Using cloud to go serverless and work together, from anywhere | Nittygritty

19th Sep 2017

Using cloud to go serverless and work together, from anywhere

For smaller companies, the cloud offers the opportunity to move away from needing an IT setup in the office. This is the story of one of our customers who took the plunge. They removed their server from the office, and then ditched their office completely!

Our client, a leading consultancy firm, had the standard IT setup for a small business. In the corner was a Windows server, acting as their file server, email server and domain controller (the service that synchronises usernames and passwords across devices). There were the usual network switches, a firewall and an internet connection. Nittygritty work closed with the client, implementing a phased switch over from the on-premise solution to a complete cloud based solution.

The first step on the road to a server less office was a common one. Consumer grade hosting of email in the cloud has a long history dating back to Hotmail and Gmail. It’s only in recent years that businesses have moved away from having their own Exchange (Microsoft’s email platform) server on-premise, instead wholeheartedly adopting Exchange in the cloud. The most common provider of cloud hosted email is Microsoft themselves with their Office 365 suite. Office 365 includes a large number of other applications apart from email such as OneDrive for storing personal files. Sharepoint for intranet and Teams for team instant messaging, voice and video calls are also included. Office 365 can also be licensed to allow staff to install the Office suite on up to 5 devices.

Office 365 also includes Azure Active Directory. Active Directory is the service that runs on a Windows server that maintains the list of usernames and passwords that can be used to log into systems. It also controls which computers are trusted as part of the office network, what names they have and their configuration. Azure Active Directory allows a company to move this information to the cloud. With Windows 10, computers can be joined to this cloud domain, removing the need for an on-premise domain controller. Azure Active Directory also provides Single Sign On (SSO) services. SSO lets staff use the same username and password for logging into computers, access email systems, and also for logging into third party services that support Azure AD integration.

The final piece of the puzzle was the file server. There are several players in this space – Microsoft’s own OneDrive, Google Drive, Box and Dropbox. Dropbox lead the way with their Dropbox for Business service. Azure AD integration for single sign on (SSO) allows users to sign in with their Office 365 account instead of having to remember a different username and password. Team folders allow the standard company “drives” to be mapped to the same structure in the cloud. Dropbox’s key feature in this consideration was their new Smart Sync option (currently only available to business customers).

Our client’s collection of files was about 2TB in size, too large to be synched in totality to users’ devices (laptop hard drives are typically only 128 or 256GB). Initial sync of such a large amount of data would take days over even the best internet connections. All the cloud file storage options allow selective sync – choosing a subset of folders to sync to the end user device, but this is inconvenient for the user. It means new information may get added that then doesn’t appear until the user goes back and changes their sync choice.

Smart Sync offers a better option. On initial sync, the folder structure and placeholders for files are downloaded onto the laptop, which is a much smaller sync. The user can then browse this file structure and it looks like a regular file server. When they open a file, if it’s not already on their laptop, it will stream down from the cloud on demand. When they save a file, it will stream it up to the cloud. Files or folders can be marked as “cloud only” where the data is kept in the cloud and streamed down when needed. “Local” means a copy is kept locally – useful for frequently accessed sets of folders, or for when a user is going to be working offline.

Using Dropbox for file storage offers several other advantages. Previous versions of files are easily accessible and back up is taken care of by Dropbox. Dropbox also offer some very good collaboration tools for working together on Office documents.

(Update September 2017 – Google announced that their own streamed version of Google Drive would be generally available to all their G-Suite customers on 26th September. Companies who prefer Google’s suite of cloud productivity software can implement the same functionality as above for their email, document sharing and storage and file storage using Google’s product).

The client powered down their server in the office, and now work completely in the cloud. For this specific client, their staff could now work from anywhere, and the company closed their office. This meant they no longer needed their switches, firewall or internet connection – staff can work anywhere they have wifi access, making this a great solution for companies based in co-working spaces.

In part 2 of this story, we look at getting rid of your desktops too, by moving to a desktop in the cloud solution.