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File server: What is it and how does it work?

With most business and communications conducted online, file servers have become increasingly important, especially for small business networks. As the office filing cabinet was to the 90s, so is the file server to the digital age. 

A file server is a centralized location where information is kept and can be shared. It does not have to be a separate physical computer, although it can be. File servers can also take the form of a digitized network system, and may be accessible via the internet. 

File Server Definition

A file server can be seen as a kind of database that hosts files and allows permitted devices to them. It also can save works in progress, and work as a backup for important information. The difference between a true file server and a database, however, is that a database only deals with structured data that is accessible via search. A file server suits a broader range of needs. 

How Does a File Server Work?

All file servers should allow access to multiple users at once, as a centralized location. Permission management, file locking, and conflict resolution are all built-in to most file servers to avoid files being overwritten, deleted, or improperly accessed.  

Depending on the kind of file server, they may function differently for your organization. Some common kinds of file servers include:

Cloud-Based Services

Cloud storage is an increasingly popular trend in file storage, editing, and access. Google Drive, iCloud, and Dropbox are three well-known names in cloud storage. Their simplicity and ability to automatically sync and secure files makes them common choices for smaller businesses. However, their size limitations may make them less of an option for larger businesses, or organizations who rely on video or larger files. 

Network-Attached Storage (NAS)

Network-Attached Storage (NAS) includes both storage and networking capabilities. NAS is a hardware device available in desktop size, as well as larger petabyte capacity. NAS is routed through your local area network (LAN) and connected to servers via an ethernet connection, which allows you to reach client and company computers. 

Document Management System (DMS)

As the name implies, DMS is dedicated to document storage. Microsoft SharePoint is one common example readily compatible with documents created in Microsoft Word, Excel, or Adobe-based pdfs. DMS file servers are less well-suited to video and image storage needs. 

File Server Security

A file server is only as effective as its security. Because of its central access capabilities, file servers are popular targets for phishing attacks, ransomware, and other kinds of cybercrime. The failure of a file server can also be devastating for businesses who rely on access to this centralized storage system to operate. 

One of the best ways to secure your file server is to always backup data. Even the most secure file servers can still be impacted by data breaches, ransomware, or even natural disasters. File servers that are connected to the internet, such as cloud-based services, are especially vulnerable to attack. 

File servers may require a login before accessing data, in order to ensure security. It’s also possible to only grant access to specific IP addresses or MAC addresses. Alternatively, cloud storage options can require an FTP login before allowing downloading access to files shared over the internet. 

Who Needs a File Server and Why?

Maintaining a file server traditionally came with several pros and cons. Some of the benefits of having a file server are:

  1. Avoiding misuse or overuse of email: Oftentimes sensitive information is shared via email, especially without access to a centralized file service system. This can lead to data breaches and leave your files more vulnerable to being hacked or compromised. 
  2. Centralize storage: Email sharing is not only one of the least secure methods, but it also can be difficult to organize. File servers, by contrast, keep sensitive material all in one secure, sorted, encrypted place.
  3. Provide remote access: With more employees working remotely than ever before, investing in a file server can simplify access to important documents and streamline workflow. 

The downsides to having a file server might include:

  1. Maintenance needs: With any software comes an increased need for maintenance. Routine checkups and updates can help keep your file server more secure. 
  2. Limited scalability: Depending on what kind of file server you choose, it may have data limitations, which can be a problem when expanding. 
  3. Bottlenecking: Depending on the size of your network’s needs, file servers can experience bottlenecking when there are too many access requests put in at once. 

However, the recent expansion of cloud-based file servers can help alleviate many of these concerns. Many businesses have begun to migrate content once stored on physical file servers into cloud storage as employees work from home, and need to access documents on non-traditional platforms such as iPads and smartphones. As the options for file servers expand, businesses of all sizes are able to access storage and sharing options that best suit their specific needs.

Gabrielle West
Gabrielle West
Gabrielle West is an experienced tech and travel writer currently based in New York City. Her work has appeared on Ladders, Ultrahuman, and more.

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File server: What is it and how does it work?