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Using Google Drive with MS Office

For many institutions migrating to Google G Suite it's likely that users will continue to use Microsoft Office applications to access historical document sets.

As well as Office you may also need to support teams that use a range of Windows applications that are delaying a move towards cloud storage.

So how can you support users that have workflows and processes embedded in Office and other Windows applications when the majority of the users have moved files to Google Drive?

It turns out that users have quite a few options and with new technologies available soon it could be even argued that Microsoft applications and Google Drive make an excellent partnership.

Google Drive supports Microsoft Office in number of ways but the first job is to move the documents into the cloud.

Simply dragging a set of Office (Word / Excel / Powerpoint)  files into Google Drive results in the documents being stored in the native format with customised icons to set them apart from other Google docs.

The default drag and drop action can be changed from the Drive settings menu to convert the documents to Google Docs as they are moved across.

If this option is selected files are converted as they are migrated creating a new Google Doc with a name that includes the original file extension.

However, best practice for the migration of a large document set would be to transfer the files in the native format and convert files as required.

Not only is this quicker but since a large proportion of the filestore is likely to consist of stale data there’s very little benefit in converting them all. Moving them in the native format means that an original version always exists should a subsequent conversion mangle the document format in some way.

Once the files are in Google Drive you have access to the standard file operations that you might expect including rename, make a copy, delete and move. The search options for Text/Spreadsheets/Presentations will recognise your Office docs and they will also be included in a search for file contents which is is very useful feature,

In this mode the file can be opened in preview which removes all interactive elements and represents the document as simple image that you can scroll through. In preview mode you have the ability to download to a local store in the native format and even share the file.  The sharing settings are similar to what you might expect with normal Google docs but without the options for the various editing privileges. You can even create an external shareable link - read only of course.

The Open With menu central to the preview pane allows you to choose another app to handle the file. Selecting the corresponding Google app creates a second file which can then be managed in the same manner as any other native G Suite file.

A right mouse click action on the original file in the directory view gives the same option set.

An Office document can even take advantage of the file versioning system used in Google docs.

If you upload a an office file that matches the name of an existing file it will add it as a version rather of creating a duplicate. By default versions are only kept for 30 days.

By selecting the more action menu against the version it is possible to mark a file version for non-deletion.

In preview mode Office files are strictly read only. If you want to be able to edit a file directly from Google Drive you need to install a Chrome extension  - Office Editing for Docs Sheets and Slides.

Once installed, opening an Office file from Google Drive replaces the preview with a webapp which has a superficial resemblance to G Suite.

The interface has some simple editing features which doesn’t come close to replacing the full functionality of the Office app but does allow the file to be updated in the native format.

Like G Suite the webapp has an auto save functionality but this has to be treated with caution. An Office file is not access locked and can be edited by two users at the same time, the last write wins. Other writes are saved as versions and can be downloaded and manually recovered but without the simple reversion facility available to Google docs.

In edit mode the sharing option is removed unless you convert to Google docs.

This approach gives you basic editing but not the ability to create a new Office document or work directly with Office applications without copying the file back to a windows file store.

The next level of functionality is offered by a free third party Chrome extension.  AwesomeDrive for Google Drive which allows you to create new Office files from the standard Drive menu using the locally installed applications. The only limitations are that the version of Office must be at least 2010 and the files cannot be larger than 32MB. It also works with Mac OSX with Microsoft Office 2011 or 2016

Once installed the standard menu is extended to include the Office apps.

Once selected the user is prompted for a the name of the new file and the local application is launched to edit the files.

Since we are now working with the standard Windows applications in a native file format all the options are available - but you have to remember to hit save when finished !

As well as creating new files the extension allows you to edit existing files by introducing an additional icon on the file list view.

Selecting the W, E, or P symbol to the right of the file name will open the file in the appropriate Office application in the same way as double-clicking the file from a local file share in Windows.

The last step is to get Office applications to work natively with Google so you can interact with Drive in the same way you would with any other networked filestore.

This is achieved using Google Drive for Office, a free utility available for download from Google.

Unlike the other utilities this is not a Chrome Extension but a Windows executable so you may need the assistance of your local IT team to roll this out.

Once installed you’ll notice that the Open option in Office has a new target – Google Drive, which you can now use as if it were a local drive. Unlike the Awesome Drive extension there are no limits on the file size but you need to be aware that you are writing and reading directly from an cloud file store so you have to expect these actions to take more time.

The Google Drive menu is also added to Office ribbon.

As well as opening files can save a document you’re working on directly to Drive by clicking on ‘Save to Drive’ button.

Using a combination of these features, extensions and utilities you can give your users a fairly seamless experience using Microsoft Office with Google Drive.

Other Applications.

It’s not practical for every vendor to create a set of extensions to integrate with Drive so if you’re working with applications other than Office you have to present Google drive as a standard network resource.

Google Drive Sync achieves this by copying files from Google Drive onto the local file system where they can be accessed by any application using the standard dialogs.

Changes to the files are then replicated back to Google Drive as a background process.  You can choose which folders to sync and can adjust the download and upload rates.

All files in your local Google Drive folder except GSuite documents can be edited offline. GSuite documents look like they are local files, but they are actually links to the online versions. In contrast other files, including Office documents are a full copy. This means that a Google Drive containing large numbers of Microsoft documents, media files and pdf’s could result in a significant amount of data being transferred to the local drive consuming both time, network bandwidth and local storage.

The problem is compounded if the user is moving between devices or is constantly logging on and off on the same device. Google Drive Sync performs a useful function on a single user workstation where the workload involves an application suite other than Microsoft Office but is unsuited to situations where the user is regularly moving between devices.

Google File Stream is a new product which is currently in the Early Adopter phase and unlike Drive Sync it requires a business, education, or enterprise G Suite subscription. You can find a review of some of it's capabilities here.

Rather than downloading the files to a computer, Drive File Stream simply makes them searchable from the desktop and intelligently downloads what you need as a background process. It also guesses at what files you'll need in the future and caches those offline.

For this reason it’s very quick and efficient and overcomes most of the limitations of Drive Sync.

If Google File Stream proves effective it will have the potential of making working with Google Drive from any desktop application a completely seamless experience. Any changes you make to files in those apps are saved automatically to Drive and can be accessed from any of your devices later.

Perhaps the most important role will be in those situations where institutions are using Microsoft Remote Desktop (RDS) or similar product to deploy and support Windows applications.  In the future a user will be able to initiate a desktop session and have almost instant access to Google Drive from any application.