Are File Servers Holding Users Back?

Traditional file servers have served end-users well. Network Attached Storage (NAS) systems, which replaced file servers, took it a further step by allowing IT to provide the storage and share service without the burden of too much storage administration. But the traditional file server and along with it the corporate NAS, can no longer keep pace with the modern knowledge worker. IT may be tempted to ignore this problem or worse, let users try to solve it through the consumer cloud, both of which could place corporate data at risk and make users less productive.

The modern user is far more mobile than ever. In addition to a corporate desktop, they often now carry a laptop, tablet and smartphone with them and they often use a desktop PC at home. They are also constantly connected either through broadband cellular networks or public WiFi hotspots when outside the office. As a result of this ubiquitous connectivity, they are constantly on the move, with their cadre of devices, working from a variety of locations and rarely within the walls of the organization.

This reality has changed what users want from IT. They no longer just want their data stored and protected, they want it mobilized. We live in an “App” world and users essentially want an app for their data. They want to access data from any of their collection of devices at any time. For these users, accessing data stored on a file server hidden behind the four walls of the data center is simply counter productive.

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The big concern for IT should be the counter measures that users are willing to take to side-step the issue. While it may seem like one less thing to worry about, when users resort to a consumer oriented public cloud file sync and share service, they are putting the organization’s data at risk. Eventually when access to data is denied, lost or compromised, the executive team will point the finger back at IT and it will be IT’s fault and problem to resolve. IT is better off resolving the issue now before it becomes a problem. The challenge for IT is that the resolution may mean leaving the legacy file server or NAS behind.

The Weaknesses Of The File Server

While it used to be the sole location of user data, the corporate file server or NAS now stores far more data types, including virtual machine images, databases and “big data”. From a capacity and performance perspective, the corporate file server is overkill for user productivity data. From a user enablement standpoint, it is a hopeless under achiever.

A No VPN Zone

As mentioned above, users now have multiple devices, some of which are constantly internet connected. They want to access their data from any of these devices at any time. In the past, this access was provided via a virtual private network (VPN) which leveraged a VPN client installed on the remote device. Even when a mobile user’s equipment consisted solely of a single windows laptop, that approach was at best, problematic. VPNs were typically slow and unreliable. Now that the user laptop can be a Macintosh running OS/X or a Chromebook, making sure that the right VPN is installed and working reliably is simply too difficult for the average user and too much of a headache for the overworked IT administrator to focus on.

To make matters worse, the mobile user of today also has an iOS or Android based tablet that they will create and modify content on. While often assumed to be a “consumption” device only, one look at the hundreds of keyboard options available for both tablet types makes it clear that net new data is being created or modified on these devices. In addition, their consumption device and often their “capture” device, is their smartphones. They want to reference their data from it, share it as well as store their captured images. That means that users will want to or need to access their data from these devices. Making sure that a VPN client is available for each makes the VPN challenge even worse.

Finally there is the performance issues related with tunneling through to the corporate data center. The security risks of bringing a user directly into the data center means that VPN software needs very tight control and the use of data encryption. This overhead causes significant reduction in bandwidth utilization.

Even if the performance and compatibility issues of VPN access could be resolved, there is also a data placement problem. Users want to have all of their data (or most of it) synchronized with some of their devices some of the time. As mentioned above, users are resorting to consumer focused cloud companies that can provide these services when IT doesn’t offer them. An organization that allows its users to leverage these services runs the risk of corporate data loss. Making sure there is a simple and secure way to access that data really needs to be the responsibility of IT.

Sharing Outside The Organization

The second challenge with the traditional file server is that users want to be able to share their documents. In the past sharing used to mean saving data on the same network hard drive so a colleague could get to the file. Sharing outside the organization used to mean emailing it to a business partner or client. In our highly mobile world both of these methods are now completely outdated.

File servers, because they are behind company fire walls, requires VPN access which is poorly suited to meet this new type of sharing. Users want to be able to share data with colleagues, partners and customers via a simple link. Interestingly, the demand for sharing data via a link, is an excellent opportunity for IT to control what data is shared, who it is shared with and how long it can be shared for; but that means IT needs to get directly involved in providing the service. If IT ignores the need for this service, users will upload data to link sharing sites that are outside of IT’s purview and expose the organization to all sorts of data management problems.

Watch our On-Demand Webinar:
"How To Increase User Productivity and Ensure Data Security"

Collaboration is Key

While the synchronization and sharing of data is what users are asking for, what they really need is advanced collaboration capabilities. For example, the ability to communicate in near real-time about the documents that they are sharing. This may include commenting and notification capabilities, the ability to check-in and check-out files and even the ability to edit in real time from any connected device. If IT can provide its users with these capabilities, they have the potential to save users countless time having to remind their colleagues to review material, making sure the right version is being edited and making sure that all suggested changes have been made. It should also better facilitate brainstorming and content development.

Collaboration is about connecting people with each other and with the content they need to work on together. This often requires collaborating with people both inside an organization and with outsiders such as partners, clients, and prospects. This requires an inclusive collaboration capability that allows IT to manage not just employees of their own companies, but also how outsiders are connected with their systems and what they’re allowed to do.

Obviously a collaboration function of this nature is well outside the scope of a traditional file server or NAS. SharePoint is a weak attempt to bring collaboration to legacy file servers and NAS technologies. Not only does adding SharePoint add cost and complicate data protection, it also lacks the ease of use, access and the native device support that these users are after.

The File Sync, Share, Collaborate Solution

The answer for many organizations is to directly address the demands of an increasingly mobile workforce with a business class file sync, share and collaboration solution. Typically this solution will also be cloud based, but as long as the solution is focused on the concerns of a business instead of a consumer, the cloud can be a very effective vehicle for delivering this service. In addition, the solution has to be easy to use and intuitive like consumer grade services are in order to gain the wide spread adoption necessary to secure content throughout the organization.


The temptation for IT and the storage team in particular is to ignore the new demands of the highly mobile and device ladened workforce. After all, if they take matters into their own hands and leverage a public cloud service, it can be viewed as one less thing on IT’s already overloaded plate. Not only will this attitude come back to haunt the data center, it is also not the best position to take for empowering either the end user or the organization. By embracing this request and creating, essentially, the next generation NAS, IT can increase end-user productivity and ensure business data security.

Soonr is a client of Storage Switzerland

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Twelve years ago George Crump founded Storage Switzerland with one simple goal; to educate IT professionals about all aspects of data center storage. He is the primary contributor to Storage Switzerland and is a heavily sought after public speaker. With over 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the US, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN, Virtualization, Cloud and Enterprise Flash. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland he was CTO at one of the nation's largest storage integrators where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection.

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