folders nested below that. The idea of working with folders is sensible because it means that someone sending 200 PDFs to someone in the same company doesn’t have to chose each one individually.

Getting the system working is as simple as downloading and installing a small application, and configuring an account with basic information such as email address and user name. We tested it in standalone mode, but the software will also integrate with Microsoft Outlook.

Users buy either buy credit for this account on a pay as you go basis, or purchase subscriptions. For detailed pricing see the Foldermail website, but the basic PAYG prices start at around £25 ($43) for 100 megabytes, or £50 ($86) for the same transfer volume on a monthly basis (equivalent to 1.2 gigabytes per annum).

This heavily favours the subscription in terms of cost, but it all depends on what volumes are being moved around. One slight issue is that subscription volumes are calculated on a monthly basis; unused capacity in any month is lost. Companies who would rather not use a managed service could, in principle, run the system as a server from their own network, but this feature is till being worked on.

There are no outright flaws in the Foldermail concept, but there is one barrier that makes it less useful for ad-hoc or one-off file transfers – recipients have to install the same software as the users sending the files. This isn’t onerous, and is only carried out once, but some people could be reluctant if the file transfer is only likely to happen once.

Once the folders have been encrypted and uploaded to the Foldermail server, where they are securely stored, the intended recipient receives an email telling them that files are waiting for them and asking that they download the Foldermail executable if they are new to the system. This is only 4.7 megabytes, and the install only takes a couple of minutes, but they are still, in effect, signing up for the same service.

Once the install has happened and the recipient has confirmed membership, the files to be downloaded to the Foldermail email window, from where they can be accepted or rejected. One very clever feature is that each individual file can be seen, and so the receiver has some idea of what they are actually being sent (PDFs, Jpegs, word files, etc) before they execute the download.

Fortunately, it is possible for the recipient and the sender to automate the sending/receiving of files, so that no manual intervention is needed. Foldermail still sends an email to the recipients address telling them that files have been downloaded, so it’s not possible to miss the fact that they are waiting.

Foldermail is one of the best thought-out services we’ve encountered for making awkward file transfers. It won’t beat FTP for most techies, but even there large files can be moved much more reliably and securely than would be possible with vanilla FTP.

The ideal customer would be ordinary company workers who are being asked to move files around a company where ease-of-use, robustness of delivery and security are critical. It is that ability to dovetail with the everyday, non-technical office environment that is probably Foldermail’s biggest plus.

Addendum: A new version of the product, version 3.0, is due in October 2006. This will offer anyone using the current software a fully-working product (some features are non-functional on the current personal edition on the software) with a complimentary download of up to 250MB.

Download Foldermail by visiting the company website.

OUR VERDICT

FTP is the long-established means of moving files around. However, this has no automatic security, and no feedback mechanism to ensure files have actually appeared in front of the right person. It is also less than friendly and requires a working server at both ends of the communications. Foldermail is a managed service which overcomes these problems, albeit that data is transferred for a fee. Foldermail is also optimised for moving large files around. Version 2.0