File Server Management: How to and Best Practices

True work revolves around the access and modification of files, and what better way to store and distribute work files than through a file server? The central-access model for storing and managing files brings many benefits to an organization. Most importantly, everyone can access a single, accurate version of any file on the server. Easy as that sounds, this feat is only possible with proper file server management.

This post explores the concept of file server management from both a how-to and best practice standpoint. To set a solid foundation for the discussion, we’ll need a universal definition for file server management. This way, every other argument builds on the knowledge needed to implement a file server.

What Is File Server Management?

File server management involves the upkeep of hardware and software components of a central storage resource in a network. Usually, we invest all focus on the actual file storage in an operating system. However, because the term “file server” also refers to the actual machine on which the files live, neglecting their health is detrimental (eventually) to the health of any objects they store.

With the hardware consideration out of the way, let’s turn our attention towards the software aspect of file server management. So many software products/brands exist to help server administrators with file server management. Realistically, a file server exists as part of an overall business-enhancement network that includes other types of servers (application, print, database, etc.). This easily includes file servers in a DevOps engineer’s domain.

Being in charge of a file server means not only that you should make sure it performs its operations efficiently, but also that you should make sure it fits into the bigger picture seamlessly as well. To paint a crystal-clear picture of what such a management role entails, let’s compare how maintaining file servers differs from maintaining other kinds of servers.

Managing File Servers vs. Other Kinds of Servers

Unlike other kinds of servers (see list below), file servers act solely as the static storage location of files on a network. Yes, new files get added to the server regularly, but compared to application servers, the major intent with file servers is to have a silo of work files. Reasons for this include safekeeping in case of damage, and the facilitation of collaboration on contained files.

Now for a review of other types of servers.

new files get added to the server regularly, but compared to application servers, the major intent with file servers is to have a silo of work files.

Print

A central print task management and scheduling machine removes the need for printers next to every workstation. The difference between a print and a file server is that a print server never actually stores files. Rather, it lines up tasks from print requests with details of files to print. After a print executes, you cannot access the file as you would in a file server.

Application

These are high-performance machines that execute machines on behalf of client nodes. They remove the need to install and run separate instances of applications on workstations across a network. While they may connect to file servers to remove the burden of drive space management, their task is to host active file types (compiled source code). A good example of an application server is one that hosts a central instance of an antivirus application that protects all machines on a network.

Database

These types of servers are information silos that arrange data into relations (tables) to facilitate access through queries as reports. Typically, a database management system (such as Microsoft SQL Server) handles the access/update activities of a database server. Some database types can store file objects. However, the fundamental difference between them is that file servers only store actual files in their original forms, not in tables.

Proxy

You’ll find proxy servers between client-server networks managing requests while adding a layer of security by cutting direct contact between network components. Smart proxies route requests to the nearest or best resolution destinations.

Mail

A subcategory of application server types, mail servers host email communication services (and configurations) and remove the load of storing, sending, and pulling emails to and from destination addresses.

Some file servers extend web servers as resource locations. In this scenario, we’d find media files (pictures, videos, etc.) along with documents that web applications query and update repeatedly. Note that no source code files execute from within file servers. Otherwise, they’d double as web application servers.

Apart from a file server management software service installed on the file server, no applications run on it (or from it) for remote access. If applications’ binaries live on the file server, it simply acts as a download server rather than an application server.

If applications' binaries live on the file server, it simply acts as a download server rather than an application server.

File Server Management Best Practices

While managing file servers, the following best practices make for smooth access and update activities.

1. Maintain a Strict Permissions Policy

Permissions determine how far an individual user or user department can access and alter the state of a file folder or any individually existing object in a file server. As a general rule, users should not have full access to the entire file server’s assets. This would imply the ability to view, edit, and delete existing files. Full access also extends the ability to create new objects in the file server.

Without a strict permissions policy, a server is barely secure. Consequently, this puts sensitive files in the line of harm from unintended deletion and unauthorized copying (potential leaks). Each user should have the least possible permissions to the server and containing files. This way, their productivity is unhindered, while we do not have to negotiate security on their behalf.

2. Establish a Regular Backup Strategy

Backups are static historic records of the state of files on a server—a snapshot, if you will, of the entire file server. They’re crucial restarting points when servers unexpectedly fail. The more backups you conduct within a time frame, the closer to the latest (unsaved) state your restarting point will be.

Establish and adhere to a regular database backup strategy to avoid losing valuable work hours to server failures. Typically, daily backups should suffice when there’s little to no traffic to the server (after work hours), with cyclical incremental backups done weekly.

3. Implement a “File Recovery” Strategy Early

Backups are, to some extent, a file recovery strategy. However, more advanced file recovery methods should be in place at an early stage of your file server’s life cycle. Typically, these are part and parcel of larger server management software offerings. Building your file server around server management software is a holistic approach that aids with scaling and maintaining file health.

4. Group Your Files Wisely

File grouping goes hand in hand with permissions and access management. Having departmental partitions is a good start. However, work cross-access into any grouping strategy so that users who need access to those work files have it. In the same light, seclude sensitive files from the rest of the server’s contents, regardless of which group they originate from.

5. Conduct Regular Audits of the Entire Server

Implement an iterative health audit to ensure the smooth functioning of your file server. With this said, it helps if the server management suite you’re using provides dashboards for full visibility into your server and its objects. This way, you have a single source of truth into the state of files and the server (both soft and hardware elements).

Wrapping Up

File servers provide a smart abstraction of business assets from the workstations that modify them in the name of work. The effective management of file servers requires intentional effort. Part of the activities and best practices necessary for the upkeep of file servers includes regular backups, frequent health audits, and the enforcement of a strict permissions policy.

Depending on the scale of your file server, the practices suggested herein are easier said than done. However, including a server management partner, such as Netreo, into your strategy, goes a long way toward making short work of file server management.

This post was written by Taurai Mutimutema. Taurai is a systems analyst with a knack for writing, which was probably sparked by the need to document technical processes during code and implementation sessions. He enjoys learning new technology and talks about tech even more than he writes.

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