An enterprise file server is a centralized storage location or workspace that allows employees on connected devices to collaborate on files and folders. There are several reasons to migrate file servers to another location. This article focuses on reasons that support remote and mobile workers.
An enterprise file server is a centralized storage or workspace that allows employees on connected devices (laptops, PC, tablets, or even cell phones) to access files and folders and establish a workflow for daily collaboration on business-related tasks. The term "file server" is usually limited to access via a local network. Since 2006, with the advent of AWS and Amazon S3 and the various file synchronization and sharing platforms such as Box, Dropbox, Google Drive and OneDrive, the concept of file server is also entering a whole new cloud era. The abundance of syncing tools made file server migration (aka file sync and share) a hot topic as people realized how Dropbox and OneDrive ensured files and folders were synced and available to users at all times. We have seen migration waves where file servers have been retired and content has been migrated from file servers to external file sharing services like Dropbox and OneDrive. The motivation is to make employees more mobile and productive. Some companies find file server migrations very successful and helpful, while others have little hope and some companies do not even want to attempt the migration. So what are the reasons for the different migration experiences of different companies?
Strictly speaking, file sync-and-share and file server migration are two different concepts. File server migration typically involves migrating file servers from an old version to a newer version, such as from Windows 2012 to Windows 2019, or migrating physical file servers to a virtualized environment or a cloud environment such as VMWare or Azure Files.
Since this article focuses on supporting remote and mobile workers, we will treat file server migration as if it were synonymous with file sync-and-share and focus on the most popular option - migrating file servers to SharePoint and Azure Files.
Many companies find file server migrations to Microsoft SharePoint very successful and helpful, while others have little hope and some companies do not even want to attempt the migration. So what are the reasons for the different migration experiences of different organizations? Before we answer that question, let us first look at some of SharePoint's limitations.
According to the SharePoint Online documentation:
"Although SharePoint Online can store 30 million documents per library, for optimum performance, we recommend syncing no more than 300,000 files across all document libraries. Additionally, the same performance issues can occur if you have 300,000 items or more across all libraries you are syncing, even if you are not syncing all items in those libraries..."
Anecdotally, however, performance starts to degrade after 100,000 items. And oddly enough, this number is mentioned in the SharePoint documentation in other contexts. Whether it's 300,000 or 100,000, the bottom line is that in many real-world enterprise environments with more files, the OneDrive sync client has serious performance issues, so users eventually have to switch to the Web interface. Only the smallest organizations with the smallest data sets can benefit from the ease of use of a mapped drive.
Compared to the OneDrive sync limitation, the 5000 view item limitation in a library is a more serious issue. Once you exceed 5,000 items in a library, it becomes almost unusable.
Reorganize data across multiple sites and libraries so that none has more than 100,000 files and folders. If the OneDrive client connects to sites with more than 300,000 total items, switch to the web interface and don't use OneDrive sync. If the total number of your files is small, this workaround is OK.
This limitation is another common problem when migrating file shares to SharePoint Online. It usually manifests itself in an error like this:
"The specified file or folder name is too long. The URL path for all files and folders must be 400 characters or less (and no more than 400 characters for any single file or folder name in the URL). Please type a shorter file or folder name."
The migration will fail for any files that do not meet this requirement. And since this is the upper limit for the relative URL containing the entire path and name of the document library, this happens far too often. The result is an incomplete or aborted migration.
Another, more serious limit you may encounter is the 256-character limit on your Windows PC, when users synchronize SharePoint Online document libraries with their PCs. The error message may look like the following:
"The file name(s) would be too long for the destination folder. You can shorten the file name and try again, or try a location that has a shorter path".
Use tools that automatically shorten names to meet requirements. This is a scary workaround suggested because the files are not isolated. Common file types like Adobe InDesign or AutoCAD all have linked files from the main file to the supporting files. If the file name is truncated, the integrity of the file bundle is no longer guaranteed. Use this workaround only if your files are isolated.
In addition to reorganizing file server data into different silos in different document libraries, reorganizing permissions is also a major headache.
The following quotes illustrate why some people feel that breaking permission inheritance is not supported by SharePoint, while others point out that it is. It's confusing because the support is there, but only for relatively small data sets. The documentation explains:
"A list can have up to 30 million items, and a library can have up to 30 million files and folders. When a list, library, or folder contains more than 100,000 items, you can't break permissions inheritance on the list, library, or folder. Nor can you re-inherit permissions on it. However, you can still break inheritance on the individual items within that list, library, or folder, up to the maximum number of unique permissions in the list or library..."
This can turn permissions migration and management into a data reorganization nightmare to avoid manually breaking permission inheritance for elements in the list, library, or folder.
Reorganize data across multiple sites and libraries so that none has more than 100,000 files and folders. Redo the folder and file permissions when files and folders are reorganized. This is not a workaround, but rather a tedious way to migrate data.
Many companies also find file server migrations to Microsoft Azure Files helpful. The migration is more complicated and involves Active Directory Sync to synchronize Azure AD identities, Azure File Sync to synchronize files from local file server to Azure File Server, and also opening non-HTTP and non-HTTPS ports on the firewall to allow file transfer. Because of the complicated process and firewall requirements, Azure File Migration is generally reserved for organizations migrating all digital assets to the Microsoft Azure cloud. It's also good for other reasons, such as reduced administrative overhead, but doesn't offer much advantage over the original on-premises configuration from the perspective of supporting remote and mobile workers.
Since SharePoint is tightly integrated with OneDrive and OneDrive has adopted the general file-sync-and-share method of transferring files, the traditional drive mapping function is replaced by a sync folder on the desktop. Many business processes and applications depend on the old method of drive mapping. If your business depends on this type of drive mapping, SharePoint migration is not for you.
Because SharePoint is hosted by Microsoft and serves multiple organizations in a multi-tenant manner, it has predefined policies for backing up and restoring data. If you need a special data backup service or an advanced data retention policy, you cannot rely on SharePoint to provide you with those data services.
As documented in the SharePoint limitations above, a successful SharePoint migration may require a reorganization of the data repository. However, the reorganization may cause existing applications to no longer run on SharePoint. Certain applications, such as AutoCAD, SolidWorks and Adobe InDesign, may no longer work with documents on SharePoint. Many companies in the design and architecture industry find it very difficult to migrate to SharePoint.
Files sometimes need to be stored in a specific region to comply with regulations. Certain industries have their own policies that govern data access and tracking. If you need to know exactly where your data is hosted, keep the audit trace of file accessing history, and keep 3 to 6 years of data retention period, SharePoint migration is not the right solution for you.
The larger the data set, the more complex the migration process. The longer it takes, the more error-prone the process becomes and the higher the cost. Migrating file servers to SharePoint is usually done using the SharePoint Migration Tool (SPMT). Often the SPMT gives error messages asking you to shorten file names or split files into different libraries, which makes the migration even more complex.