iCloud Desktop and Documents in macOS Sierra – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
As part of the iCloud services in macOS Sierra, Apple is offering a new way to store your files in iCloud – synchronizing the contents of your account’s Desktop and Documents folder with iCloud Drive.
When you enable the option to store files from your Desktop and Documents folder, the contents of your Desktop and Documents folder are moved (not copied) from your home folder into iCloud Drive. Those folders will no longer appear in your home folder.
That means that your Desktop and Documents folder no longer are stored in your home folder. Instead, they and all their contents are now stored in iCloud Drive.
For more details on this, see below the jump.
In reality, the Desktop and Documents folders folders themselves have been moved to a new location inside your home folder, where they’re invisible to the average user but still provide a place to sync files between the Mac and iCloud Drive. The new location is as follows:
The virtue of this idea is that, as you enable iCloud Desktop and Documents on your various Macs, you get a unified Desktop and Documents experience. As you add files to those directories on one machine, all of your other machines should get updated with the same information. You can also access the files from the iCloud web interface and the iCloud Drive app on your iOS devices, in the event that you’re away from your Mac(s) and need to get something that is stored in the Desktop or Documents folders on your Mac(s).
iCloud in this sense is serving as the authoritative source of “truth” for your files and your various Macs are checking in and updating files on themselves as needed. When all of this works, it looks like magic and all your files are everywhere you need them.
When all of this works. What happens when it doesn’t?
Currently, Apple provides 5 GBs of storage space for free for iCloud users. That 5 GBs of storage includes storage for your iCloud email, your iCloud backups for your iOS device(s), your iCloud Photo library and iCloud Drive. If you need more than 5GBs of storage space, you have to pay for it.
Considering that most folks likely have more than 5 GBs of files stored in their home folder’s Documents directory, let alone their Desktop folder, there are immediate issues with enabling iCloud Desktop and Documents syncing if you’re not paying Apple for sufficient iCloud storage space.
As an example of this, lets try adding a VMware VM to the Documents folder then turn on iCloud Desktop and Documents syncing.
VM is 11.55 GBs in size
Available iCloud space is 5 GBs
I immediately ran out of space on iCloud Drive and was prompted to upgrade.
To its credit, iCloud was smart enough to figure this out before it tried to upload the VM and did not actually try to upload the VM to iCloud Drive. It also allowed me to move the VM unharmed to a new location.
At this point in my testing, I decided that iCloud Desktop and Documents was interesting but because of storage limitations, it just wasn’t going to work well for me unless I paid Apple far more money for storage than I wanted to. I then did the following:
1. Opened System Preferences
2. Selected the iCloud preference pane
3. Clicked the Options… button next to iCloud Drive
4. Unchecked Desktop & Documents Folder
At this point, I received a warning that the documents on my Desktop and in my Documents folder would only be visible in iCloud Drive.
5. Clicked the Turn Off button on the warning dialog message.
At this point, I received a message letting me know that my documents are in the Desktop and Documents folders in iCloud Drive and that I could copy or move them back.
6. Clicked the OK button on the message.
Sierra then showed me that my Desktop and Documents folders were back in my account’s home folder. Great!
They were completely empty. What!?!?!?!
When you turn off the Desktop & Documents Folder feature in iCloud, Sierra recreates empty Desktop and Documents folders in your home folder. It’s on you to copy or move your files back from iCloud Drive.
However, that assumes that all of your files and folders made it to iCloud in the first place. What if they didn’t? Hopefully they can still be found in the Desktop and Documents folders in ~/Library/Mobile Documents/com~apple~CloudDocs.
If they’re not, hope you had other backups because those files and folders may just be completely gone.
Based on the results of my testing, I have no plans for enabling iCloud Desktop and Documents syncing on any of my Macs for the foreseeable future. Leaving aside that Apple isn’t offering enough storage space at prices I want to pay, the results I saw from my testing of the synchronization process did not inspire my trust in it.
It did give me an insight into why Apple chose to remove support for portable home directories (PHDs) in Sierra. The havoc that could be caused by two separate synchronization processes trying to sync the same set of files, especially when portable home directories were using a two-way sync process, would be breathtaking to behold. The only certain result would be that data loss would occur. Kudos to Apple for at least foreseeing that result and removing the possibility of PHDs and iCloud Desktop and Documents fighting with each other for file sync supremacy.
For those Mac admins that want to block iCloud Desktop and Documents in their own environments, please see the post linked below: