By John Bath
From time to time, we get asked by our Office 365 customers if SharePoint Online would make a good replacement for their file server. It’s a good question to ask, as the majority of our customers are not actively utilizing the file storage service. In many cases, SharePoint can make a fine alternative to a file server, but really only under specific circumstances.
Like any platform, both file servers and SharePoint have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses for storage. In this post, I’ll go through when either option is the best choice.
1. Collaboration & Document Management
At its core, SharePoint is a centralized collaboration hub and is designed to be used as such. For that reason, many organizations that frequently work on group projects may find SharePoint to be an attractive option. Documents stored within SharePoint “Libraries” can be edited simultaneously online or in a desktop client. Libraries can be thought of as network drives, which can be mapped with a bit of configuration knowhow.
The service boasts robust versioning features, which can allow users to view and restore previous versions of documents stored in a site. So if something was deleted from a document during the coediting process, that content can be recalled and restored.
SharePoint Online is fully integrated with the larger Office 365 suite, offering more utility in document management. Integration with Skype, for example, allows users to pull a presentation right from SharePoint and present to an audience. Meanwhile, data can be pulled from SharePoint into Power BI to draw meaningful insights.
Unlike a file server, SharePoint can be customized with workflows to streamline business processes. The approval process for documents, for example, can be automated to alert the proper recipients when changes are made. This serves to eliminate the process of approving changes manually and keep users productive.
Microsoft periodically stores snapshots of SharePoint tenants, which can be restored as needed. A new backup is stored every 12 days, which is valid for 14 days. At most, administrators will have two versions to choose from if a restore is needed.
If all of the above sounds good for your organization, then great! SharePoint may do well as your File Server alternative. There are, however, a set of small requirements that can pose a major obstacle in switching over.
1. Storage Capacity
Even as a cloud service, SharePoint does have some storage limitations. Each site collection in SharePoint has a base storage capacity of 1TB1, with each individual document library limited to 5,000 files. The best way around this is creating additional site collections and document libraries as needed. While this doesn’t limit the storage capacity of the tenant, it can become confusing for users and inhibit adoption, as well as diminish the reliability of the syncing tool.
2. File Sizes
SharePoint supports file sizes up to 2GB, though file sizes under 300MB are preferable for syncing. So if your organization typically works with very large files, such as a media production company, a file server is likely better for hosting.
3. File Names
Naming convention also plays a role in whether or not a file can be hosted. File names must be under 260 characters including the url path denoting its location in the site (mycompany-my.sharepoint.com/user/documents/sales/2015/…). File names containing most non-alphanumeric characters are not supported.
In most cases this just means that your file names may need to be cleaned up before being transferred into the cloud. Depending on the number of files you have, this can become a long process.
4. File Types
SharePoint works best when Office documents are stored within it (Word, PowerPoint, etc.), simply because those file types can be edited within the web portal. Most file types can be accessed, albeit as a view only file (PDF, JPEG, MP3). Other media, such as Photoshop or CAD files, cannot be viewed from the web portal, but can be stored and synced with the cloud.
Database files, on the other hand, are not recommended to be hosted by the service, as doing so would be the same as hosting a database within a database.
1. On top of 1TB, the SharePoint Online tenant gains 500MB of storage for every user subscription.
Overall, SharePoint is a far better tool for collaboration and document management than file storage. That is not to say it is completely inadvisable, certain organizations are just better prepared for success. Those kinds of businesses will typically have a low number of users and files that are frequently accessed. Startups, for example, may find SharePoint Online to be a good substitute until a larger archive of files is developed.
Organizations will want to stick with their file servers, however, when they consistently work with large files or have a large archive of inactive files. When accessing databases, such as Quickbooks, file servers are a better option since accessing from SharePoint would be the same as opening a database from a database.
What will work the best regardless of any company type or size, of course, is going to be a combination of the two. By using SharePoint purely as a production site for projects and documents, users get all the productivity benefits without any storage restrictions. So for those with Office 365 already, it’s certainly worth considering!
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