SharePoint versus file shares. When to use SharePoint and when to use a traditional file share?

by Vishal 19. September 2009 06:04

I get asked this question a lot. If an enterprise adopts SharePoint internally, does SharePoint replace file shares? 

My short answer is, no - SharePoint and file shares are not the same thing and they not meant to be thought about or used in the same way.  

Firstly SharePoint has limitations on the content that it is able to effectively store based on its type, its size, its numbers and its use. You can use a file share to store anything at all, provided there is available disk space. A fileshare has different limitations on how many documents it can effectively store and how it retrieves and searches them. 

Secondly, there is a reason why you are choosing to use SharePoint to store a particular document over a file share. It may be that

  • it is a file that needs to be made easily available (published) to multiple people within an organization,
  • or that it may actually needed to be worked on by different people,
  • or that different versions of it need to be maintained as it evolves,
  • or that there is a need to store additional business meta data around the document that cannot be stored in a traditional file system,
  • or it needs to be effectively and easily searched for by business users
  • or that it requires certain business processes to be built around it such as approvals or alerts. 

If you have none of the needs above, maybe you’re better off using a traditional file share.

For example, your IT department probably does not want to store the Windows 7 installer in a SharePoint document library. Your marketing department probably does not want to store its 700 mb video files that do not require versioning, collaboration, have any content to search within SharePoint. All that content can remain in a file share. 

SharePoint is a great place for storing files that are used for collaboration or publishing among team or across organization. It is even especially beneficial when you have given a good amount of thought to what files you are storing in document libraries and thought about the document metadata, its purpose and the business processes that the files are part of. This truly allows you to use the power of SharePoint to share, collaborate, search and publish documents and build business processes (workflows, events etc.) around these activities easily and quickly. This is the real reason why you want your files in SharePoint. 

On the other hand when you think of a file share, in the traditional sense, you are often talking about unclassified documents, with no business metadata, no versioning in the classic sense and you are talking about storing any type of file. The file could be a 10 GB video file, a PowerPoint presentation, a executable file or anything else. Little thought is given to what it is that you are actually storing, there is no related business metadata and usually difficult to build business processes around the contents. 

You do not want to replace your file share by dumping a huge number of unclassified files that were in a file share, into a share point document library. There is little benefit to doing this. There will be no business metadata that you will need to tie to unclassified content or build business process around. It would also be a pain point for users to effectively be able to use and search.

By doing your thinking ahead of time, you will quickly realize which of your unclassified documents that were in a file share need to be moved to SharePoint document libraries. You also realize that there will be different document library locations for different files. A document library would only hold carefully selected files having something in common and some business meta data in common, probably sharing a content type and business processes. 

Hopefully this will help you decide between when (and most importantly, how) to use SharePoint and when to use traditional file shares, for storing your files. A completely different conversation and should also be thought about, is the use of SharePoint versus document management systems like documentum or document locator. I never believe that there is a universal solution. A good solution depends on the problem it solves. There is always a very good reason to use SharePoint, file shares or a document management system depending on what business problem you are looking to solve. The only thing is, do your thinking & planning ahead of time – understand the problem or problems before deciding on the solution. 

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MOSS | Sharepoint

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