Friday, July 29, 2011

SOP Friday: Local Docs, My Docs, and Storing Files on the Server

Where are your clients' files stored? This seems like it should be a simple question to answer. But the answer affect network security, keeping track of files, network speed, customer satisfaction, backups, disaster recovery, and more.

We have a very simple process for making most of these potential issues into non-issues.

- Overview -

In the good old days, there was a network operating system called Novell. It worked great for what it did. It really made the modern era of servers and workstations possible. In the days when the Novell ruled the world, there was a primary share on the server (for example, the i: drive or g: drive) and all client data was stored within that.

For example:

At some point, Windows NT began taking over the world. Then Microsoft introduced one of the most cumbersome and ridiculous schemes ever invented to lose data, bloat backups, and create a complete layer of management that was previously unheard of: The "My Documents Folder" - and, worse, the redirection of My Documents to the server!

Very simply, this is one of the stupidest things ever.

I think it's another example of Operating System envy with Apple.

Somebody somewhere came up with the concept that users are too stoopid to manage their own data. They can't know where it "really" is . . . it should just be there. That's fine, if you want to do that on your home computer or you have no server. But in a business environment, it is perfectly okay to know where your data are located, how much there is, and who should have access to it.

Those in favor of redirecting My Documents to the server say, "You can just take care of this with AD and GP." Which sounds great in theory. But there's a still some hassle involved in setting up group policies. And there have been problems from time to time with file redirection and offline files. So it's not trouble-free maintenance.

We have a simple policy: Our clients don't use "my documents" and we don't redirect my docs to the server. Period. End of story.

The primary reason for this is NOT that it can have problems. The truth is, those problems are rare. The primary reason is that Clients are HORRIBLE at managing data. The secondary reason is that clients have low tolerance for the slow networks they create with their bad habits.

Clients synch their video cameras and digital cameras with My Docs.

Clients sometimes protect themselves by saving an entire copy of their C: drive to My Documents.

Clients make backups of backups of backups. Some do this and then get loss in the catacombs they created, so they end up using a backup as the actual "live" source files.

Clients store their MP3's in "documents" instead of "music" as soon as they learn you've excluded "music" from the files being synchronized to the server.

Clients do weird stuff if you let them.

Then they never log off at night because logging ON in the morning takes 97 minutes. They don't know why. It's not their job to know why. But since they never log off and they never log on, they also never get a complete synch. So their mission-critical database is never copied to the server. It's never backed up. And if something goes wrong, they will never see it again.

So we don't let them do that.

- Implementation Notes -

Our basic policy is very straight forward:

1) All company data is stored on the server, in an appropriate folder

2) Desktops are not backed up

3) If you have something on your desktop and you don't store it on the server, then we assume it is not important and we will not worry about it if there's a disaster recovery.

4) Sensitive data (such as finances or personnel) will be in specific folders on the server with security assigned by appropriate groups.

5) If users need folders, we will create them. BUT our very strong preference is that data be in an appropriate folder open to everyone in the appropriate group.

Companies should operate based on the roles people fill, not on the people who fill the roles.

6) On extremely rare occasions, there are files that must exist on a specific machine. These are robocopied to the server each night.

This policy has an advantage in that users are free to have "their stuff" on the local machine and not affect the business. At the same time, you can create a place for "their business stuff" on the server.

- Benefits -

One of the biggest advantages of avoiding the My Documents tangle is that profiles are easy to move during migrations. See Network Migration Workbook for discussion about moving profiles . . . and taking the migration opportunity to move data off the desktops and on to the server where it belongs.

Our experience is that clients really don't care where their data is. That's why they're horrible data managers. It's not important to them. So, putting it on the server in standard directories actually allows you to work with one key employee to manage their data, archive as necessary, and develop a backup strategy that makes sense.

More and more, we want to have systems that use the desktop as a simple access device. In other words, if any desktop computer goes down, the user should be able to log onto any other workstation and just pick up where they left off. That's NOT going to happen if they rely on a roaming profile to synchronize 30 GB of data, 99% of which is totally irrelevant to the job they're doing today.

If we have to manage mini data farms all over the office because people have mission critical files on their desktops, that adds security concerns and backup concerns to the desktop maintenance. Everything's easier, faster, and more secure if we manage it on the server.

- Forms -

There are no specific forms for implementing this SOP. In a future post we'll discuss documenting your backup strategy. There are forms for that. In this case, you just need to write up a nice policy based on the points outlined above.

You should have a discussion with your key contact about moving data to "where it belongs" on the server, backing it up, etc. We like to start this conversation with the phrase "We like to see . . .." That's a powerful tool.

"We like to see . . ." tells your client that you've thought about this. It gives the impression that you've got a standard operating procedure that works. It gives you the confidence to talk in confident terms of about how you can protect the client's data.

Try it. You'll like it.

Your Comments Welcome.

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About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Computer consultants tend to be very good with computers, of course. But that doesn't make them good with the business side of the business. This series is intended to give you a big step up in creating the business you want to be. After all, the best way to become the business you want to be is to start behaving that way now.

This is also a debate at times. So feel free to post your comments and recommendations. If you have alternative "standard" operating procedures, please share them as well.

This series started May 13th. You can find the whole series by simply entering SOP Friday in the search box above (the one for this blog, not necessarily Google search).

We have also created an index to the SOP Friday series at Small Biz Thoughts.

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  1. I've fawned over this series and I still love it but I completely disagree with you here. I want to tease you and call you an old fuddy duddy for liking the old "I Drive" structure and reminiscing about the days of Novell. But I'm just teasing.

    For me "My Documents" and now "Documents" has been one of the greatest things to happen in file structure. Before everyone (at home) was trained to save everything to My ______ it was a fricken nightmare doing data moves and data recovery. One place to store things and after years of pain companies finally fell in line and stopped storing their data in Program Files and started storing it with all the other data.

    So now people expect to be able to use My Docs (and children). They also expect to be able to use their Desktop (folder) even though I hate that with the burning passion of 10,000 suns. Thus, I love folder redirection and how easy they are with GP. Yes, there is "work" involved in setting it up but no more so than anything else I'm doing in an SBS setup. Hell, I have the GPs done so I just import them in to each server and I'm done.

    On the client side we say it like this: Anything that is YOURs goes into your documents. Anything that needs to be shared / belongs to the company goes onto the companyweb. It is only when we have things that don't play nice with companyweb like say MAS90 that we do mapped drives.

    In the end I see merit in your approach, but I much prefer mine. But I think we can both agree that the real key (and the key of this fantastic series) is to keep it as a document SOP.

    PS - "If you have something on your desktop and you don't store it on the server, then we assume it is not important and we will not worry about it" AMEN

  2. Thanks, Sean. I'm not above having someone make fun of me!

    You know, when you get things right, change for change's sake is less appealing. :-)

    We have different approaches, but you're right about the key element: Have a well documented system. Train you client. Train your employees. Standardization bring profitability and predictability.

  3. I think you make a good point but with one caveat: it's now possible to do those workstation backups effectively and cheaply in very small businesses. Users will always have things on their workstations that they believe are important and not saved on the server. Perhaps it's files saved on the desktop (despite orders not to do that), or personal documents and music in a local My Documents folder, or Outlook files - .NK2 files or signature files, say.

    That's why I'm so excited about SBS 2011 Essentials, Storage Server 2008r2, and even Windows Home Server. Those nightly workstation backups are crucial, now that they can be delivered for almost zero cost and almost zero maintenance. I've been setting up WHS units in domain networks just for workstation backups - no user accounts, no file storage, just 10 workstations backed up in a device that costs under a thousand dollars. The files that have been saved might not be critical to the company but frequently they've been critical to my relationship with the company - the senior partner's Outlook .NK2 contacts, the vice-president's music. And to be able to put in a replacement hard drive and restore a workstation to working condition in an hour is just magical - good for my clients, good for me.

    Bruce Berls

  4. I got one question and a few comments about this post on Facebook. (Find me at

    Comment One:

    - Desktop backups are automated with Vista and W7

    Okay. True. But this doesn't change a thing. If you let people put files wherever they want to, then you will have data bloat. You will have non-business files backed up on the server. You will have files wherever the client puts them, and NOT backed up to the server.

    Again, as long as you have a policy, and you educate the client, then you're better off. If you want to employ "my docs" and redirection to the server, you're welcome to do so. But document it, do it consistently, and have policies about how you handle this.

    Question One:

    - How do we handle NK2 files, signatures, application profiles, favourites

    NK2 files are only relevant in the days before Office 2010. Now those cached email addresses are stored in the Suggested Contacts folder. Anyway . . .

    It's perfectly fine to occasionally make a copy of the key things you'd move in a migration, like signatures and favorites. You only need to do this once a quarter. Maybe once a month if you really think it's necessary. But there's no point in copying over all the useless Internet cache files in the process.

    Comment Two:

    - EVERYONE I know Works on their desktop despite what training they are given

    We don't find this to be true. A handful of people do this. But when they lose something, we go to the boss and say, "Since it wasn't on the server, restoring this file is billable. How many hours would you like us to spend at $150/hour?"

    That person learns to store things where they belong.

    People are not stupid. They want to do things the "right" way. You're not asking them to build a spaceship; you're asking them to use the "Y" drive.

    Set the policy. Propagate the policy. Educate the client.



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