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Is it better to use SharePoint as your file server?

Written by Lanware

Tuesday, 7 February, 2023

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Microsoft’s SharePoint product has had a checkered past. It was once seen as the be-all and end-all of intranet and document management solutions. It soon became a behemoth of a product that could do practically anything you wanted it to do, as long as you had a dedicated software development team to take care of it and a hefty budget.

More recently, as SharePoint became an Online cloud service as part of the Office (now Microsoft) 365 suite, there was a drive to simplify SharePoint and reduce the need for burdensome customisation, but get it close enough. This included changes to the interface to make it more modern, with simplified branding and editing features, and a generous amount of storage capacity to make it the centre of information. This final point is where SharePoint entered a new phase of life.

As people have and continue to migrate to Microsoft 365, a typical consideration is how you get value from all the services you are paying a license for. Part of this revolves around the storage capacity included as part of SharePoint and OneDrive. A reasonable take is to move as many files as you can to get the most out of the capacity you gain through your license, saving effort, energy and expense maintaining traditional file servers.

A challenge with this approach is the assumption that SharePoint is a like-for-like equivalent to the humble file server.

The key differences between Sharepoint and a file server

In many ways SharePoint and a file server are similar, but there are some significant ways they are fundamentally different such as:

  • SharePoint’s document hierarchy starts at Sites, Groups and Libraries rather than Shares and Folders
  • SharePoint’s document access is geared to start from the SharePoint site interface first, rather than network drives
  • SharePoint plays extremely well with Microsoft Office documents, but that’s not necessarily the case for other file formats.

Trying to get SharePoint to look, feel and work like a traditional file server is a slippery slope to getting the worst experience overall.

The big question: Is it a file or a document?

The key distinction to make is the difference between documents and files. A file platform cares more about storing blobs of data, helping get the data to you and providing a way to store it back. A document platform cares more about what’s inside the file, the textual data, helping you find content within the file and the processes surrounding the creation, modification and publishing of the file, typically a Word/Excel/PowerPoint/PDF etc.

This is where SharePoint works incredibly well – document management, document collaboration and document discovery but in the way SharePoint wants you to organise the data and consume it.

Some of the most interesting document management features of SharePoint have been in the product for a number of years, such as document templates and standards controls, document compliance (workflow, encryption etc.) and document versioning (major/minor). These features are powerful tools which far exceed what a file server could ever do.

So what’s the next step?

The best approach when considering SharePoint or file servers to store data is to leverage the advantages of both platforms for the type of data you want to store. Rather than starting at the storage platform, start with the data first; determine what data can take advantage of the features of SharePoint and choose only to migrate that data.

Consider transforming your file server to an equivalent cloud version; such as Azure Files, leveraging some of the cloud benefits and efficiencies, but maintaining a traditional file storage medium for the files that do not sit well in SharePoint.

With the best of both worlds, you allow the benefits to work for you and your needs, rather than enduring the disadvantages of a single solution.

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