Sunday 22 September 2019

Is the File Server EOL ?

Previous posts have examined the problem of incorporating traditional file shares into a serverless solution, exploring such issues as;

  • How do you share files when you don’t have a local server ?
  • How do you apply a cloud based security model to a platform that only understands local Active Directory?

Although several solutions have been proposed it turns out there’s a simple answer - don’t use network file shares.

Before we examine the alternative it’s important to appreciate how long the F: drive has been with us and how deeply ingrained it is into the IT psyche. For most users file sharing is what a network does. This may be the reason why we have failed to appreciate how completely unsuited it has become to modern work practices.

The standard Windows file share has a list of limitations that is both long and varied.

  • No easy offline sync or mobile access.
  • No file versioning.
  • No recycle bin
  • No retention policies
  • No event logging
  • Poor search functions.
  • Poor integration with cloud based user directories.
  • Primitive document sharing using simple file locking.
  • Requires a high availability, backup and disaster recovery plan.

And of course file sharing depends on a server that requires patching, licencing, upgrading and monitoring.

Most, if not all of these limitations can be eliminated by employing more software or additional hardware (which also requires patching, licencing, upgrading and monitoring) but in the end you’ll still be left with a complex second rate solution that’s not flexible enough to meet the needs of a mobile workforce. Let’s face it, the F: drive has had a good run but it’s time to search for an alternative. So how do you replace the file server in a modern workplace that has no servers.

The first clue was when Dropbox started to appear on work PC’s synchronizing cloud storage to the local drive. Since then this model has been refined and extended by both Microsoft and Google and now it’s ready for prime time.

In the future, Microsoft expects you to access files through Team channels which act as a front-end to Sharepoint document libraries. The Sharepoint engine provides all the elements missing from files shares including content search, a recycle bin and a comprehensive versioning journal. Event logging and retention policies are other quick win. The close integration with the Windows10 OneDrive client allows the user to control synchronisation to the local device.

Clearly the sharing capability, collaborative workflow and mobile integration is light years ahead of a simple file share but perhaps the breakthrough feature is the ability of the OneDrive client to expose the Team channel within File explorer.  In many ways the user experience is identical to using file shares and therefore it can provide a clear migration path for organizations that want to move to a severless solution without significant retraining around new applications and the use of a web interface.

Because Microsoft are using this framework as the foundation of M365 these capabilities are baked directly into Windows10. So why not take the opportunity to trial these features as part of your Windows10 migration and ditch those servers.

Coming from the Google world this will be very familiar - being completely cloud based G Suite users have been working this way from day one. Versioning, collaborative working, extended search and mobile integration have always been part of the package. Google Vault provides the retention, legal hold and e-safety features while the G Suite admin consoles gives you the capability to report on file access.

In addition Google File Stream mirrors the features of the OneDrive client exposing Google Drive in File Explorer as a mounted drive and allowing direct access from native applications like MS Word and Photoshop.

The obvious conclusion is that both the major payers are offering the same solution. You can have the Microsoft version or the Google version but it’s essentially the same vision.

You still have local files, they are just delivered in a different way.

Instead of one central device that needs managing, protecting and opening out to external access you have a central cloud store backed by elastic storage that replicates data down to each personal device regardless of the location and platform using intelligent algorithms that determine the precise requirements of the user.   Data can be protected, ring-fenced and be subject to centralised retention policies.

Contents of the files can now form a valuable data resource that can be subject to big data analysis rather than offering up a simple list of file names. Onsite backup and disaster recovery plans are a thing of the past. It’s a modern data management strategy.

It’s unlikely that file servers are going to disappear overnight. They’ll hang around in the same way that one-task physical servers persisted in the face the face of virtualization but in the end they’ll go because, like virtualization, the alternative is better.