Migrating data from file servers to SharePoint isn't a no-brainer

The Web features fans and critics of migrating data from file servers to SharePoint. An expert weighs in.

Many organizations are debating whether it's better to keep hosting file data on file servers or to move the data to SharePoint. Plenty of people will tell you that file data should always be stored in SharePoint. Conversely, some believe that file servers are a more logical choice. So, which should you use?

Although there are compelling arguments for and against migrating file data to SharePoint, no argument is strong enough to hold up in every situation. That being the case, there are a number of different things that administrators must consider with regard to file data migrations.

What are the benefits of migrating?

Brien PoseyBrien Posey

One of the biggest benefits to moving file data to SharePoint is that the Microsoft platform offers search features that make it easy to locate documents. Another benefit is SharePoint's workflows, which are relatively easy to set up, for submitting and approving documents.

Document versioning is sometimes cited as a reason for migrating file data to SharePoint, but there are ways of implementing versioning on a file server.

Finally, SharePoint is a collaborative environment -- especially when collaboration tool Yammer is being used. Yammer makes it possible to have document-specific discussion threads.

Will data types in file servers be problematic?

Although there are tremendous benefits to migrating file data to SharePoint, an important consideration is the type of data that you can store on your file servers.

As compared with file servers, SharePoint offers search features that make it easy to locate documents.

SharePoint document libraries are best suited to storing document files, such as Microsoft Office or PDF files. It may not make sense to store other types of data in SharePoint. SharePoint is designed to store file data in a SQL Server database. So, if you have a database stored on a file server, does it really make sense to store a database inside a database?

Data size is also a factor. SharePoint works best for relatively small files. By default, the maximum document size is 50 MB, but you can modify the threshold value and store files as large as 2 GB (which isn't even enough to accommodate a 30-minute 1080i video file).

The maximum amount of data that can be stored in a SharePoint content database is a mere 4 TB (although you can have up to 500 content databases per farm), but Microsoft recommends that content databases remain at less than 200 GB in size. Otherwise, there can be problems with backing up the database. You can read more about content database limits here.

Can drive mappings be problematic?

An often overlooked consideration is whether drive mappings will be a problem after a migration. It is possible to map a network drive to a SharePoint document library, but you will likely break some drive mappings (especially those that users have created themselves) when you migrate.

How much work is involved?

Another important consideration is the amount of work involved in the migration process. Are the benefits of moving file data to SharePoint worth the effort required to migrate the data?
Is degraded performance an issue?

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Whether SharePoint performs as well as a file server is hotly debated on the Web. As previously noted, SharePoint uses SQL Server for native data storage, and a SQL Server has a lot more overhead than a file server. With the proper hardware however, SQL Server can perform just as well as (if not better than) a file server.

Even so, SQL Server wasn't designed for storing file data. Some organizations have found that they need to use Binary Large Object (BLOB) storage instead of SQL, because SQL Server simply could not handle file data efficiently enough. When BLOB storage is used, SharePoint stores file metadata in SQL Server, but the actual file data gets stored outside SQL Server.

What about cost?

Finally, organizations must consider the cost of storing file data on SharePoint. File servers typically require a server license and a client access license (CAL) for each user. SharePoint servers on the other hand, require Windows Server licenses and CALs, but also require SharePoint server licenses and SQL Server licenses. From a licensing prospective, it is much more expensive to store data on a SharePoint server than on a file server.

Conclusion

For organizations that have primarily document-based data and that can afford the licensing fees, migrating file data to SharePoint could prove to be a smart move. But those with large files or data not based on documents are probably better off using file servers, at least for the time being.

This was first published in April 2014

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