In a cloud- and mobile-based world, one might think companies would have graduated beyond using email attachments as their primary mode of collaboration. Attachments can invite all sorts of problems, from version control to data security issues.
But try as they might, in 2015, companies are still resorting to attachments as a primary mode of communication -- somehow, the plague of the information worker remains a necessary evil to work with other team members.
Why? It's still all too easy to collaborate with email attachments compared with other content management systems. Consider that not everyone has access to your SharePoint. Not everyone uses the same cloud storage solution like OneDrive for Business or Dropbox or regular Box or something else. Not everyone is credentialed to use a corporate FTP server. Users don't always have permission to share large files by uploading them to a secure area of your own website. Many businesses block Google Drive and other third-party storage solutions. What is left, really, when you just need to get some files in the hands of other people? The lowest common denominator: email attachments.
But there is little doubt today that email attachments can create project management snafus and data security issues. Consider these problems:
- Version control. As soon as you save a file and then send it in an email, you have -- by definition -- created a versioning problem; the file in your control and the version that someone else can control because it's in their inbox. How much time is wasted reconciling these versions? How many versions of the file "Deck for review JGH round 2 LR reviewed by JA 23JUL now final JG" do you have?
- Data loss risk. You can have all of the fancy permission structures, site security trimming and directory security that you want, but as soon as someone puts a file into email, all of that security goes away -- unless you have a rights management solution that is enabled and working correctly.
- Storage complications. Everyone knows that email inboxes are where knowledge goes to die. But every time you put a 5 MB attachment in a message, it gets stored in Exchange. For those of us without the luxury of unlimited email storage quotas, that means 25 MB of your quota is squandered when you have three volleys of edits, in addition to the version control problems. Very few of us are diligent enough to go through and delete old drafts anyway, preferring to archive them as a poor man's version history.
- Unproductive exchanges. How many times have you uploaded a giant PowerPoint deck and sent it off -- "last edits of the night; I'll check on this in the morning!" -- and then woke up to discover your message had bounced back from the remote mail server because it was too large to be accepted? What a waste of productivity.
So, the problem is clear, but how will it be solved? Microsoft may have an answer by using OneDrive integration to power modern attachments for Exchange and SharePoint.
Introducing modern attachments
Here's the basic story: When users have Outlook 2016 or Outlook Web Access (OWA) connected to an Exchange Server 2016 mailbox or Office 365 and attach a document, they can choose files from their own hard drive or storage or OneDrive for Business. If they choose a OneDrive for Business file, the attachment presented in the message is actually just a link to the file on the OneDrive for Business tenant instance, automatically provisioned and permissioned so the recipient of the message can either view the attachment, edit it or both. Users can change these permissions directly from the draft message, but they are also set up by default. The attachment is stored in an "email attachments" folder within the OneDrive for Business library.
If the addressee is outside the organization, they will receive a second email that is a guest invitation link to sign in with a Microsoft account and synchronize with the sender's OneDrive site. This invitation and account sync remains valid for all future attachment sharing, even if it is done by a different user at the sender's business. If the addressee is inside the organization, he or she is simply added to the access control list for the file and all is well, no invitation needed.
This all works fine on the Web today if you are in Office 365 and have the right licensing and plans -- it all just works from OWA. Intelligent attachment support for Outlook on the desktop will come in the fall, when Outlook and Office 2016 are released for Windows and that's the missing piece for shops that have migrated entirely to Office 365.
Modern attachments for on-premises deployments
If you are an on-premises Exchange organization, what will you need to do to take advantage of this OneDrive integration?
- You will need a SharePoint Server 2016 on-premises deployment to store shared intelligent attachments. (For what it's worth, various places currently call this feature "modern attachments," "intelligent attachments" and "next-generation attachments," so keep your eyes peeled for the right nomenclature.) It is possible that support for these attachments will be back-ported to SharePoint 2013 in a service pack or cumulative update, especially since Exchange 2016 will nicely coexist otherwise with currently deployed SharePoint versions.
- It will be possible to edit within Outlook Web Access alongside existing messages without having to depend solely on the full fat Office desktop applications, but it'll require the forthcoming Office Web Apps Server 2016 deployed somewhere on your network -- one per Exchange namespace.
- Neither of these requirements preclude using an Office 365 OneDrive for Business instance with everything else residing on premises -- you can use the cloud just for attachment interchange. This is known as hybrid attachment support and will be available as soon as Exchange Server 2016 reaches release to manufacturing.
From a content administration perspective, OneDrive integration means users can manage the lifecycle of attachments exactly like any other document library. You can set expiration, archival and so on exactly as with any other SharePoint content; there is no difference.
The last word
If you have an Office 365 tenant now, check out this attachment feature and then spin up previews of Exchange and SharePoint 2016 in your labs now, to get a handle on how it would work for your on-premises deployment.
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