SharePoint, OneDrive, O365 Groups, Microsoft Teams, Azure File Shares

What is the best way for my organization to manage its documents and emails?

Today there is a bewildering array of options for managing the documents and emails for an organization. In the Microsoft world alone the new alternatives to Windows file shares and folders in Exchange include SharePoint on-premises, SharePoint Online, OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, Office 365 Groups, Microsoft Teams and Azure file shares – all of which can store documents and / or emails.

This article looks at each of these new options, avoiding technical jargon as far as possible. The objective is to cut through the confusion and enable an informed answer to the question “What is the best way to manage the documents and emails for my organization?”.

We will see how SharePoint provides the storage and search platform for all these new options, and that using any of these new approaches from Windows and Office apps on a Windows desktop is easier with MacroView DMF.

OneDrive for Business

Our focus in this article is on managing documents and emails for an organization, so OneDrive for Business is relevant and OneDrive is not. OneDrive is free storage space in the Microsoft cloud for an individual. As an individual you could also choose to store your files in Apple Drive, DropBox, Google Drive, or many other web-based storage options.

OneDrive for Business allows an organization that has an Office 365 subscription to allocate a cloud-based storage area for each of its members (users). A user can use that OneDrive for Business area to store files that generally do not need to be seen by other users in the organization. I say ‘generally’ because the permissions for some areas in a user’s OneDrive for Business area can be such that other users can see and maybe even edit the files in that area.

Saving from Word to a OneDrive for Business area (OneDrive – MacroView). Note the list of folders in the OneDrive for Business area and that the user's personal OneDrive is also available.

OneDrive for Business areas replace the personal areas that users had on Windows file servers – in many cases these areas were known to users as their ‘N’: drive. The personal areas on file servers were better than using C: drives because the file servers were backed up and generally better managed than C: drives. OneDrive for Business areas are better again because, being in the cloud, they are readily accessible from anywhere.

From a technical perspective, the OneDrive for Business area for each user is a separate site collection in the SharePoint Online environment that the organization has as part of its Office 365 subscription. The big difference is that a user has full permission to his / her OneDrive for Business site collection, but normally not so much permission to other site collections.

If the organization is using on-premises SharePoint rather than Office 365 / SharePoint Online, each user can be allocated a Personal Site (also known as a My Site). So OneDrive for Business areas within SharePoint Online are the replacement for Personal Sites / My Sites in on-premises SharePoint. It is possible to have a hybrid configuration, where Office 365 is used to host OneDrive for Business areas while the rest of the document store remains in on-premises SharePoint.

OneDrive for Business site collections display nicely in the Browse mode of MacroView DMF and related products such as MacroView Message and MacroView Case and Matter. These personal site collections are shown under a separate heading node that is labelled to show the user to whom the site collection belongs. The other site collections for which the user has access permission are also shown in the MacroView display of the structure of the organization’s SharePoint document store.

OneDrive for Business site collections displayed in MacroView pane in Outlook. Note how the MacroView display is familiar to users of Windows File Explorer.

A MacroView user can: 

  • click to expand a OneDrive for Business site to see its sub-nodes
  • click on a document library, document set or folder in their OneDrive for Business site to see the documents and emails that are already stored in that area
  • navigate around their OneDrive for Business site using Search Site Tree and favorites
  • drag and drop emails from Outlook to save them in areas within their OneDrive for Business site
  • drag and drop attachments or files from any Windows folder to save them in areas within their OneDrive for Business site
  • drag and drop to move and / or copy documents and emails to other areas of the SharePoint store where they have permission

In short, MacroView makes viewing, navigating and working with a OneDrive for Business personal site feel as familiar as using a Windows file share and the same as working with any other area in SharePoint Online or SharePoint on-premises.

When would OneDrive for Business be the best way for an organization to manage its documents and emails? The answer is that normally OneDrive for Business is part of an overall SharePoint Online storage approach.

SharePoint

From its first version back in 2001 Microsoft SharePoint has had document storage and management capabilities. Those capabilities have been enhanced in subsequent versions of SharePoint, particularly in SharePoint 2010 on. SharePoint has been noted as the next step from using Windows file shares because in addition to being able to store documents in a hierarchy of folders it also provides features that previously were only seen in document management systems. These include:

  • Recording additional metadata for documents
  • Searching (based on content and / or metadata)
  • Ability to store multiple versions of a document
  • Unique numbering of documents
  • Check-out / Check-In (to reserve a document for editing and to control when a new version was available to other users)
  • Co-authoring (collaborative editing – in conjunction with Microsoft Office apps)
  • Flexible security over document access, including document-level security
  • Compliance (such as legal holds and in-place record declaration)
  • Expiration (policy-based retention / archiving of documents)
  • Auditing
  • Workflows

SharePoint is architected so that an organization can take advantage of as many or as few of the above capabilities as they wish.

In general SharePoint is a good choice for an organization that is looking to improve upon Windows file shares and Outlook folders as a way of managing their documents and emails.

SharePoint Online and on-premises

Getting started with SharePoint is easy thanks to the way Microsoft bundles SharePoint Online with popular Office 365 subscriptions. These subscriptions also enable an organization to have OneDrive for Business (see above). On-premises SharePoint Server continues to be available, and in some ways is more flexible than SharePoint Online. Strictly speaking SharePoint Server does not have to run with on-premises server hardware – an organization can opt to run it in Azure or their own private cloud / data center.

Collaboration

Microsoft promotes SharePoint as a collaboration tool. SharePoint does facilitate collaboration. This is particularly the case with SharePoint Online, which removes the need for an organization to concern itself with providing access to SharePoint for external users (i.e. users outside their firewall). Co-authoring – the ability to have a document edited simultaneously by multiple users – can be seen as the highest form of collaboration, but the ability to securely Share a document with other users – including users outside the organization – is the way SharePoint most often facilitates collaboration.

Searching for Documents and Emails

The enhanced search capabilities of SharePoint are relevant to most organizations. Taking advantage of those search capabilities requires that the organization record additional metadata for stored documents – another of SharePoint’s capabilities. To gain full advantage the organization needs to allow the SharePoint search to be performed direct from popular business applications, particularly Microsoft Office – this is enabled by add-on software such as MacroView DMF.

Capabilities such as numbering, versioning and explicit check-out are popular with organizations that are using SharePoint to replace a traditional document management system, or whose business needs are such that a traditional DM system has always been of interest.

Managing Emails in SharePoint

SharePoint can store any type of file, including the MSG files that are the best way to store an Outlook email message. However, the out-of-the-box integration of Outlook and SharePoint is not great – it’s not possible to drag and drop to save emails to SharePoint.

Several Outlook add-ons are available to fix this problem. Examples of such add-ons are MacroView Message and MacroView DMF. These MacroView products enable flexible searching for documents and emails based on their metadata and / or content. The searches are performed direct from Outlook, i.e. the user does not need to jump out of Outlook and go to the web browser to search and to retrieve search results – something that business users find frustrating and not good for productivity.

These MacroView products also enable intuitive viewing and navigation of the structure of a SharePoint document and email store while you work in Outlook. MacroView DMF extends this to other popular business applications such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Adobe Reader, Adobe Acrobat and even to a Windows File Explorer-like app called MacroView DMF Explorer.

Office 365 Groups

As noted above, flexible security is one of the features of SharePoint – access to a site in SharePoint can be restricted to certain users and groups of users. These security arrangements are defined once the site is created. Office 365 Groups turns this on its head – you start with the group of users and then a site is created in SharePoint Online for it.

In addition to a new site in SharePoint Online, creating an Office 365 Group also defines a shared Outlook Inbox and a shared Outlook calendar. Members of the group see the new shared Inbox as one of the top-level areas in their Mail Folders pane in Outlook. You don’t have to worry about manually assigning permissions to all those resources because adding members to the group automatically gives them the permissions they need.

The SharePoint Online site that is created for the Office 365 Group looks and behaves much like any other site in SharePoint Online. The difference is that access to it is restricted. The Office 365 Group can be Public or Private. Content in a public group can be seen by anybody in your organization, and anybody in your organization is able to join the group. Content in a private group can only be seen by the members of the group and people who want to join a private group must be approved by a group owner.

The screen shot below shows how the site and document library that is created for a new Office 365 private Group is displayed in MacroView DMF Explorer – a Windows app that provides a familiar experience for users of Windows File Explorer.

Site and document library created for a new Private Office 365 Group displayed in MacroView DMF Explorer. Note file list for selected document library and formatted preview of selected file.

As noted above, each member of the Office 365 Group will see a new shared InBox in their Outlook. By using MacroView in Outlook you can drag and drop emails from that shared Inbox and save them to the document library that is also created for the Group. The result will be that the all the documents and emails for the Group will be stored conveniently in the same SharePoint Online location.

Creating an Office 365 Group is a good way to facilitate collaboration within a team. Documents that are relevant to the team can be stored in the document library that is part of the new SharePoint Online site for the Group.

Microsoft Teams

Microsoft Teams takes the Office 365 Groups concept further. In addition to a shared site in SharePoint Online, creating a Team also provides team members with an app that they can use to communicate easily, including about documents stored in the shared library. This communication occurs within channels that can be created by the new Team.

Microsoft Teams do not add any additional storage capabilities for documents that are relevant to the team, but they do facilitate communication amongst members of the Team, which in turn can reduce the volume of emails that Team members need to deal with.

Azure File Shares

In 2017 Microsoft announced the availability of another new alternative for Windows File Shares as a way of storing documents for an organization. This was to move the File Shares to the Azure area within the organization’s Office 365 tenant.

The advantage of this approach is familiarity for users and reduction in IT administration effort. To end users the files in the Azure File Share appear the same as files stored in a local file server – they can still be mapped to a drive letter. IT Administrator effort is reduced because a local file server is no longer required to store and backup the files.

However an Azure File Share does not provide the added features that come with SharePoint-based options, such as SharePoint Online, OneDrive for Business, Office 365 Groups and Microsoft Teams. For a description of these document management features see the section on SharePoint, above.

SharePoint Document Generation

More Information

For more information about solutions for managing documents and emails using SharePoint and other Microsoft technologies see macroview365.com or contact MacroView Solutions.