Catching Up with Our CTO: SharePoint Sites vs. File Shares

There are profound technical differences between SharePoint and File Shares, and Nasuni CTO Andres Rodriguez takes a deep dive into both.

July 29, 2020

The ongoing tug o’ war to become home to all of the files

Why do companies even need File Shares? Why not just put all your file data in SharePoint?

We sometimes hear this question in our conversations with the IT leaders at potential customers. There are profound technical differences between the two approaches and, as a result, each has its own strengths. SharePoint is first and foremost a Document Management System (DMS) built to store Microsoft Office documents. As such it provides not only storage but mechanisms to add additional context to the files (wiki-like pages of metadata) and to define basic workflows (like check-in/check-out) to support project collaboration. SharePoint is not a general storage system in the way that File Shares – either on a Windows File Server or a NAS – deliver file services over the network. Conversely, File Shares are not a DMS. Their only job is to deliver a file system that can be shared over the network.

Some of the confusion regarding the two approaches can be traced back to SharePoint’s origins. From its launch, two decades ago, Microsoft positioned SharePoint as the ultimate file repository – a replacement to their own Windows File Server. Their argument was that File Shares were unruly and difficult to maintain, especially as organizations grow. Their vision for SharePoint was to provide one place to neatly store all of the files, in a collaboration space rich with content about the files.

Two issues conspired to deflate Microsoft’s ambitions for SharePoint as the File Share killer.

Order & Disorder

The first was a technical issue. True to its Millennial origins, SharePoint was essentially a web site that forced end users to upload and download files through a browser. This process was slow and cumbersome when compared to double-clicking on a file. If the file happened to be a large file – even a just hefty PowerPoint presentation – the process was impossibly slow.

The second flaw was a people problem. A DMS is an attempt to bring order to the world that is unstructured data (aka files). Sounds good, but nothing in this life is free. In a DMS, the burden to create and maintain the structure falls upon the end users. While this is relatively simple for well-defined workflows, it is overkill for the many, many small, file-centric tasks performed daily in organizations. Often a structure for a project is not even clear at the start. So you end up with disorder and confusion.

The easy-to-grasp, hierarchical folder structure of File Shares has proven to be a lasting way for organizations to bring some order – just enough order – to their unstructured data. As a result, even after decades of Microsoft pushing everyone towards SharePoint, only a small fraction of the overall file footprint in organizations today sits in SharePoint.

File Shares and Structure at Scale

File Shares can become unruly and, in the traditional world of WFS and backup, they can be hard to maintain at scale. That said, they are incredibly useful. File Shares are really easy to use. Everyone knows how to navigate through a set of folders, double click, and get to work.

They also offer a natural extension to a local file system. That means practically unlimited capacity and separate, protected storage. Large organizations storing hundreds or thousands of terabytes in their NAS infrastructure can make this file data available to everyone in the organization, regardless of the capacity of their local storage, via the network as File Shares.

Groups can collaborate on the same set of files while the NAS keeps track of who has access to the files, and when. Performance is superior, too. When it comes to access, SharePoint can’t approach the speed of a big NAS serving files over the LAN.

SharePoint to the Cloud: Pros and Cons

Now jump ahead to the era of Office365. The biggest improvements to SharePoint have come from its move to the cloud (aka SharePoint Online) and its integration with the Office365 – particularly Teams and OneDrive.

Teams provides a new way of accessing SharePoint that automatically provides a useful context for the SharePoint site. OneDrive provides local, folder-like navigation to end users. It gives them the ability to download and upload files behind the scenes, bypassing the cumbersome SharePoint web site. This can be a good user experience, but the files have to be relatively small because OneDrive has to go get them from the cloud across the WAN. If the files happen to be Microsoft Office files, this can be a great user experience. As long at the user is online, OneDrive can be configured to open the file in its native Office365 application (Word/PowerPoint/Excel). From that point on, the user experience is extraordinary, as the users can see other users making changes to the document as if everyone were collaborating on the same screen.

The problem is that all of this goodness is still being supported by SharePoint in the backend. And SharePoint is not infrastructure. A SharePoint site is limited to 25 terabytes. Although there can be many sites per company, that limitation tells us everything we need to know about what should and shouldn’t be put into SharePoint. 25 terabytes is enough storage for about 1 million Office Documents, which average about 25 megabytes. That’s limited but reasonable.

But this is much too small for anyone who has to deal with larger files. Poor performance and capacity limitations, especially around larger files, plague these SharePoint deployments.

Infrastructure as a Service: The Enterprise Alternative

Now enter IaaS. Infrastructure as a Service does to infrastructure, such as NAS, what SaaS did to applications. IaaS delivers infrastructure as a cloud service, without the hassle. For NAS, this completely removes capacity limitations and eliminates backups. Yet it does so while maintaining the ease of use and phenomenal performance that made NAS useful to begin with. Companies like Nasuni have improved on the original set of NAS capabilities by adding the ability to synchronize files across geographic locations, create a more reliable Disaster Recovery model, and more.

Every file, big or small, can go into this modernized cloud version of NAS. This IaaS model of enterprise storage has no limitations on file size, complexity, or volume – and yet it maintains the performance and structure of traditional NAS.

The Missing Link: SaaS to IaaS

Software is going to the cloud.

SaaS and IaaS both live in the cloud.

Yet there is a gap between SaaS and IaaS. While SaaS integration is regulated through application-specific APIs, IaaS is dominated by standard protocols, such as CIFS/NFS, and highly evolved access control systems, such as Active Directory. In order to remain relevant in the cloud, IaaS, and in particular this new cloud version of NAS, needs to be able to connect via APIs into this evolving ecosystem of SaaS. This is an exchange that benefits both worlds. The SaaS applications that manipulate large file sets can offload the heavy lifting to the NAS as a service layer. The end user experience is largely unchanged. Not just one file but the entire corporate file system is available via the NAS in their favorite SaaS application.

Motorcycles and Pickups

SharePoint is a DMS finely tuned to the Microsoft Office ecosystem. If you only deal with Office documents and you need to support a semi-structured workflow around those documents, SharePoint can be a great hub for enabling collaboration.

But it is not a substitute for versatile, scalable infrastructure. Yes, OneDrive has made access less painful, but SharePoint still lacks the versatility and performance of NAS. File Shares, on the other hand, are the ultimate general purpose storage system. Applications and end users can access every file via standard protocols and via APIs. Because File Shares are not optimized for any one use case in particular, they provide a universal way to store and access all of the files in an organization. With the right platform, they work beautifully at any scale.

Comparing SharePoint Sites and File Shares is a bit like comparing a sleek motorcycle to a pickup truck. The former optimizes beautifully for a specific set of experiences, but demands good weather, minimal luggage, sturdy eyewear, and more. A modern pickup truck is a do- everything mix of performance, comfort, and utility. You might prefer the motorcycle if you’re cruising the winding roads of California’s Pacific Coast Highway or the wide-open Autobahn, but the pickup will cover those paved paths just fine, and all the dirt roads, too, in all weather.

Enterprises can use motorcycles. But they need pickups.

Ready to dive deeper into a new approach to data infrastructure?