SharePoint, File Explorer and the Great File Server debate.

May 24, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: SharePoint 

When SharePoint became a huge product back in 2007 there was a wide variety of debates about moving file server content to SharePoint and the benefits this would bring. This is a topic which perhaps affects educational establishments more than any other. Do any other institutions undergo a 100% turnover in users over 5-7 years as schools and colleges do with students? In almost all schools these users will have access to their own personal ‘Home Drive’ and perhaps a number of file shares which contain resources shared by teachers. The question is when SharePoint comes along in a school should you get rid of Home Drives and file shares?

The argument for getting rid of file shares

File shares are typically areas where resources are either made available to a large number of users to consume or are full of documents which users collaborate on. In other words they are made for SharePoint! In an ideal world when rolling out a SharePoint deployment you will create a timeline to decommission file shares and replace them when SharePoint sites. File shares are often heavily cluttered and can be impossible to navigate. At Twynham when we rolled out SharePoint we made all our file shares ‘read-only’ for a year after before we switched them off. This was an important decision as it avoided the panic of users being under the threat of losing file shares and simply dumping the content (which in some cases is old, out of date and unused) into SharePoint without thought. When people have time to decommission parts of their file shares they can carefully look through and identify what they want to keep and resources which can be removed.

The argument for keeping Home Drives

If it makes sense to get rid of our file shares does it not also make sense to get rid of your Home Drives which are on a file server? At Twynham we considered decommissioning our file server with all the Home Drives on and putting the content on staff and student My Sites. Fortunately the technical guys in the team pointed out that this would be unwise. The amount of storage we were using in terms of a file server for Home Drives was 10TB. This storage was relatively cheap but moving it over to SharePoint would immediately put it on sql and have a considerable impact on performance. The main question is therefore why would you put your Home Drives on SharePoint? All of these resources are used by individuals and are not shared by other users. Given the relative costs of file servers compared to SAN storage it makes sense to leave Home Drives on the file server and save a lot of money on your deployment.

The challenge with keeping Home Drives

Having made the decision to move file shares over to SharePoint but keep Home Drives on a dedicated file server what problems were we still faced with? As schools adopt SharePoint users increasingly want access to resources anytime and anywhere. This can create a problem with Home Drives which are often not easily or conveniently exposed outside of schools so that users can access them from home. Even where schools make their Home Drives available the fact that they do not connect with SharePoint means that you lose that ‘one stop shop’ which is a big advantage of SharePoint. At Twynham we quickly realised that there would be an ideal scenario where file shares were decommissioned with resources moved to SharePoint and Home Drives would be maintained on a dedicated file server but we needed to make these available through SharePoint.
SharePoint File Explorer and Home Drives
SharePoint File Explorer was built with the challenges outlined above in mind. It is a web part which identifies the logged in user and surfaces their Home Drive so that they can add and remove resources and edit documents on the fly. The video below is a walk through which most effectively shows how File Explorer works.

If you would like to try a demo account for File Explorer yourself you can sign up at

SharePoint Best Practices Posts, Day 3 of 10. The file server is dead! Long live the SharePoint!

Guest post by Dave Coleman- Twynham School Network Manager

Is the file server dead? The man in this video clearly thought so!

One of the sessions I attended last Monday was Joel Olsen’s input titled, ‘Help me kill my File Servers….’ This is really well timed with the work we are doing at Twynham School as we are currently moving away from network Home Drives to the use of My Sites with students and staff. When I became a Network Manager at Twynham School in 1999 I adopted a network with the NT4 server and NT4 workstations. Accessing your Home Drive from home was an abuse of the term home, being complicated and a genuinely challenging technical achievement.

Windows 2000 made Home Drives a realistic possibility for the end when user off-site through the use of Webdav and at Twynham School our students and staff have had access to their resources from home since this time. With the huge adoption of SharePoint at Twynham we have been gradually moving over to SharePoint sites and as Joel confirmed yesterday, the age of the file sever is indeed dead!

How do you make the transition from a File Share with 2,000 users dependant on access to data, both personal and in a shared resource, in this case Public Drive? Joel gave an example of the removal of a Public Drive within Microsoft which was identical to the method we used when removing our Public Drive at Twynham. In September 2008 we set upon a road map to remove our Public Drives in a way that would avoid panic and turmoil upon our end users. This should be carefully phased out and our model was as follows: 

  • 1. Student Public was made ‘read-only’ for staff and hidden from students. This was essential as the only way staff could get resources to students was through SharePoint.
  • 2. At the same time Staff Public was made read-only. Staff could still access their resources from here but could not add further clutter to a resource that was already vastly out of control and unmanageable.
  • 3. We did allow staff to copy files into SharePoint and delete them from both Public Drives and our early adopters led the way.
  • 4. In September 2009 at the start of the new academic year we will stop mapping the Staff Public Drive along and archive both Drives to external media.

This process has run very smoothly and many schools are now looking to move away from Public Drives. Occasionally I meet colleagues who ask ‘what is wrong with Public Drives’. In short the navigation of Public Drives has always proved a nightmare in my experience and one persons idea of where a file should live is often different from another colleague who needs to share the file! Although SharePoint sites can suffer from the same clutter without a robust taxonomy they have a saving grace. The power of search in SharePoint should render network drives redundant in place of access which is ‘anytime and anywhere’.