As Seinfeld might say, so what is the deal with cloud file systems?  The cloud is becoming ever more popular and is no longer a leading edge solution, but rather a standard part of most nonprofit IT systems.
This post on individual use considerations of OneDrive and Dropbox as file systems is followed by a post on using them in organizations.  I also gave a webinar recently on the pros and cons of each, and you can find the slides and recording here.
More and more organizations are finding that “the cloud” is finally delivering on the promise of offering more – features, stability, availability – for less – costs, maintenance. This is especially true for nonprofit organizations, where a basic Office 365 subscription is free for qualifying nonprofits. You’ve probably heard about Office 365 being used for email (or may even be using it at your organization), but Office 365 comes bundled with a lot of other helpful features.
As more and more data moves out to the cloud, and more and more staff are working from a wide variety of remote locations, one of the last remaining ties to a physical computer may be specific files.  Thus far, file sharing has been one of hardest tasks to make user-friendly and secure when in the cloud.
Dropbox and Microsoft’s OneDrive both synchronize files from a local computer to a server in the cloud.  Dropbox makes files available for download or upload from their website or server.  OneDrive is part of the Office 365 suite and allows individual storage.  It is meant to work with SharePoint which is the group file storage and collaboration solution for departments and/or your entire organization.
Dropbox and Microsoft have announced integration between their services. Because this is still new, we have not had a chance to fully test, and it is still early in their partnership.

It’s a just a file. In the Cloud. How Hard Can it Be?

When we are talking about files, what we usually mean are documents. And usually Microsoft Office documents. Documents come in all different sizes, and the traditional file server was designed to be accessed from a local area network over a fast connection.
The fundamental problem with cloud-based file solutions is that the files themselves are in the cloud while the software which allows you to open, read, and edit the file are on your computer. Different solutions have tried to bridge this gap, but there’s no perfect (or even really good) solution.  This has led to many options, all of which make various trade offs, and none of which fully solve the problem.

Sync a local copy

The most basic, straightforward (and common) solution is to sync your files from your local computer(s) to a server in the cloud. To work on your files, you bring your files from the cloud to where your software is on your computer. When you are finished the file must be re-uploaded in it’s new version.  This is the solution that Dropbox for Business and Box- two of the biggest players- use. This feature is also available with Google Drive, Microsoft’s OneDrive Business, and most other cloud file solutions.

Access through a browser

The alternative is to store the files in the cloud and work on them in the cloud.  This is what Google Drive and OneDrive Business (and SharePoint) do. Your files are stored in the cloud and accessed through your web browser. You can edit the files directly through your web browser, or open the file directly in the cloud with your software. When you are done editing, your file stays right where it is.

Let’s Introduce Our Players

We’re going to discuss OneDrive Business/SharePoint and Dropbox for Business as the best representatives for these two paradigms.
But before we go further, let’s define some terms:
OneDrive for Business is Microsoft’s individual cloud file solution and is available as part of Office 365. It provides 1TB (up to 1,000 GB or 20,000 files no larger than 2GB each) of data storage for each user.
SharePoint Online is the collaborative cloud file solution that is part of Office 365. While OneDrive provides space for each user, SharePoint is the group file storage for departments and/or your entire organization. They are essentially two halves of the same whole.
Office 365 is Microsoft’s bundled cloud services. Its basic version includes email service, instant messaging, OneDrive Business, SharePoint, and Office Online.
Microsoft Office refers to the suite of office productivity software that we all know and… have a cordial relationship with. The latest version of Microsoft Office is Office 2013, which can integrate with OneDrive Business and SharePoint. There are different editions of Office 2013, but almost all of them include Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Office Online is the online version of Microsoft Office and is part of Office 365. It consists of Word Online, Excel Online, and PowerPoint Online (Office 365 includes Outlook Online, but email’s not really part of this discussion). Office Online has a lot of the same features as Microsoft Office, but lacks some of the advanced editing available in the Microsoft Office software.
Dropbox is a file syncing utility. It syncs files from the Dropbox server to user’s local computer (or computers, plural). Files are also available for download and upload from the Dropbox website. Dropbox for Business is the business version of Dropbox. It offers unlimited backups and storage. (Which is more dangerous than it sounds.  More on that in part 2.)

Ease of Use

Dropbox for Business

Dropbox for Business is a service which synchronizes your files and folders (and your organization’s files and folders) between individual computers. It also synchronizes these files and folders to the Dropbox website. This means you can access your files on computers which don’t have Dropbox installed by downloading or uploading the file.
The advantage of Dropbox for Business is that it’s simple and familiar. Not only do most of your staff probably already have a personal Dropbox account, but Dropbox uses the familiar file and folder structure that everyone is familiar with.
However, while the Dropbox website can work well in a pinch, it’s too slow to use on a daily basis.  This is a common complaint with online editing.  It is more expensive and has fewer features than OneDrive/Sharepoint.

OneDrive Business/SharePoint

OneDrive’s true strength is its integration with Microsoft Office and Office Online. Typically, OneDrive files stay in OneDrive and are accessed through a web browser. By clicking on a Word document in OneDrive, you can open it in Word Online or the desktop version of Microsoft Word. You can also open OneDrive documents directly through your Microsoft Office software.
OneDrive has a lot of the same capabilities as Dropbox in terms of local syncing, but makes better use of being hosted in the cloud. It has better search, integration with Office Online and other features of Office 365, and better security and management.  However, more features and integration may be a drawback to beginning users.  With so many more buttons to push, inevitably you will push more wrong ones before you get the hang of it.

Stay Tuned…

What about cost?  How well does each solution handle complexity?  Sharing between multiple editors?  Online collaboration?  In our next post we explore these issues.

Community IT has explored both SharePoint and OneDrive on our blog in the posts on OneDrive vs SharePoint, and SharePoint as File Server.
You may also be interested in free Webinar resources we have presented on Sharepoint, OneDrive, and Dropbox.  See our catalog of past webinars here