As a completely cloud-based organisation, there was no backup service in place, but instead an ad hoc Dropbox solution was used to store files off-site. Each user simply created a free personal account which usually had sufficient capacity for most users. It was time to migrate to something better: OneDrive for Business, the final piece in the Microsoft’s cloud puzzle that is Office 365.
We were really looking forward to rolling out OneDrive and we started with a few pilot users. Here are some of the use cases that came up as part of the general rollout.
At a minimum, OneDrive functions as a backup for files that otherwise only exist on the employee’s computers and laptops. All business related files were moved from My Documents or the Dropbox folder to the new OneDrive folder. The OneDrive application then automatically uploads the files to the user’s 1TB personal storage space in the corporate Office 365 environment. This storage is part of the SharePoint Online file system and version control can be enabled to provide even more security in case of accidental changes or deletion.
Now, OneDrive maintains synchronisation in the background, it is completely transparent to the user, and Dropbox works the same. When users were using Dropbox they were working on local copies of their Word and Excel files. When the file was saved it was synced automatically to the cloud. (This is similar to classic version control systems like Subversion and CVS, but where synchronisation (“checking in”) is done manually.)
However, Microsoft Office turns this principle on its head. When the user opens an Office file, such as a Word file that is located in the OneDrive folder, what really happens is that Word fetches the server (cloud) copy of the file and opens that instead. When the file is saved, it is saved to the cloud and then the OneDrive client updates the local copy. In other words rather than letting OneDrive do its job, Office is also getting involved. Paul Thurott’s blog describes the behaviour more exactly and how to work around some of the excesses.
Normally all this does not concern the user as it is all completely transparent. Unfortunately, OneDrive for Business turned out to be not so robust and there were frequent problems with files being stuck out-of-sync and other generic “server errors” that defied analysis. Our road warriors could be in a 3G brown spot and the slow network connection could play havoc with the OneDrive/Office acrobatics described above. From an administration point-of-view this was difficult to troubleshoot until we understood what was happening with the files. But for most users who have never worked with version control-like systems before it was almost impossible to explain.
These recurring problems and the lack of understanding of what was happening caused a real crisis of confidence with some users. File synchronisation just cannot fail to work or it is worse than useless. There were calls to roll back to Dropbox. I explained that Microsoft just has to fix these stability issues since OneDrive is an essential component in the Office 365 service suite, and also that we gain so much functionality with OneDrive, such as integration with SharePoint.
Syncing other libraries
Once we got going with synchronising personal files using OneDrive, it was possible to start leveraging all the other features. SharePoint document libraries can also be synchronised to the local computer – a big step up from the limited file management functions in the SharePoint library web view. However, there are some limitations on the libraries that could be synced which we managed to work around.
Publishing on SharePoint
Now that any SharePoint document library could be synchronised, users could also update local copies of documents that were used in some embedded fashion in a SharePoint web part or webpage. For example the user could update a local copy of a spreadsheet in a synchronised Excel file and the web part or webpage would immediately be updated with the new table values or graphs.
SharePoint websites are a great way to manage projects and a document library is often used to store the project documents. With OneDrive, all of the team members can synchronise with a common document library for the project. That way when one member adds or updates a file, the local copy for all the other team members is updated as well. No more emailing documents! There is even a OneDrive feature to allow multiple users to simultaneously edit the same file if needed.
Customers and suppliers can also use OneDrive for Business to access document libraries in the corporate SharePoint Online. This is an extension of the project collaboration use case above where the project team comprises both employees and external users. Just be very sure to restrict the privileges of the external users to just the document library or at most the project sub-site.
There is of course a mobile app that is handy for viewing your OneDrive files. However, it only shows files from the user’s personal OneDrive space and not any other SharePoint document libraries that were synced to the user’s computer.
This is one of my favourite applications for OneDrive. The company has many document templates for various types of Word and PowerPoint documents. Normally in Office it is possible to configure a location for custom templates; this had to be a folder on the computer or a file share and this is still true for the Office 365 apps.
With OneDrive, it was possible to create a document library in SharePoint dedicated to storing document templates. This library was set up with a folder hierarchy for categorising the templates. Then every employee could simply synchronise the document library containing the templates. The local copy of the library could then be set as the custom template location in Office. So now, users can start Word or PowerPoint and select the correct template from within the application as normal.
Finally, using the SharePoint library permission settings, write access could be restricted to the template administrators, and all other employees were given read-only access which allowed them to use the templates but not to be able to change or delete them. Furthermore, when the administrators made updates to the templates, OneDrive would automatically sync the changes to every user’s local copy so that new documents would always be created using the latest templates.
OneDrive for Business is an essential tool for all Office 365 customers. It still has some robustness issues but it will delivery huge productivity benefits in project collaboration, web publishing and template portfolio management.