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In the tech world we probably hear “move it to the cloud” about a hundred times a day. While the cloud is a great thing, it’s not always right for everything. In this case we are talking about servers and why one type might be better than the other for your organization. {Here, specifically, we are discussing the differences between on-site servers and cloud servers, and how one type might be
better for your organization.}

What is a file server?

TechTarget defines a file server as:

“A computer responsible for the central storage and management of data files so that other computers on the same network can access the files.”

Essentially a file server is a physical server located within your office, or in another data center that allows employees to access shared files. These servers have a persistent connection to your PC through a local area network (LAN) or a virtual private network (VPN).

When using a file server, your PC is talking directly to the file server on an ongoing basis over that network connection. Therefore there is no “syncing” happening: all changes being made to the files are being done in real time. What this means is that after changes are saved, those changes are written right to the master copy of your file on the server and everyone else will immediately see those changes.

Now we know that having a physical server on-site takes up a significant amount of space and that servers themselves can be a bit pricey – as can colocating it in a separate data center – but file servers have one feature that make them an obvious choice for a lot of use cases:

FILE LOCKING

This means that while one person is accessing the file the server places a “lock” on that file, making sure two people cannot make changes at the same time. This is especially important for documents like financial spreadsheets where two people making changes at the same time and overwriting the other person’s changes could be disastrous. With file locking you’re assured that no changes are going to be overridden or erased.

 

What is a cloud server?

We couldn’t find a definition of cloud file storage that was really on-point, so here’s the IT Freedom definition:

“A system that stores your files on servers owned by the provider and that typically has both a web-based interface and piece of software that syncs your files from the cloud to your local computer.”

There are a lot of cloud server providers out there, like Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive, that allow you to upload files and share them with the members of your team.

While they serve the same basic need, cloud storage is very different from a file server. Cloud storage is often more affordable, you don’t have to allocate any extra space in the office, and it may be quicker to setup and maintain. While these are all great benefits and definitely “pros” to using cloud-based storage, it’s important to understand the other side as well. These aren’t necessarily “cons,” but they are things to be aware of.

First and foremost, most people are accessing files via that “sync” method mentioned above. In this scenario, there’s a little piece of software installed on your computer that’s syncing your files back and forth from your local drive to the cloud. But unlike with a file server, the PC and cloud aren’t always talking to each other in real time. When you open a file from your locally synced version of your files, you’re opening the version right there on your computer, not the “master” copy in the cloud.

This has two big effects:

First, the “master copy” of the file you just opened in the cloud doesn’t necessarily know that you’re editing it on your local computer. We mentioned the concept of “file locking” above in the context of the file server, but cloud-based storage doesn’t necessarily do that. (We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that some providers including Dropbox and Microsoft do take some measures to stimulate file locking, but it remains a significant challenge in using cloud-based file storage.) This can lead to huge problems around two people making competing changes like we described above.

Second, the changes you’ve made to a file are stored on your computer, and then that file must sync back to the master file in order for those changes to be made and available to everyone else sharing that file. Keep in mind that syncing doesn’t always happen immediately.

Why is this a problem?

The unreliability of the syncing schedule is a problem for obvious reasons. If your changes aren’t synced right away, your team could be working with an old version of that information until they are synced. And when your changed copy does sync, your changes could override other important changes made in that time in between. Often when changes are made it’s the last to save/sync back with the master that are actually saved.

As an example: Say you’re on a plane, working on a file stored on your local computer. When you hit save, close your laptop, and exit the plane you don’t immediately link up to wifi – meaning that your changes are still not visible to anyone else looking at that file. In this case, if your team was also making changes while you were offline, and their changes saved and synced hours before you get connected to internet, your changes would sync and override all of their changes…yikes! This is why the “file locking” feature on file servers can be extremely important.

There are obviously pros and cons to each type of server and ultimately it comes down to what is best for your business. Part of what we wanted to get across, other than the differences between file and cloud servers, is that just because everything seems to be “moving to the cloud” doesn’t mean that it has to. File servers may seem old school, but depending on your organization and the types of data being accessed, an “old fashioned” file server might be the best option for you.

For decisions like this we always advise talking to a professional with thorough knowledge of how these decisions will affect your business.