OneDrive is Ready – It’s Seriously Time to Ditch the X: Drive

If you are in information worker of any sort, and have been at it for any more than a couple of years, you’ve experienced it – the X: drive. Or the S: drive, P, R, whatever the letter. It’s the drive letter that is mapped to a network based file share that contains most of the company’s documents.

My first experience with IT was in 1989, setting up and managing a Novell Netware 3 network for a University department. Logging into the network (through a DOS prompt) would automatically add a drive to your machine with all of the resources that you needed, the storage you could ever want (measured in MB). It was “magical”.

This basic model exists to this day. We’ve tried to move away from it, we’ve tried very hard. We’ve had large monolithic document management systems imposed from above like FileNet and Documentum. These solutions gained success in specific areas, as they were mandated from above. SharePoint itself came along and democratized document management to a much broader degree, but the pesky X: drive still persists. Why?

One word. Usability.

End users want to be able to open up File Explorer, navigate to their drive, browse their folder structure and work with their documents. The drive mapping metaphor has succeeded so well because it fits this scenario perfectly, and its familiarity. Ever since personal computing began, we’ve accessed file storage using drive letters.

Users use formal document management systems reluctantly. This is often due to overzealous metadata requirements (just fill out this 20 field form to store your document), burdensome procedures, or performance issues. However given the choice, they retreat to the familiarity of their file systems, and their X: drives more often than not.

Consultants and vendors preaching a new way of doing things are in the end shouting against thunder. We can’t expect users to adapt to new systems quickly – what we need, at least transitionally is for the systems to adapt to the users. This is where OneDrive comes in.

One of the most compelling features of SharePoint 2013 in my opinion was OneDrive for Business. The reason that I felt that was that for the first time, SharePoint document management was tightly integrated into File Explorer. There had been previous attempts at synchronizing (SharePoint Workspace), but that required separate client software and required a lot of manual dragging and dropping.

The implementation of OneDrive for Business was initially hobbled by restrictions and limits, and was rather confusing, limiting adoption. However, through the combination of the current OneDrive sync client, with the Files On Demand feature available in the Windows Fall Creators update, OneDrive is truly ready for widespread adoption. Over the past few years, OneDrive has become both reliable and fast, and Files on Demand combined with in-context sharing put it over the top.

OneDrive Files on Demand

Files On Demand in File Explorer

Screenshot taken while flying on airplane mode from a laptop containing a single 256 GB drive.

Files on Demand allows you to easily control what files are synchronized to your local device, while still being able to see all your file assets, directly from File Explorer.

In the figure above, the cloud icon indicates that that folder is not currently stored locally. That’s a good thing, because opening up the folder properties reveals that it is over 1 TB in size, and the drive on the laptop (that I’m currently writing this with) is only 256 GB. Moreover, that screen shot was taken while flying, and totally disconnected. I could still see things that were not on my local device.

If connected, cloud files can be interacted with the same way that local files can, by any application. Opening them just requires a little more time as the file is downloaded in the background. If you will be offline, bringing a file local is a simple matter of right clicking on that file, or folder, and selecting “Always keep on this device”.

Files on Demand is currently available to Windows Insiders, and will be generally available with the Windows Fall Creators Update on October 17, 2017.

In Context Sharing

OneDrive sharing from File Explorer

The new OneDrive in context sharing experience

Up until very recently, sharing a drive from Explorer was a rather frustrating experience. You could identify your file, right click on it, click on share, and then a browser window would pop open, and if you were lucky, you would be presented with a view of the OneDrive web user interface. This experience was jarring, and required multiple steps.

Over the past summer, OneDrive rolled out updates that change this behaviour significantly. Now clicking on share brings up the dialog above and sharing is done completely from there. No context switching, and no authentication failures.

Time to move

These two new features, combined with the performance and reliability improvements over the last few years puts OneDrive over the top. Finally, all of the usability issues have been addressed. End users can live completely in File Explorer should they wish to do so, and be oblivious to the workings of OneDrive and/or SharePoint. However, at the same time, they will gain significant benefits compared to the shared file system.

However, OneDrive provides much more than simply an alternate storage location for your files. Once content is stored in OneDrive, a whole host of options are opened. The organization benefits because all this content is immediately made discoverable through technologies like Delve and Search. File access can be tracked, helping users understand what content others find valuable. There are, however, many immediate benefits that occur directly to the users themselves. I wanted to call out three of them, but there are many more.

OneDrive File Viewing

OneDrive comes with a long list of file viewers. These viewers allow the contents of a file to be viewed without opening the underlying application, which tends to be significantly faster than opening the host application. In fact, the application itself does not need to be installed. This is valuable in itself, but when combined with Files On Demand a file can be viewed whether or not it is even stored locally. A large Adobe Illustrator file can be viewed locally without it even being present on disk. Files On Demand is also available on Mac, and in the OneDrive client, and therefore, this very same file can be viewed on iPhone, Android, iPad, anywhere the OneDrive application is available. This, to my mind, is a game changer.

Sharing

Sharing with OneDrive is not new, but sharing directly from the explorer window is. That sharing experience is also now being consolidated across devices, and embedded into Microsoft Office applications. In addition, OneDrive files can be shared externally with an anonymous link, or securely with others that have a Microsoft account (personal or organizational), but what will be shortly available is the ability to securely share files externally with people that have any type of account.

Files Restore

Announced at Ignite 2017, FilesRestore provides end users with the ability to easily track all versions of their files for the past 30 days, and to instantly restore them to a point of time anywhere in that window. Administrators have long had this capability through a set of operations, but FilesRestore puts this capability into the hands of the end user with a simple to use user interface. Users can rest assured that their files are safe not only from disaster, but from their own mistakes, malware, ransomware or anything. Files stored in OneDrive are safe.

These are but three compelling benefits that users can enjoy by moving content to OneDrive. There are many more. Foe a good overview, and to hear all of the OneDrive announcements from Ignite 2017, be sure to check out “OneDrive – Past, Present and Future“.

It’s time to ditch the shared X: drive once and for all.

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