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Even if your company makes good use of SharePoint, as a daily user you still might not have a clear understanding of how it works behind the scenes. The good news, though, is that even from a system administration standpoint, it kind of seems like magic to us too! Today we’ll revisit the nexus of OneDrive and SharePoint and review some methods for sharing files internally and externally with the two platforms.

Are SharePoint and OneDrive two platforms? Two programs?

Part of the apparent magic is that SharePoint is just a different kind of software than we’re used to. We’ve taken on this topic (in brief) before, but it’s kind of a website and kind of a drive, it sometimes has folder structure, and so on… It takes some getting used to because it has elements of what we would associate with databases, like its penchant for Lists of data. Because of this, it doesn’t really store data the way that we expect for a well-organized drive, but it can have folders (called “document libraries”) that hold files in the website and can be used like a shared drive.

OneDrive, on the other hand, is the file sharing app in Microsoft 365 that deals with your files stored in the cloud. If you visit OneDrive in your apps list, then you’ll be brought to your cloud storage folder that can be accessed across all of your devices. OneDrive is also the name of the desktop application that backs up or syncs your files to your OneDrive.

The other major thing that OneDrive is used for is managing SharePoint document libraries and using them like a file system in Windows Explorer. To have a SharePoint site appear in your File Explorer, navigate to that document library and click the Sync button.

Plan for Sharing Files and Folders in OneDrive and SharePoint

OneDrive will then sync the document library to your File Explorer’s left pane under your organization’s name:

OneDrive and SharePoint

Notice that this is near “This PC” in the pane, but at the top, you’ll find your own personal OneDrive folders:

OneDrive and SharePoint

The files in your SharePoint are now accessible as if they were just a shared drive between your organization. Any other users who have synced the files from SharePoint will have the same folders available to them. The files sync routinely when you use and modify the files and folders, so everyone’s always up-to-date, and files are downloaded as you need them, but stored in the background in a way that you don’t need to worry about.

File Sharing on SharePoint (with the OneDrive desktop app)

If your team all collaborate on these files and have them synced to File Explorer, then “file sharing” can be done in two ways: copy as path, or Share (where I can send a link). When I right click a folder in a SharePoint folder, I can see both options:

OneDrive and SharePoint

Copying as a path will give me something strange, at least for most use cases: “C:\Users\[username]\[Organization]\[Document Library Name]\[].” This path would be useful for anything that I need to do in Command Prompt or PowerShell with files, but it is a local path and wouldn’t be meaningful on another computer.

Instead, we’ll usually want to click “Share,” add people or groups to the sharing settings of the file, and optionally send a message. Alternatively, you could just copy the link and share it in a Teams chat or email.

OneDrive and SharePoint

External Sharing on SharePoint

If you’ll notice in this snip, I’m hovering over the “Sharing settings” icon. If I want to get fancy with my sharing settings, this is the screen where I could restrict access to the link, set an expiration date, among other things. This brings up the fact that these files could be shared externally. Sending a file from here to someone outside of your organization is possible, but should you do it?

Faithful readers of the blog might be ready for me to launch into a rant about data security and cybercrime. Your administrators could turn off external sharing all together to make sure no data is shared this way, and then you’d need to have a different way to send it (attached to an email, Dropbox, or another solution). If it’s something sensitive, these methods aren’t great options either.

Ultimately, the best reason to not share files from SharePoint in this way is that managing individual users’ access and individual files’ permissions gets too complex. This is because SharePoint doesn’t really intend for you to use sharing this way. It’s always better to give access to a whole SharePoint site instead of trying to micromanage the content. If you have multiple files and folders shared with multiple users, the more your site grows, the harder it gets to ensure that the right people have access to the right content, which can result in data privacy problems.

If you share an individual file or folder on SharePoint, the external user will be given access to it on the SharePoint site but clicking anywhere else on the site will in Access denied errors. Sharing a subfolder in the document library works after the user opens the link and authenticates again with a token emailed to them by Microsoft.

Plan for Sharing Files and Folders in OneDrive and SharePoint

Keeping track of SharePoint files and folders that have been shared with you is a little messy, with the best option being making bookmarks for everything—unlike OneDrive drive, which will have a link in the “Shared” section of the user’s OneDrive.

Ultimately all this complexity can be overcome through careful planning of what goes on a specific SharePoint site, or in its document libraries. With SharePoint, there’s no problem with starting a new site alongside your existing ones, but with the intent of collaborating with specific (or even public) collaborators.

(Personal) OneDrive as an alternative to SharePoint

If you intend to disseminate files or folders with your collaborators—that is, to share the data with the intent that they’ll download and work on the files, then send them back to you sometime—then it’s probably better to have those files in your OneDrive to share with external users. This will give them a more seamless experience by adding it to the items that are “Share with me” in their OneDrive. Doing the same on SharePoint means they need to navigate onto the SharePoint site, usually through the email that they receive when you share the content with them.

You can edit and collaborate in OneDrive folders, just like you would any other shared drive. This style of sharing is probably better for a one-time collaboration, or a folder that multiple users deposit files into for access between all parties. It doesn’t require thinking about folder hierarchies, and is just a single folder to refer to instead of a bigger collection of data, formats, web parts, etc. It’s more straightforward for more users and doesn’t involve the ambiguity of talking about “SharePoint sites,” which can make it seem like you’re talking about the web interface instead of the files themselves.

-Written by Derek Jeppsen on Behalf of Sean Goss and Crown Computers Team