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The challenges of shared files

Distributed workgroups make file sharing and version control a complex proposition. Here are common pain points and tips on how to control the chaos.

Just about nobody seems to trust version control.

Look at just about anybody's server directory and you'll find numerous examples of similar-but-not-quite-same file names created as people renamed their previous versions using Save As to avoid overwriting the original file. Just as rogue IT is the nemesis of the IT department, manual versioning has long been the nemesis of version control.

The challenge becomes much greater when files are being shared on various platforms. With more users accessing and editing on more diverse devices running various client operating systems, version control can easily become anything but. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to overcome most of the thorniest problems.

The first and simplest challenge is determining whether version control for a specific platform is switched on or off. In Microsoft OneDrive, as an example, version control is switched on by default. Other shared storage platforms, such as SharePoint, require that it be switched on by someone with Full Control or Design permissions.

Version control

Version control is often referred to simply as "versioning." According to Microsoft, "When versioning is enabled in site lists and libraries, you can track and manage information as it evolves."

Versioning provides several key values, including:

  • Track history of a version, so you can see when an item or file was changed and who changed it. You can also see when properties (information about the file) were changed. For example, if someone changes the due date of a list item, that information appears in the version history. Some organizations retain multiple versions of items in their lists for legal reasons or audit purposes. When you enable and configure versioning, you can retain versions each time an item is edited.
  • Restore a previous version, if you made a mistake in a current version, or if the current version is corrupt. The restored version becomes the new current version.
  • View a previous version without overwriting your current version. If you are viewing version history within a Microsoft Office document, such as a Word or Excel file, you can compare the two versions to determine the differences. You decide how many versions you allow, and who in the group can view which versions.

Document co-authoring

Introduced several years ago and now facilitated by Microsoft Teams, multiple users can collaborate far more efficiently by editing documents at the same time.

However, in environments where documents will be edited by various users at various times, it's often important to avoid having more than one editor make changes at the same time. The easy way to control this is through document check-out and check-in. When using this control, only one person is allowed to edit a document at a time. Often, however, users will check a document out for editing and neglect to check it back in, making it unavailable to other editors. If the original editor is unavailable to release the document, an administrator can force check-in.

Taking it to the enterprise

For those enterprise users using Microsoft Azure cloud services, the Azure Information Protection service provides extraordinary version control across multiple client platforms, including iOS and Android. It also offers several other key file and data control features, including:

  • Classify, label, and protect data at the time of creation or modification. You can use policies to classify and label data in intuitive ways based on the source, context, and content of the data. Classification can be fully automatic, user-driven, or based on a recommendation. Once data is classified and labeled, protection can be applied automatically on that basis.
  • Persistent protection that travels with your data. This ensures that data is protected regardless of where it is stored, with whom it is shared, or whether the device is running iOS, Android, or Windows.
  • Enable safe sharing with customers and partners. Document owners can define who can access data and what they can do with it. For example, recipients can view and edit files, but they cannot print or forward.
  • Simple, intuitive controls. Data classification and protection controls are integrated into Office and common applications. These provide simple, one-click options to secure data that users are working on. In-product notifications provide recommendations to help users make the right decisions.
  • Visibility and control over shared data. Document owners can track activities on shared data and revoke access when necessary. IT can use logging and reporting to monitor, analyze, and reason over shared data.
  • Deployment and management flexibility. IT admins and users can protect data whether it is stored in the cloud or on-premises, and even manage encryption keys with Bring Your Own Key (BYOK) and Hold Your Own Key (HYOK) options.

Eliminate surprises

Perhaps the greatest value coming from versioning is the elimination of file and data loss. Far beyond the file and record-locking technologies of bygone years, versioning provides the control and the flexibility today's data users require.