With so many options for storing files, it’s no wonder I get questions all the time about when to use OneDrive or SharePoint, and digging deeper, OneDrive versus OneDrive for Business and SharePoint team sites versus MySites versus the main corporate SharePoint portal. All options store files securely online and offer sharing, syncing and version management options. When should you use one over the other? Is there a place for OneDrive when you’re already using SharePoint? Happily, the answers to these questions and more are not all that difficult to explain. It’s a matter of understanding the pros and cons and using the right tool for the job.
Let’s start by summarizing the options before digging into recommendations:
- OneDrive – a free, personal online storage account.
- OneDrive for Business – an enhanced version of OneDrive associated with an Office 365 subscription.
- MySite – a personal SharePoint site that can be enabled as a feature in a larger SharePoint portal context.
- Team Site – a team-oriented SharePoint site, typically with limited access.
- Corporate Portal – a SharePoint site with general access.
As mentioned previously, all of the above securely store documents online, offer sharing options, can track versions, and can be synchronized to local device storage. Each offers additional features beyond these basics, which is where much of the confusion lies.
The name OneDrive is admittedly a bit confusing. By itself with no further qualifiers, OneDrive is for personal storage and is accessed by a Microsoft account (formerly known as a Live ID). If you go to onedrive.com and enter an email address that is used both for Office 365 and for a Microsoft account, you are asked to specify which OneDrive you wish to access.
Anyone can associate an email address with a Microsoft account and get a free personal OneDrive account with a varying amount of storage depending on whether or not you take advantage of offers like adding photos or device backups. In addition to basic file storage and sharing, you also get access to Office Online apps so you can, for example, review Word docs, make changes to Excel spreadsheets and so on, from any device and without licensing any Office products.
Best Use: This is all about personal documents that are not associated with work. This account is controlled exclusively by the individual, regardless of the source of the email address (which can be changed). A user no longer associated with your company can continue to access the files in this account.
Bad Idea: Long-term storage of work-related documents. No company should rely on a personal OneDrive account as the official source of any document. You could justify using a personal OneDrive account to jot down some meeting notes or start the first draft of a document, but only if the intention is to move the document into a corporate-controlled location as soon as practical. If there is sensitive information in any document, keep in mind that the individual retains control independent of the company for which they work.
OneDrive for Business
OneDrive for Business is very different from OneDrive even if they appear similar on the surface. You get a OneDrive for Business account when an organization associates a qualifying Office 365 license with your email address. Note that any email address can be used for an Office 365 account, though typically the address is part of the company’s email domain. Qualifying Office 365 licenses include any of the “E” plans as well as the “Business” plans. A key consideration is that an administrator can remove the Office 365 license and your account no longer has access to the OneDrive for Business storage.
Additionally, OneDrive for business offers considerably more features and functionality compared to a personal OneDrive account. The left-side navigation options show a few more choices, but the real surprise is tucked away in the “gear” menu, where you’ll see an option to display a hidden ribbon menu.
Display the ribbon and what to do you see? Well hello, it’s SharePoint! Yes indeed, OneDrive for Business is a personal SharePoint site. This fact should tip you off about the meaning of the other “gear” menu choices like Site contents and Site settings. This is an honest-to-goodness SharePoint site with the ability to create additional document libraries and lists, add columns and views, set alerts, run workflows and much more.
Best Use: Documents that are associated with work and are owned and maintained by an individual should be stored here rather than on a device-specific storage, like a C:\ drive, or a portable USB device, because the documents are backed up and secured by Office 365 and ultimately remain in control of the organization. Files stored on local storage or a USB drive mean that copies of the files must be created when sharing them with others. Files in a OneDrive for Business account are shared via a URL, complete with access controls. You can dole out read-only permissions to some people and permit edit capabilities to others, including others that are outside your organization. For example, you could share a document for collaborative editing with a colleague and also invite an external supplier or vendor to take a look at the document, all driven entirely by a URL. At any point, you can remove the permissions and the document is no longer accessible. Sending copies of files as email attachments offers no such control.
Bad Idea: Documents that are routinely modified by others or used as part of a group’s operations should not be stored in a personal area. The same goes for documents that need to be accessed by a larger, possibly changing, audience. For example, let’s say you’ve created the first draft a company policy document. Several members of the HR department will end up providing input and then there are some approvals required from higher-level management. Ultimately, everyone in the company needs to be able to view the final, approved version. While this is possible to accomplish with a OneDrive for Business account, it ties the existence of the document and all business processes associated with the document to an individual user’s account. There is no easy way to administer the file sharing and version management because everything is driven by that specific user’s account. While you might justify creating the first draft by yourself and storing it here while in progress, but as soon as other members start needing access to it, you’re far better off using a group-oriented tool, namely, SharePoint.
A MySite is an optional feature that can be enabled for on-premises SharePoint deployments. It’s a personal SharePoint site and functionally equivalent to what was described previously for OneDrive for Business. The same pros and cons and caveats apply – this is a company-controlled storage location and should be for documents owned by an individual and possibly shared with other individuals. It’s not a good place to store documents that are used by a group.
SharePoint Team Site
A SharePoint team site is a self-contained SharePoint site that is typically a sub-site of some larger portal context, though it’s perfectly acceptable to create a team site as a completely standalone entity. I’m focusing on document storage issues in this article so I’ll ignore this aspect of team sites for now. They key characteristic of a team site is that the members are a subset of an organization, and as such, the documents stored in team site document libraries are supposed to be of limited use to outsiders.
Best Use: Documents that are created and maintained as part of a group process are ideal for storing in document libraries in team sites. You can leverage SharePoint’s security inheritance model to keep permissions management as easy as possible, while at the same time being able to create exceptions and invite non-members to participate. Returning to the company policy example, it would be far better to create and maintain and collaborate on that company policy document when it’s part of an HR team site. Team members can come and go without anyone losing access to important documents and administrators can easily jump in and lend a hand should things get messed up. Other HR team resources like a shared calendar, task list, image library and more can all be part of the team site, making it the best place to go when collaborating on documents. You would not gain any of these benefits with a personal storage location.
Bad Idea: Documents that need to be accessed by the general user population should not be stored in a team site. The HR policy example is a great case in point – when you’ve got a final draft that has been approved, how do you make the document available as a read-only resource to the rest of the company? That’s the role of the corporate portal, discussed next.
SharePoint Corporate Portal
A corporate SharePoint portal typically includes all company users as members, though with different permissions depending on their role. A corporate portal typically has numerous special-purpose document libraries to help keep large numbers of documents organized and easy to search. SharePoint’s security inheritance model rewards designs that group similar sets of permissions together so libraries and individual documents don’t require constant, special attention. While all the document management features described previously also apply to corporate portals, it gets insupportably complex to manage when there are hundreds or even thousands of exceptions to permissions and sharing.
Best Use: Corporate document libraries are the best repository for final, read-only versions of documents that have been prepared and collaborated upon in other contexts, or where changes are infrequent and not subject to ad hoc organizational changes. Users of a portal appreciate a consistent and efficient navigation and search model.
Bad Idea: Mixing the group collaborative nature of document libraries in a team site with the buttoned-down orientation of a corporate portal. Returning one more time to the HR policy document example, when the group is ready to communicate the final, approved draft of a document to a broad audience, it’s time to place a copy in a new location. The HR team site keeps a copy, ready for future collaboration while the corporate portal stores the official policy document in the library where the right people are going to find it in the expected location and searching will yield the best results.
Microsoft offers several options for storing documents online, each of which has a place in your file management strategy. OneDrive is about individuals while SharePoint is about groups and knowing the pros and cons of each will help answer the question: What’s the difference between OneDrive and SharePoint? with the answer: it’s all about access and ownership.