What is file sharing?
File sharing is the public or private sharing of files or folders on a computer connected to a network. Files can easily be shared outside a network via removable media, but the term file sharing almost always refers to sharing files on a network.
File sharing allows several people to use the same file data. Some users may be able to create and modify files depending on access permissions, while others may only have read access or even no access.
Types of file sharing
There are countless file sharing varieties, but most of the file sharing systems available fall into one of two categories -- operating system file sharing or internet file sharing.
Operating system file sharing
Nearly any modern operating system provides integrated file sharing capabilities. For example, Windows supports file sharing using server message block (SMB). An administrator can share a folder on Microsoft's Resilient File System (ReFS), which makes the folder accessible through the SMB protocol.
There are typically numerous additional features available, although the specific sharing options vary by operating system. In addition to specifying user permissions for shared folders, it's also possible to impose storage quotas that limit the amount of data a user can store within the file share. Additionally, Windows Server offers a feature where an administrator can specify what types of data can be stored where. For example, if an admin designates a shared folder for Microsoft Office documents, they can prevent users from storing music or video files in that location.
Internet file sharing
There are several types of internet file sharing, which each serve a specific purpose, but the most common include the following:
- Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing is a consumer-level technology in which each participant's PC acts as a client in a much larger file sharing network. When a participant downloads files from this network, the P2P software identifies where the data resides and then facilitates the download process. While there are legitimate uses for P2P networks, they have gained a reputation for being used primarily for the distribution of pirated media.
- Enterprise file sync and share services have gained popularity for remote work because they enable files to be saved in the cloud and accessed via a desktop or mobile device. If the user updates a file or creates a new file while working offline, that file is automatically synchronized to the main storage repository the next time the user is online. These storage services retain data in a centralized location where the organization can properly secure and back it up. Any data downloaded to or created on an end user's device should be stored in a special encrypted folder (often referred to as a vault) to keep the data from being compromised if a device is lost or stolen.
- Portal websites, such as Microsoft's SharePoint Online, allow users to share files and folders with co-workers and, in some cases, people residing outside of the organization via a shared link. These portal-based file sharing services provide real-time, collaborative access through a web browser or mobile app, which means users can access files from anywhere, using nearly any device.
How does file sharing work?
To organize files in an enterprise file sharing tool, an administrator creates a folder and grants access to the appropriate users. Doing so usually means creating one or more groups and then adding the groups to the folder's access control list. This allows the administrator to set read/write access to apply to entire groups or individual users, as needed.
Then, users can access files from the folders they have access to. Files are stored on another computer or hosted on a physical or cloud-based server. Users click on files that they have access to and open them on their local desktops. Accessing files via another computer works through P2P file sharing where each computer is a client in a larger network. Server-based file sharing, on the other hand, is a product of the File Transfer Protocol (FTP), where access can be restricted based on permissions set by the administrator.
Typically, a user can view and edit a stored file, save any changes, and those changes will appear the next time they open the file. All users who have access to a shared folder or file will see the latest updates to that folder or file.
How to choose file sharing software
Choosing file sharing software ultimately comes down to matching features with the organization's needs. If the highest priority is providing access to multiple files within one or more folders, the organization may be able to use the built-in operating system or cloud computing capabilities. It's possible that the network-attached storage (NAS) already has file sharing capabilities, eliminating the need for software. However, depending on the general business use case, a portal site might be a good alternative to a traditional file server. Likewise, an enterprise file sync and share system such as Box, Citrix ShareFile or Egnyte might be a good option if many remote users frequently work offline.
An organization doesn't have to use only a single type of file sharing software. Instead, organizations should explore using multiple file sharing tools, each targeted at a particular use case where they're most appropriate.