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Differences in File Storage

Office 365 with SharePoint on-line should never be compared to Dropbox, Google Apps, Google Docs, Amazon cloud offerings or Microsoft OneDrive Live. These are good products and competitive in the market place they serve, but they are just cloud storage. They all store files off-site in an NTFS type file store. SharePoint on-line stores files in a SQL database delivering huge advantages in security, file grouping, file analysis and file location.

What does this mean in practice? – If you consider a standard NTFS file storage system such as you would find on any computer.

When you create and save a file you are prompted to give the file a name so that you can find it again when it is needed. Most modern software will also be configured to save the file to a default location such as ‘documents’ or ‘my documents’. You can elect to modify the location by creating new sub-folders within the ‘documents’ folder. This way you can group similar files together, say by subject or function. So, a user’s documents area may have sub-folders like ‘invoices’, ‘orders’, Fred Blogs Ltd, etc. In addition, the NTFS file store will record ‘date created’, ‘date modified’ and ‘file size’ for each file. Standalone computers usually have the default ‘documents’ folder on a local hard disk drive or a cloud resource, but networked computers are often configured to default to a department, or team ‘documents’ area that is a network share on a server and all users store their documents here either in a personalised folder or in team folders where other users can access them as required. This practise makes it simpler for the IT team to copy the files to a backup device to protect against file loss or corruption.

This system works and has served well for decades, but it has weaknesses.
1. File naming is open to each individual user preference. The human mind is individual and what may be obvious as to one individual as a distinctive file name is often confusing for other users. This can be overcome by enforcing a corporate ‘standard’ for file naming, but that requires training for users in what they must, and must not, include in a file name.
2. As users can create sub-folders within the storage area and files can end up being buried many layers deep in a file system.
3. By default, the file search facility in a NTFS system searches file names, created date and modified date. This can be changed to enable indexing by metadata and even content search, but this slows the whole storage system down to a considerable degree. Additionally, file searches in NTFS systems usually take quite a long time, especially if the file resides in a storage area used by many people.

The SharePoint Alternative.

In Office 365 Library Files are saved into a SQL database which requires certain metadata for each item stored. Grouping of similar files is achieved by creating separate ‘Libraries’, which are effectively separate SQL tables in the database.

Configuration of ‘Libraries’ is a simple task that can be completed by a user, or restricted to a supervisor for more effective control. Alternatively, files can by grouped within a library by including a metadata column which identifies what category the file belongs to. To ensure that different users are consistent in categorisation this can be populated by use of drop list menus. For instance, a drop list can contain ‘invoices’, ‘orders’, ‘correspondence’, etc., if the file is an invoice, the user would simply select ‘invoice’ from the list.

The files are stored in a database along with the metadata that describes each entry. In addition to each file being searchable by looking through the list, each metadata column can be filtered and sorted to display only groups of files that are relevant to the search.

The above shows only documents with the word ‘business’ in the name, but the search could just have easily been on multiple columns to deliver such results as documents which contain particular words in the name and that were created after a particular date, or before a particular date, or between two dates, or indexed by a particular user.

Additionally, as the files are stored in a database they can be ‘crawled’ as a matter of routine. O365 SharePoint on line ‘crawls’ content every 15 minutes or so. Provided that the content of a file is of a type that is readable (Word, Excel, Power Point, HTML notepad, etc.) the entire content will be indexed and searchable.

This means that a short time after indexing a document into the library it will be findable with the use of the ‘Search’ option found just below the App Launcher icon on the library screen. This means that a search, either on all documents in the library, or on the whole site (multiple libraries) will return all documents which contain the search string.

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