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Replace those Shared Drives with Space Drives

by Robert Flenner

Shared drives have been popular for some time in business departments and workgroups. You can easily set up a share on your local network and begin swapping content. Typically, an administrator or the department "techie" defines the share and announces its availability. You know the drill -- the email is sent out proudly announcing:

"We now have a shared drive. Please start putting all of your templates, docs, manuals, forms, etc. on the S: drive."

Usually an enterprising team member defines a straw man directory structure for the department. In addition, each team member is free to use a certain amount of space for his or her innovative and entrepreneurial purposes -- e.g., fantasy football team rosters.

Any number of version control mechanisms and techniques are demonstrated on the share and probably not well documented. For instance, Joe uses the increasing file number technique, Sally uses the alphabet soup approach, John uses a best guess date, and Fred, well, Fred is always a problem. No one in the department quite understands Fred's techniques, but then that's another story.

Before long, the drive becomes filled with files and directories. Periodically a grooming process is required. Oh, yes, and then the next email:

"Would the owner of directory 'My-Important-Stuff' please let us know if this can be deleted?"

And so the story goes. All is well in "share-land" for awhile, but then the fateful day occurs. The network server is having a bad day. The shared drive is not accessible. No one can work. You guessed it: the next email (when the system is up again):

"Don't just depend on the shared drive. Make sure you copy needed files to your local machine, so you can continue working when the server is not available."

Everyone in the department proceeds to copy the files they need from the share to their local PC. Of course, ensuring synchronization of content in this environment is impossible.

OK, you say, if it is that bad, why have shared drives proliferated?

Truth is, they are extremely valuable. They provide the underpinning to sharing and simple collaboration. They are easy to use, require no training or procedures, and quickly become an instrument for team cooperation and departmental organization. They help the group function with minimal investment.

Technically and functionally, shared drives do have shortcomings and limitations. They are based on a client-server model. Files copied to the central server are pulled from the server when needed and pushed back in an ad hoc fashion. Multiple copies of the same information tend to flourish despite central controls. Synchronization and versioning are problematic.

Figure 1. Shared drive scenario.

Shared drives support a limiting single view to the information, usually nothing more than the directory structure. Often, this becomes out of date and quickly bypassed by share members. Finding the correct file can become difficult in the directory maze. As noted, a single point of failure can bring the entire system to a halt. In addition, security and permissions are wide and broad for all group members. This makes it impossible to keep any type of audit trail.

Table 1. Strengths and weaknesses of share drives.

Easy to learnConstantly pushing and pulling content
Promotes sharingMultiple copies/versioning difficult
Single view
Broad permissions
Single point of failure
Yet another administrator

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