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Insights and articles related to knowledge management, information security, technology, data and analytics, business process automation, platform management, and other related topics, from our experienced team of consultants.

It’s Time to Retire Your File Servers

While on-premises file servers (i.e., the S:\ drive) may have been the go-to solution in the past for collaboration, they pose several knowledge management and cybersecurity challenges – as
Abby Clobridge

Abby Clobridge

Abby Clobridge is the founder of FireOak Strategies. She works with clients around the world to enhance how organizations manage, secure, and share their knowledge. You can reach Abby at [email protected].

Most organizations have migrated at least some of their legacy services to the cloud, but one system that many organizations are still holding onto is their on-premises file servers, also known as network drives or mapped drives. These systems, which rely on outdated technology, are more than a nuisance – they lead to a host of knowledge management headaches and cybersecurity weaknesses. In this article, we explore why it’s time to retire your file servers and embrace modern alternatives.  

What are File Servers or Network Drives?  

On-premises file servers refer to physical servers located within an organization’s premises, where files and documents are stored and shared. They gained popularity in the late 1990s/early 2000s, when they became a popular method for storing corporate data, providing an in-house solution for knowledge assets. These file servers, which are commonly referred to as network drives, are often mapped to individuals’ workstations and appear as a drive labeled with a letter – i.e., the “P:\ drive” is for individuals’ personal files that are stored on a network drive, and the “S:\ drive” is for shared files.  

Is it time to retire your organization's file servers?

Knowledge Management & Information Security Challenges with File Servers 

While on-premises file servers may have been the go-to solution in the past, they pose several knowledge management and cybersecurity challenges – as well other operational issues – for organizations.  

Information Security Concerns with File Servers

From an information security perspective, auditing these systems is complex and time-consuming, making it challenging (or impossible) to track who is accessing what. This issue becomes particularly concerning when an information security incident has occurred, as leadership wants to know exactly what information or files an attacker gained access to. 

Likewise, staff often have overly-broad permissions to information through network drives – in other words, your organization might be giving away access to is entire playbook, intellectual property, and standard operating procedures, to everyone in the organization. In addition to the dangers this poses from a cybersecurity perspective, it also can lead to problems with disgruntled employees – or employees who have a propensity to copy files to take with them to their next company.  

Even if folders are restricted at the department level, we’ve seen numerous incidents of confidential information and data stored in network drives that far too many staff members have access to – old HR and Finance files containing social security numbers and personally-identifiable information (PII) are just the tip of the iceberg.  

Knowledge Management Issues with File Servers 

Traditional network drives are only designed to be browsed, not searched. Staff need to know what information is stored where, leading to wasted time trying to hunt for and find files. New staff have a hard time getting up to speed learning what’s stored where. These common knowledge management issues lead to staff frustration, duplication of work, and missed opportunities.  

From an innovation perspective, file servers often become digital junkyards that contain vast amounts of information and knowledge, much of which remains invisible and underutilized since it can’t be searched for, found, or easily re-used. If a staff member doesn’t know exactly what knowledge exists and where it is located, for all practical purposes, that knowledge doesn’t exist.   

Collaborating – even in “shared” drives – is a nightmare. File servers aren’t designed to have multiple people access a file at the same time, so staff often run into issues with files being locked. The results are a combination of multiple versions of files, and versions getting emailed around to colleagues. All of these scenarios end up leading to file versioning issues and confusions around which version of a file is the system of record.  

Many of these knowledge management issues are pain points for staff and cause frustration, but they also impact an organization’s overall productivity. Time spent trying to find files, potential delays if the right file can’t be located, and time wasted recreating work that can’t be found all add up.  

Financial and Operational Burdens 

Traditional network drives typically require an on-premises IP address to access, so staff need a VPN or other type of remote access platform to get to files stored there – adding another layer of expenses, maintenance, and security-related issues.  

The costs associated with maintaining network drives can also be substantial. In addition to the costs of licensing and maintaining the servers, there are direct and indirect costs associated with heating and cooling, physical security, IT infrastructure, patching and maintaining the servers, and running backup jobs. Plus, these servers take up valuable real estate within the office.  

Backups and Disaster Recovery Concerns 

On-premises file servers pose a challenge from a business continuity and disaster recovery perspective as well. Backing up these systems can be expensive and complex. In the event of a natural disaster (fire, flood, earthquake) or a cyberattack, restoring data from these backups can be a long, arduous process. On top of that, ensuring redundancy and geographic diversity for backups of on-premises systems can be prohibitively expensive for many organizations. 

The Solution: Retire Your File Servers and Move to the Cloud 

Cloud-based platforms such as Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace offer robust, secure, and user-friendly alternatives to on-premises file network. These platforms come with powerful search capabilities, making it easier for employees to find and discover the information they need. Sharing and collaboration are simple, too, with the ability to share links to files and work together in real-time.  

These platforms also offer robust security measures, including fine-grained access controls, data loss prevention tools, and advanced threat detection mechanisms. They provide easy remote access without the need for VPNs, and allow organizations to scale their storage needs up or down based on demand. 

FireOak’s Recommendations 

Each organization’s situation is unique, but some general recommendations:  

  • Don’t take a “lift and shift” approach – i.e., don’t plan to move all of your organization’s content directly from the on-prem file servers to the cloud and rebuild all of the same directories, folder structures, and permissions structures.  
  • Have multiple paths forward. Determine what should get migrated vs. what should get archived (or deleted).
  • Be realistic. If an organization has been working in an on-prem environment for decades, there will be a tremendous number of files involved. It is going to take some time to develop and implement a reasonable plan.  
  • Adopt cloud-to-cloud backups. In parallel with the process to retire the network drives, implement a cloud-to-cloud backup service.   
  • Migrate, then retire. A critical last step in the process is to formally retire (and literally pull the plug!) on the network drive servers.  

Conclusion 

On-premises file servers have had their day, but their shortcomings become glaringly obvious as knowledge management and cybersecurity needs have evolved. The future lies in cloud-based solutions that not only meet current needs but are also designed to evolve with future demands. Retiring file servers and transitioning to cloud-based systems isn’t just a matter of keeping up with the times – it’s a strategic move that can be a big win for knowledge management, information security, and productivity. 

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