Microsoft offers SharePoint Online as part of Office 365 along with Hosted Exchange email, One Drive for Business, Skype for Business and other features depending upon the chosen Office 365 plan.  In this article well focus on SharePoint Online.

SharePoint as an on premise solution has been around for many years and is a solution designed for team collaboration whereby team calendars, contacts and data libraries can be configured along with workflow rules.  To accomplish all of that SQL is used behind the scenes to keep track of everything.

In terms of storage, SharePoint Online comes with 10 GB of storage space plus 500 MB per user account. Additional storage space can be purchased as needed for $0.20/GB per month (price subject to change).

For a 400 GB situation and 20 users:

10 GB + 20 (0.5 GB) = 20 GB, need 380 GB more storage would be needed

380 GB x $0.20/GB / month = $76/month (or $912/year)

So, for most situations the “first cost” of SharePoint Online does not tell the whole story.


With “cloud” being all the rage these days and SharePoint being offered for such a small fee some clients are thinking of it simply as a place to put data in lieu of their on premise file server.  However, the use of SQL behind the scenes is a key factor as it introduces overhead and certain limitations. We wanted to test this situation and report on its viability.

Test Parameters
To understand what it is like to try to use SharePoint Online as a file server replacement we uploaded between 5 and 10 GB of data, which was roughly 22,000 files.  We then actively worked with that data for a few days.  In a typical situation the amount of data and number of files would be far greater as would the number of users.

Since I was mimicking a file server situation I elected to use a mapped drive to access SharePoint.  The other two methods, local synced copy and the SharePoint portal, each have their own issues.

Syncing is limited to 5000 items (files and folders) in any one library, so syncing is out of the question for an entire file server.  The one client we work with who uses the sync method has nearly constant issues with it.  The “fix” for a sync issue is to delete and re-sync from scratch, which can take hours or days.  Also, we can’t fathom syncing all of a file server to a large number of users.

The third access method, the SharePoint web portal, is too rigid and “clunky” to be used as a production environment.  We’ve had a number of clients try that approach only to give up after just a few days.

Speed Results
Opening and saving a typical Microsoft Office or Acrobat document is noticeably slower than on a traditional file server.  We also did a similar test with an Azure cloud server.  Results for opening our typical, one sheet Excel file:

  • On premise file server 1 second
  • Azure cloud server 2 to 1.5 second
  • SharePoint Online 5 to 7 seconds

These results confirm that our connection speed is not an issue since we can open the data file on a cloud server far faster than we can from SharePoint.  With SharePoint’s reliance upon SQL, data files are stored in a database rather than a simple folder structure, which increases the “overhead” for file access.

I thought I could live with the speed issue.  What’s a few seconds?  But, multiply that by the number of times I open and save files each day and it became a noticeable drain on my productivity.

iOS Access
With Microsoft Office for iOS I am able to easily open and edit Office documents (Word, Excel, etc.) stored in SharePoint on my iPhone or iPad.  Neither device is efficient enough for all day production, but for the occasional small change they work quite well.

Beware that Microsoft limits their iOS apps to opening files in SharePoint, OneDrive, OneDrive for Business and Dropbox.

Folder Navigation
When saving a document I often jump down to a particular area in my long list of folders by typing the first letter of the folder name.  That feature of Windows, which works on a local PC or a local mapped drive, does not work in the SharePoint Online mapped drive when saving an Adobe file, Excel file, etc.  It’s something I can tolerate if I must but again my productivity is negatively affected.

Create a Folder During the “Save As” Function
There is no way to create a new folder during the “save as” process within a SharePoint mapped drive.  The button for “New Folder” is not present and a right-click does not present the familiar context menu, which would normally have “New, Folder” as an option. I consider this a major nuisance. I create folders on the fly in this manner several times each day.

Intermittent Missing Folders
In the screen shot below there should be two sub-folders but neither are displayed.  The folders appeared later.  I’m not sure why this occurred or how common it is.  Clients we work with report that users sometimes save data files locally rather than in SharePoint, and this may be why.  They must save the file somewhere in order to process their work, but will they be diligent enough to go back later to copy the files to SharePoint?  My guess is “no”.

Real-life testing indicates that using SharePoint as a replacement for a file server is like using a screwdriver to pound a nail – it’s the wrong tool for the job.