Despite all the advances in “Cloud Computing” over the last year or two, a large part of most people’s work is still contained in individual files like documents (Word, Pages, PDF), spreadsheets (Excel, Numbers), text files (HTML, text, notes), delimited data files (CSV), presentations (Powerpoint, Keynote), and images (JPEG, GIF, PNG). Finding the right file-sharing solution for your small team is still critically important to using your Mac effectively.
I would like to share some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up working with small businesses that may help you as you plan for, or make improvements to, your file-sharing system.
Why Small Teams?
I wanted to limit the discussion here to small teams because if you have a large organization, there are many solutions for file-sharing already available (Mac OS X Server, Windows Server, Sharepoint, Document Management systems, and so on). A large organization also probably has a dedicated IT team to implement all of these solutions. I want to talk about what you do when you do not have those resources. I am talking to the team of 3 to 5 people, maybe 10, that wants to share files effectively, and easily, to just get your work done and move on.
What is File-sharing?
File-sharing means being able to access electronic files that aren’t necessarily stored on your local hard drive but are accessible over a network connection. This also implies that different people all have access to these files, or a multi-user system. These people may have different permissions in this system to Create, Read, Update, or Delete these files over the network, or CRUD access controls. All the solutions that I will discuss have these three traits in common:
- Network Accessible
- CRUD Access Controls
The Simple Solution is the Right Solution
If you are working in a small team, then simplicity is your technology mantra. Simplicity helps improve reliability, manageability and usability — all of which allow you to focus on the things that make you money, rather than wrestling with technology that gets in your way.
Host-based file-sharing, using a Mac to share files on the network, is a lot simpler with Macs than using a NAS box. For one, many NAS boxes do not support AFP, the Mac-native Apple Filing Protocol. You will likely have to use SMB (Windows Sharing). If you only have Macs, it will be easier to manage and simpler to integrate with your other machines if you share the files from a Mac. Not only will you save money, but you can ignore Windows file naming restrictions, path length problems, potential permissions problems, and so on that come with a NAS.
If you have both Macs and PCs, you can still use host-based file-sharing on a Mac and provide access to Windows or Linux PCs on your network by turning on SMB for those users. FTP is supported, too, but SMB will be easier for most to use.
Guest Access is a really easy way to make files available to anyone to read or to drop files on your computer. No usernames, no passwords. It’s easy. And easy is good, right? Well, I suppose it is good in some cases, but I really do not like leaving guest access turned on. It is just one more way for people to get access to my computer without any authentication required. I prefer turning it off in the Accounts system preferences. Just uncheck the box that says, “Allow guests to connect to shared folders.”
If you really need to share files with someone on a one-time basis, then consider buying a high capacity thumb drive as an alternative to Guest Access. If you need to share files on the network on a regular basis, then consider using a Sharing-only account.
Mac OS X lets you create sharing-only accounts that can access shared folders from another machine, but cannot sit down at the keyboard and login to the computer itself. You can set file-sharing permissions individually by user. This is great if you need to give Tom access to one set of files and Harry access to another set. It kind of gets out of control if you also have Larry, Moe, Curly, Shirley, Laverne, Richie and the Fonz all in the office, too. If you’re in a small team where you can give everyone equal access to files, just create a sharing-only account with a common name that everyone uses.
This approach also has the benefit of avoiding permissions problems between co-workers who want to work on the same files. I’ve seen quite a few small design shops get stymied by permissions discrepancies that arise from creating a file on their local computer and then copying it to the shared folder compared with creating it directly on the share. When everyone has their own local account and their own server login, this problem can compound. In many cases, it is just simpler to have one login that everyone uses to access the shared folder. That way, anything created or modified on the shared folder looks like it came from the same user and everyone is able to use it.
If you need more granular control over permissions, then you could create multiple sharing-only accounts, but at some point, you’ll want to look at Mac OS X Server so you can manage all those accounts in one place for the whole network.
Large Teams Need Not Apply
If you have a large team, then you will likely have different needs. But if you are working in a small, tight-knit environment, give some thought to adopting these practices. They will make your life simpler, and I hope more productive as well.