SharePoint Online vs. file server – which one comes out on top?

microsoft sharepoint header

Dealing with medium-sized businesses and larger Non-For-Profits (NFP’s) I often get asked the following questions:

  • What is the difference between a file server running on a Windows server and SharePoint running on Office 365?
  • When and how do we migrate from a file server to SharePoint Online?
  • What are the disadvantages of using SharePoint Online to store my files and documents?
  • How can I get my organisation to use SharePoint Online over other file storage solutions?

These questions make it apparent that some confusion exists over when to use SharePoint Online instead of a file server for document storage.

With SharePoint Online becoming easily accessible through Microsoft’s 365, more businesses are looking at ways to incorporate it as a document storage solution. If you are in a similar position, continue reading as I outline the points of difference between using SharePoint Online and a file server, and when is the right time to use one document storage solution over the other.

What is a file server?

A file server is a dedicated computer connected to a network of computers, providing a centralised location for file storage of business documents. Hosting of the file server can be at the business location or offsite at a data centre for extra security.

Access to documents can be controlled by the use of directory services installed onto the file server such as Microsoft’s Active Directory. The use of directory services provides simple access data controls to users in the business, protecting data from being accessed by the wrong people in the organisation.

File Server

When do businesses use a file server?

There are plenty of businesses that use a file server to store their files and it is not a bad option for small to medium-sized businesses that require a simple system, where files can be easily accessed from one central location.  If your business has to store large files, it is best to store them on your own file server rather than on a cloud-based platform.  This is because the file server works better with larger files, in particular when they are gigs in size, as it is faster to download files off a local network rather than over the internet. Overall, the file server is best for businesses that require a fairly simple process system, that is easy for employees to navigate or find files quickly, creating backups with easily navigate the useful data recovery and file retrieval features.

What is SharePoint Online?

Microsoft SharePoint Online is a cloud-based collaboration and document management platform that integrates with Microsoft Office 365’s productivity stack. SharePoint Online is built to:

  • Store files and put version control restrictions in place
  • Allow files to be shared externally and securely
  • Manage content through the use of libraries, lists with metadata, records management, and retention policies
  • Provides team sites to organise, collaborate on content, data, and share news on the same page
  • Be accessible on mobile devices using the SharePoint mobile app
  • Automate business processes with alerts and workflows when it comes to document management
  • Make documents easily searchable
  • Provide advanced data-loss prevention (DLP) to identify, monitor, and protect sensitive information

More information can be found in my “What is Microsoft SharePoint” blog.

SharePoint Online mobile

When do businesses use SharePoint Online?

SharePoint Online is for businesses who are ready to take their document and information sharing to the next level. With the reduction of costs and integration into the Microsoft Office 365 suite (depending on the organisation’s Office 365 subscription), SharePoint Online has become easily accessible by small to enterprise-sized businesses who use it to:

  • Access files via a secure web interface
  • Easily manage files, document life cycles and governance policies via a document management system
  • Seamlessly collaborate, share and manage content, knowledge, files and applications

Key differences between using SharePoint Online and a file server

The following table compares the different aspects of the two solutions:

SharePoint File Server
  • Anywhere access
  • Share files externally and securely
  • Easily store files and put version control restrictions in place
  • Powerful and easy search options
  • Easy online organisation, collaboration and sharing
  • Check-in / check-out
  • You can’t just delete a file
  • Not prone to crypto locker viruses
  • Advanced data-loss prevention and backup retrieval
  • Retrieve a backup with a click
  • Automate document management and business processes
  • No infrastructure costs
  • Simple > Shared folders
  • Central access
  • Is within your network
  • Easy to setup
  • Basic IT expertise needed for internal maintenance
  • User control
  • You still need backups for Office 365 (email and SharePoint Online)
  • Additional security on Office 365. Most companies don’t implement it
  • Additional cost to setup properly
  • Requires training and discipline from employees to use the way it was intended
  • Poor searching tools
  • You don’t know a document has changed or has been deleted until you look for it
  • Sharing with the outside world, users end up using DropBox or OneDrive

Even though SharePoint Online may seem like the best option, it does require more discipline from employees. They must be ready for  full change o management process as well.

Which document storage solution comes out on top?

Even though SharePoint Online may seem like the best option, it does require planning, change management and discipline from employees to have it work the way you want it to work in your business. On the other hand, file servers make it easy to configure, store and access files and require minimal effort in training staff to use them.  Another option is for businesses to use SharePoint Online and file servers together. First, SharePoint Online is good for structuring data and sharing information. On the other hand, a file server is great for instant access to files, in particular, more resource-intensive ones such as video and design files.  Ultimately, the decision as to which storage solution is the best will come down to the individual requirements of your business.

Why it’s important to plan for your data storage solution

It’s very easy for businesses to implement SharePoint Online, yet not execute it properly.  I was dealing with a client that had a failed SharePoint implementation. Why did it fail? Because none of the 50-odd staff was actually using it and they resorted to their “my documents” folders and file server setup. Upon looking closely at the situation, I found that their implementation of SharePoint Online was simply dragging all the folders from the file server into a SharePoint Online document library – an exercise doomed to fail.

Does this sound like something you were about to do or have done?

As a Microsoft partner and a SharePoint specialist, Empower IT can assist with your migration, upgrade, support or implementation to SharePoint Online.  We also provide network-based services and can set up internal networks or a private cloud-based server for your business.  Call us on 1300 797 888 to discuss the solution right for your business.

This blog is part of the Microsoft SharePoint series of blogs. Our last blog covered “What is SharePoint?“.