What is a file server and how does it work?

File Server

A file server in business is a central storage repository or workspace that enables employees on connected devices to collaborate on files and folders directly or through line-of-business applications.

File Server in a Nutshell

A file server in business is a central storage repository or workspace that enables employees on connected devices (such as Windows PC, macOS, or even mobile devices) to access files and folders and set up a workflow to collaborate daily for business-related work. The term "file server" is usually interchangeable with document management, file repository, file sharing or files and folders collaboration. 

Accessing a file server

Accessing a file server is usually guarded by an identity service for user authentication and further guarded by permission structure to see (list), read, or write (full control) specific files and individual folders.

Technically speaking, a file server refers to a central server instance in a generic computer network. However, the computer network in the above context usually refers to a local-area-network (LAN) instead
of a wide-area-network (the cloud).

What is a File Server?

As a software component, a file server is part of an operating system such as the Windows operating system. A file server allows a connected client device to extend its local file system (such as those on a C Drive or a D drive) to include a network file system. Granted, accessing files over a network is not as fast as reading or writing files from a local C drive. Still, the networking effect immediately enables connected and authorized client agents for basic operations such as listing files and folders, reading and writing files, and most importantly, locking files so to facilitate group collaboration. The benefits of a file server as a company-wide collaboration platform is enormous.

The server administrators need to define who the users are, which set of files and folders the users can access, and access permissions. The server administrators also need to define version and file retention policies and take care of business continuity, such as backing up file servers. 

Windows File Server

Most of the businesses today standardize on the Windows platform at work. The Windows File Server dated back to the Windows NT 3.1 in the 1990s and progressed to today's Windows Server 2019. Many underlying technologies have changed, and Microsoft has added many features to the Windows File Server product line. However, one central theme remains the same: the Windows file server theoretically still belongs to the company head quarter's local area network. It always favors employees that have connected devices in the same local area network for easy access. Remote employees rely on a VPN (a virtual private network) to extend the corporate network to home and remote locations for remote access.

VPN and Remote Access

VPN history started back in 1996. It is a typical client-server technology. First of all, the corporate needs to deploy a VPN server. Secondly, end-users on devices connected to the Internet needs to install a VPN client agent. With the help from a VPN server and with client devices configured accordingly, users can access the files server remotely, enabling files to be accessed and saved on the file server even when users are on the go. However, VPN is becoming a pain point for corporate users. Mostly because VPN technology is a technology that extends a private network to connected devices. It forces the end-users to understand the network topology and technology, and quite often, the corporate support team is dealing with VPN related tickets generated from remote workers.

How do File Servers Work?

For any reliable file server, the foundation is the right amount of computing resources, physical resources, or virtual resources. File servers are most often measured by the amount of storage space they provide, usually measured in the Tera-Bytes (TB) range or hundreds of Giga-Byte (GB) range. However, the operating system, the memory, and the network interface are essential parts of a file server. Traditionally, when storage space was provided by spinning hard-disks, file servers had fixed capacity. Quite often, corporations need to buy storage capacity once every 3-5 years. When they purchase file servers, they usually buy the accommodation ahead of usage consumption to save room for the years to come. Nowadays, cloud storage technology and technologies such as Storage Space Direct can connect multiple file server nodes into a file server storage ring and thus provide complete and fault-tolerant storage services. We also see advanced hybrid configurations such as AWS storage gateway, which can extend on-premise file server with storage capacity from cloud storage services such as those from Amazon S3 (Amazon Simple Storage Service).

Unique network protocols are responsible for communication between file servers and clients.

SMB Protocol

SMB is the protocol used between a Windows File Server and a Windows Client Device, while SAMBA was implemented on Linux client devices to communicate to a Windows File Server. SAMBA is also implemented on most NAS devices, acting as local file servers.

NFS Protocol

A Network File System (NFS) is the SMB protocol counterpart in the UNIX/Linux world. UNIX/Linux based file server by default implement the NFS protocol, while most NAS devices also implement SMB protocols because most workforce use Windows at work.

What is Server Message Block Protocol (SMB protocol)?

The Server Message Block Protocol (SMB protocol), created by IBM in the 1980s, is a client-server communication protocol used in local networks with Windows and macOS devices. The SMB protocol enables an application -- or the user of an application -- to access files on a remote server. Thus, a client application can open, read, move, create, and update files on the remote server. The SMB protocol is a response-request protocol, meaning that it transmits multiple messages between the client and server to establish a connection. One of the most criticized features from SMB is that it was very "chatty," meaning the file server and the client device are frequently in a request-response chat on a packet-by-packet basis. SMB version 3 (v3) is the latest as of this writing. The v3 adds many optimizations to transfer files over the Internet in regards to performance and security. However, because SMB protocol is designed with block-level access in minds (such as accessing from database programs), it can apply some file streaming techniques. Still, it can't completely alleviate the chatty-ness over the Internet. The SMB protocol has two siblings in CIFS and SAMBA, which are implementing the SMB protocols. 

FTP Protocol

File Server is commonly accessed over the internet using the File Transfer Protocol (FTP protocol) or the encrypted Secure FTP (SFTP). One can use the encrypted SCP (Secure Copy Protocol)
and HTTP-based WebDAV protocols as well. However, FTP was designed before the World Wide Web and before the HTTP protocol became popular. It is harder to traverse firewalls and has character
encoding problems between the in-compatible FTP server and FTP client agent. It is even harder to use from an end user's perspective than using a VPN to map a drive back to file servers at the
corporate headquarter. It is an outdated protocol that is still in use.

WebDav Protocol

WebDAV protocol has an advantage over FTP or SCP as it uses the same port as HTTP (80), which is a standard port already opened in the client and enables the use of the world wide web (www). It is easier to traverse a firewall. However, WebDAV protocol wasn't as modern as a REST-based protocol as we saw from current cloud storage services. The WebDAV dialect is relatively verbose
and complex, which introduces incompatibilities between WebDAV clients and WebDAV servers. It is another outdated protocol.

Cloud Mobility

For cloud storage services, Windows Azure Files and AWS FSx file system implement the SMB protocol with primary use cases to shift a Windows file server workload to cloud storage.

However, more importantly, with the group of cloud storage services including Dropbox, Google Drive and OneDrive, they popularized the ideas of accessing files and folders from mobile devices and from web browsers and remote devices without the need of using a VPN!

Cloud mobility is the future and we will be seeing file accessing protocol expanded to include web browser and mobile phone access and sharing.

File Server Functionality and Options

The file server's primary function is to allow multiple users to access the stored files in a centralized file repository. The file server is therefore very popular as a central storage medium for internal company files. Users often use a file server indirectly via a set of line-of-business applications such as QuickBook, AutoCAD, PhotoShop, and Microsoft Offices. Users use these line-of-business applications to open and save files to a set of corporate file servers. Many of these line-of-business applications are database applications, such as QuickBooks, Microsoft Access, Microsoft SQL Server, and other database programs.

Mapped Drive and Cloud Storage

Employees interface with Corporate file servers via mapped drives. These mapped drives (on Windows) or mounted volumes (on macOS) are available on Windows and macOS desktop interfaces. The operation on the files, such as double-clicking on a file, will most often invoke the most appropriate business applications to open the file. For example, Adobe Acrobat reader will be invoked to open a file with a .pdf suffix.

There are some advanced topics for a file server that are worth mentioning in the year 2020. First is the Azure Files, which can extend a local Windows file server to Windows Azure Cloud. Second is the AWS storage gateway, capable of presenting an iSCSI volume to local file servers to expand the local file server's storage capacity to the AWS cloud. The third is the Windows StorageSpace Direct, capable of using multiple single-node Windows file servers to construct a bigger file server with bigger capacity and better fault tolerance.

advantages of a file server

File servers at work

Many organizations are using file servers for a range of reasons, including:


Most line-of-business applications depend on a centralized file server to work for several or all employees


File servers are the centralized collaboration platform for employees to share daily work items such as status reports, creative works, and generating business intelligence with Excel, PowerBI, etc.

Operating System

Organizations standardize on a Windows working environment, which includes domain servers and file servers.


Employees' work profiles are centrally managed on file servers to enable roaming within the organization. When users log in to different workstations, they see the same set of files and folders.

Another key advantage of using file servers is that the client devices, except for personal documents, do not need much storage capacity or computing power. The company can store all business files and backups on the central file server. And with the right organization (comprising directories, folders, etc.), users automatically have a much better overview of the entire files and folders structure.

File server advantages summary:

  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

Take the file server back to the future

The advantages described above are a testament to how vital and valuable a file server can be for an organization. In the business world, organizations always need more storage capacity, better
fault tolerance, more robust data security, and strict regulatory compliance. 

Simultaneously, organizations also desire easy storage capacity increase, easy security setup and compliance report, and cloud mobility for the remote and mobile workforce.

If you'd like to enhance your file servers with cloud enablements, check out Gladinet's Triofox.

Triofox mobilizes your local file server and turns it into a company-wide "web file server" or a corporate-wide "share server".

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