What is a cloud file server and how does it work?

Cloud File Server

An enterprise cloud file server is an Internet-accessible centralized storage or workspace that allows employees on connected devices to share files and folders directly or through line-of-business applications, both on-premises and mobile.

Cloud File Server in a Nutshell

A cloud file server in business is an Internet-based and remotely accessible centralized storage or workspace that allows employees on Internet-connected devices (e.g., Windows PC, macOS or even mobile devices) to access files and folders and establish a workflow for daily collaboration on business-related tasks. A cloud file server is comparable to a traditional file server in terms of functionality. However, a cloud file server differs from an on-premises file server in that it has advanced features for sharing files in the cloud and secure remote access, and typically communicates over standard HTTPS protocols.

Access to a cloud file server

A cloud file server is file server capabilities that are deployed in the cloud. It provides access via web browsers and mobile apps in addition to traditional PC and Mac access. Due to the nature of the Internet, secure file sharing via a web URL is a common way to share files, as opposed to email attachments.

Access to a cloud file server is typically protected by a cloud identity service for user authentication and by a permission structure to view (list), read, or write (full control) specific files and individual folders.

Technically, a cloud file server no longer refers to a central server instance on a generic computer network. Rather, it refers to storage offered as a service over a wide-area network.

Three main types of cloud file servers

The first type of cloud file server is a method of storing data in the cloud that allows servers and applications to access the data. This is also referred to as "cloud file storage" as defined by AWS. This type of cloud file server offers compatibility with the SMB or NFS protocols, making it ideal for workloads that are being moved to the cloud because it allows for easy integration without code changes. This method usually requires administrative setup and is not suitable for end users.

The second type of cloud file server is a method that allows a group of users, usually working within an organization, to have online storage and collaborate over the Internet. This type of cloud file server is primarily aimed at end users who work with devices that are connected to the Internet, such as web browsers, mobile apps, PCs and Macs. This is also referred to as "content collaboration" as defined by Gartner. 

The third type of cloud file server is the relocation of on-premises file servers and associated IT infrastructure to a cloud to take advantage of regional or global data center services. The new data center location provides better bandwidth for connectivity, better infrastructure for reliability, and better backup and recovery for business continuity. This is also known as "lift-and-shift" because the legacy file server infrastructure now lives in the cloud. 

Type #1 - Cloud File Storage

Type #1 of cloud file server favors application workloads and server applications. Examples include AWS FSx, AWS FSx for Windows File Server, and Azure Files. These services provide NFS and SMB protocol compatibility. NFS compatibility is typically for Linux/Unix workloads and SMB compatibility is for Windows Server workloads. Services are built with server farms for high performance, but deployed in a serverless manner for application workloads. Storage costs are higher, typically in the range of $100 to $150 per terabyte per month.

Type #2 - Content Collaboration

Type #2 of cloud file server encourages a group of users to collaborate on a set of digital content within the online storage space provided. From the end user's perspective, the feature set overlaps with file synchronization and sharing applications, web browser access, mobile application access, PC and Mac agent access. From an administrator's perspective, it resembles a traditional on-premises file server in that it has a number of management areas, including users and identity services, folder permissions, group shares and access policies. Examples include Microsoft SharePoint or Citrix ShareFile. Content collaboration costs are typically in the range of $10 to $30 per user per month. Most content collaboration platforms use object storage services instead of block storage services, so storage costs are lower when additional storage capacity is required.

Type #3 - Lift and Shift

Strictly speaking, Lift and Shift, which is moving on-premises IT infrastructure to an Azure data center, an AWS data center, or a regional data center, is not a definition of Cloud File Server. It is still considered a traditional on-premise file server, while the file server is now in a data center. However, file servers in a data center offer new features that were not available when file servers were on-premise. One advantage is virtualization. Both AWS and Azure offer virtual servers with easy provisioning and simple snapshot and backup. File server storage from Azure Managed Disk Storage, or AWS EBS, is estimated to cost $150 to $200 per terabyte per month. However, since the storage is provided as EBS block storage, there is a cap of 64 TB.

Comparison of the three cloud file server types

Lift-and-Shift

Cloud File Storage

Content Collaboration

Examples

EC2 with EBS,
Azure CPU with Managed Disk

AWS FSx for Windows
File Server, Azure Files

SharePoint
Citrix ShareFile
Google Drive

Storage Price

$150 ~ $200/TB/Month

$100 ~ $150/TB/Month

$20-$30/TB/Month
(for extra capacity)

Other Cost

AWS EC2 cost/month
Azure CPU cost/month
Bandwidth cost

Azure Sync Server cost

User Licenses/Months

Pros

Supports Legacy Apps,
Better Virtualization,
Better Life-Cycle Management

Supports Legacy Apps,
Scale Infinitively,


File-Sync-and-Share,
Content Collaboration,
User Friendly

Cons

No File-Sync-and-Share,
Require VPN for remote access,
Storage Capacity caps at 64TB

No File-Sync-and-Share,
Not User Friendly

No Support
for Legacy Apps,
No Support
for Block Level Access

How to Migrate File Server to Cloud?

Which cloud file server type you should use is a very practical question to ask yourself when considering moving file servers to the cloud.

The first requirement is that the file server is used primarily by application servers, such as data analytics and data science applications. If almost no end users will touch the file server storage, the cloud file storage type is a good choice because it offers unlimited scalability.

The second condition is that the file server has limited end-user usage. For example, QuickBooks, accounting and ERP applications. These applications require some level of end-user interaction with both the applications and the file server storage. There are situations where accounts payable team members need to scan paper invoices and store them on a file server share first. In this case, lift-and-shift is a better solution. Users who need to send files to the hosted file server shares can use a terminal server remote desktop to send files directly from their local desktops.

The third condition is that employees can completely get rid of the current file server and move to a brand new centralized file store. In this case, legacy applications are rarely still involved. The use case is mostly end-user access to Office documents, where the files tend to be object-oriented (all or nothing). It is very rare that access to the files is in the form of blocks (e.g. database applications).

Bring the file server back to the future

Current state of affairs with cloud file servers

At the time of writing, the cloud file server market is still very much divided into legacy vs. modern, object storage vs. block storage, file sync and share vs. traditional file servers. Take Microsoft as an example, SharePoint is not Azure Files, and Azure Files is not Azure Blob Storage, and Azure Blob Storage is not Azure Managed Disks. These different solutions all have different strengths and weaknesses. The same fragmentation is evident in AWS, for example Amazon WorkDocs is not Amazon FSx, and FSx is not Amazon S3, and Amazon S3 is not Amazon EBS. The market is calling for a major unification of all the different types of cloud file servers into one.

Cloud File server unification and consolidation feature wish list

  1. APPLICATION - Line-of-Business Application Dependency
  2. COMPATIBILITY - Block-level file access to enable 100% application compatibility
  3. ORGANIZATION - Better organization of files
  4. SECURITY - Data security and volume shadow backup
  5. CONTROL - Centralized management of permissions
  6. COLLABORATION - Convenient file sharing and collaboration
  7. FILE LOCKING - File locking to prevent file corruption and overwrites 
  8. CENTRAL MANAGEMENT - Not much storage capacity required on client devices
  9. BUSINESS CONTINUITY - Data loss prevention and control
  10. NO DATA SPRAWL - Centralized data storage to have a single place to store files
  11. FILE SYNC SHARE - It's easy to use content collaboration features like web-based file sharing and mobile apps.
  12. DRIVE MAPPING - Combine file synchronization and sharing features with drive mapping capabilities.

Ready to elevate file servers from local office to the cloud and boost mobile workforce productivity?