If you are a small business owner like me, or you work for a small independent team in a larger organization, you sometimes have to be smart about the tools you use.
You have a limited budget, and at the same time, an ever larger list of things to go, with limited resources.
In my case I had to find a way to handle large files for my team consulting business.
On the surface it seemed trivial. My desktop came with decent internal storage. If somebody else, in the same office, needed a file, I could share a folder, a quick password exchanged, and done. Easy... until it was not.
With the business growing, the first issue was sharing files internally, in a better way.
Sharing local files on your computer does not work if your computer is switched off, or if it is a laptop and you are not there.
Also, since everyone is sharing local files, a game a "chase the file" becomes unavoidable. Where is that file, for this project, on your computer? mine? where?
Stage 1 : NAS
A Networked Attached Storage is the first solution and a big step forward.
What is it? It is simply a disk or disks within an enclosure, directly connected to your network. I attached this NAS to the switch next to our router. In fact, there is a computer hidden inside this box. It is switched on 24/7, so this solves the access issue.
You can get a NAS from Western Digital, QNap or Synology.
There are many configurations possible depending on the number of users, and needs of your business.
This is a very important step. Getting this centralized storage makes it possible to have a "single truth" for our files and projects.
A NAS, for a small business, is much better than a real Windows server, let alone a linux server. (btw, NAS are usually linux servers masking as appliances!).
Full size servers are very expensive, very noisy, and require expert management. If your business is bigger than mine, you may not be able to avoid using one.
For my team, a NAS is ideal. I use it for years, with absolutely zero maintenance. Even firmware updates are handled automatically by the box. They are easy to configure, or let us say, not too difficult. And if you cannot set it up yourself, call any Geek Squad or similar, and they can arrange that, no problem. Set it, and forget it.
NAS is great, but it is attached to your network. It does nothing to help you with file sharing or remote access.
I know, some NAS, if not all now, offer remote access, or "cloud" feature.
But, please, never ever use a NAS cloud feature.
It is not safe. You really open your entire network to intrusion and hacking. Do not do it.
Stage 2 : Backup the central shared files
Another huge benefit with a NAS is the ability to backup.
My NAS, like many others, came with a great feature : Backup everything!
Just connect a disk to it, and configure the NAS to copy everything on that disk, every day or week or month etc..
Extra bonus, you can use multiple disks, swap them after the backup, and take one home.
This way, your back up is not in the same location than your working files. This is very important in case of disaster (fire, theft, etc..). I know there is another copy of my files somewhere.
This is a lot easier when all important files are centralized on the NAS.
That being said, each one in our team has also local working copies of files. Because local access is a lot faster for computers, for some files, you need to work on them locally.
What we do, is simply put a copy of these working files on the NAS, either daily, or weekly (because our local computers also have a simple backup running, just in case).
Stage 3 : Dropbox or similar
Instead, I chose, initially, Dropbox.
With Dropbox, you can sync a folder to the cloud (the real one), so I did.
It worked initially. Except when it did not. Sometimes the sync would fail, or get confused.
Still, overall, this was a pretty good solution. Anyone in the team could stay in sync, so remote work was possible.
But at this stage, Dropbox) showed two major issues impeding our business.
First, security, even though better than the NAS, I did not feel comfortable at all, having Dropbox with direct access to my business or personal disks.
To confirm my fear, Dropbox was hacked, showing they were a target and vulnerable.
Second, organization, just like with the NAS, with multiple people trying to organize folders and files, it is very hard to keep everything clean, and easy to navigate.
Mind you, the same was true with the NAS. I guess, both were difficult to keep organized.
This was becoming a major pain, a major issue for our projects.
Sometimes we would search for files, wasting precious time, and not even find them.
Stage 4 : Project based file management, cloud storage and file sharing
What we needed was a simple solution to centralize important files per project.
It seems so obvious now, but it was not until we did.
Our consulting business require us to receive large PDF and excel files from our manufacturing and engineering clients. We then generate very large and complex files and binary data for them. Sometimes they include pictures too etc.
All these files make sense within a specific project, for a specific client, or are useless to us.
We also need to make sure a client does not receive someone-else's files.
During the project, we often have to send them draft copies of these huge files. They are too big for emails.
Of course, we could use Google drive or other similar methods, we were using Dropbox too prior.
But then again, that is another copy of the file to manage, sort and categorize in a way.
Then we started to use a dedicated cloud solution, optimized for projects : SAM9000 Files.
With SAM9000, all these requirements, all these pain points, disappeared.
When we have a new client, we create it in Sam. We create each project under its client. It really takes 30 seconds flat.
This step is critical though. Because we start by creating each project. This means, we have a structure to build on.
Then, any file I want the team to know about, I attach to the right project.
Everything happens in the cloud by default. There is no sync. So there is no security issue access our network like all these syncing solutions I did not like or trusted.
As soon as the file is attached, it can be small or 10 GB, it does not matter, everyone in the team can see it.
But you control when you get it. Maybe Tim or Cassie is not working on that project : so they do not download it.
Still, anyone can browse the cloud storage, using a project based navigation, including the name of each client.
There is also a search.. invaluable search.
I can search a reference code (a PO#, or order or contact name etc..), and find a project or a file. Each file uploaded can get a tag or comment, and the search will use that too. Search is priceless.
Months or years later, a few keystrokes and you can find that specific file or group files you did not remember their name etc..
SAM9000 Files goes further. Our clients can also upload file. Instead of using WeTransfer, or other solutions they may have or not, we give them a simple link.
They go to it on their machine, and upload whatever files they want to send us. The link is unique and comes with a simple password. They do not need to register, just use the simple password we gave them by email.
The kick is the fact their files will automatically go directly in the right project, for the right client in the SAM9000 structure.
This is, to me, the secret weapon: not the guest upload, which is great, but the fact the system self organizes your files without you realizing it.
No longer do you have to choose weird folder names, and have a deep structure of folder within folder within folder. The structure is created for you, super flat, easy to understand and navigate, and the same for all team members.
Most of the time, I do not need to search for anything, I just go to the latest project of client X. One click later, I can see all the files we uploaded.. this creates, as a side effect, a history, a diary of all uploads and versions of these files.
When we need to send a file to a client, it is easy.
It is probably already in the cloud system in SAM9000 Files. So, I just select it and click on "share file".
This creates a public link, with an expiration date, I think it is eight days by default. If I want the expiration later, I just select another date in the calendar widget.
Copy, paste this link into an email to the client, and that is it.
It does not matter the size, they will get it.
With time, I realized I use the cloud app also as a backup. I just leave the files and history in the cloud.
I know they backup everything and the files are super durable. I have my own copy on the NAS too, and its backup. But it is good to know we have copy on an industrial strength server, fully managed by them.