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A Few Good Tools for Sharing Files with Distributed Groups

Software for viewing and collaborating on documents

 
Idealware - February 16, 2012
We'll show you a variety of tools you can use to view and collaborate on documents when working long distance.

This article — originally published in 2008 — is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to www.idealware.org.

You've finally hired two new staff members to join your successful nonprofit. The trouble is, your new colleagues are in Chicago and your headquarters is in San Francisco. How will you share documents? Is there a better solution than constantly emailing attachments?

Or perhaps you've teamed up with eight partner organizations on a project to recommend sector best practices. It's an exciting initiative, but what will you do with all of those documents that everyone needs to see and even edit?

Emailing documents will certainly work in a pinch, especially when one person takes primarily responsibility for creating and updating the document. However, this method doesn't scale very well if you're collaborating with a number of people on a file, or if you have a lot of reference files that you need to share. If multiple people are editing the document, it's difficult to keep track of which version is which and whose changes are included where via email. Constantly emailing large files also puts a burden on email servers and inboxes to store all those attachments, not to mention adding to the clutter in your colleagues' inboxes.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, shared folders and VPNs can be a great way to share files among long-term group members — but this route requires an investment of several thousand dollars up front, and some substantial setup time for each new group member. For instance, you could create a shared folder on a central network drive, and make it available to remote personnel through a VPN (a method that allows users secure access to your network from their home computers). File shares and VPNs are commonly used and reliable, but because they depend on a centralized network structure, they are most effective when used by a group of employees in a central location, with only a few who require remote access.

So what if you're looking for something in between — something that's more robust than email, but more accommodating to amorphous and ever-changing groups than a file-share and VPN? Thankfully, there are a number of solid options in this realm. Idealware asked six nonprofit technology professionals about their favorite remote file-sharing tools, and we combined their insights to come up with a set of solid options that might also work for you.

Sharing Text Rather Than Files

Before you sign that purchase order, take a moment to reflect on your specific needs and be sure that sharing files is actually the best approach. Do you really need to share a document? Or do you just need to share the information that's contained in the document? If it's the latter, liberating the text from a Word or Excel format can increase your options.

For instance, consider using an online collaborative editing tool like Google Docs. Each person using the application can see a list of all the documents they have access to via a Web-based interface, and with one click can open any document to view or edit content. Any updates made to a document are automatically saved and appear instantly to other users, completely avoiding the confusion that can come from passing around multiple versions of files. Even better, Google Docs is free for all users — though keep in mind that you'll need to be online to use it.

While Google Docs isn't ideal for documents with elaborate formatting or a stylized layout (like your annual report), users still have access to basic elements like headers, bold, images, alignment, and bullets. It's not specifically designed for groups, and can become cumbersome for a large number of users. In particular, security can be a hassle: you can specify the people who can view or edit by email address, but this leads to confusion when the collaborators have multiple email addresses (especially separate work and Gmail accounts).

If you're looking for a free solution to a short-term collaboration between a limited number of users, Google Docs — or similar tools, like Zoho or Writeboard — could be a great choice. For instance, we used Google Docs to allow our contributors to review, comment on, and update the article you're reading — which saved an enormous amount of time compared to collecting updates from each reviewer in a separate Word email attachments.

If you need to share more information than can reasonably be structured in documents within Google Docs, or provide reference information to a large group of users, consider using a wiki instead. A wiki (from the Hawaiian word for "quick") allows users to refer to and collaboratively edit a document inside a Web browser. Wikis can accommodate an extremely large number of users and a large volume of content, and can easily be expanded with new pages and information over time. A wiki can typically be updated by anyone with an account, though your users will need to be reasonably tech-savvy in order to make sense of the update process and syntax. Most wikis will need to be set up by someone tech savvy on an existing Web server, although it's also possible to "rent" a hosted wiki platform, available over the Web.

Before selecting either of these newer options, think through who's going to be using the information. Online editing tools and wikis are likely to be more comfortable for those who are willing experiment with technologies.

Project Collaboration Tools

If your files aren't going to change very often, consider group collaboration tools. These include simple discussion list/file share tools like Google Groups or Yahoo! Groups, and project-management and collaboration tools like Huddle, Basecamp, Central Desktop, GoPlan, Project Desk, and DotProject.

Each tool allows users to upload and download files, and administrators to manage security through logins and passwords. This solution can be useful for storing commonly used documentation, policies, procedures, or logo files that are not edited frequently but used for reference. Some services allow users to collaboratively edit documents, too.

While some of these tools are free, others charge a monthly fee, starting at $10 a month.

SharePoint

Halfway between a project collaboration tool and a document management platform, SharePoint is an option for Windows users to share documents. Available from TechSoup, it offers built-in functionality to create project websites that function similarly to the project collaboration tools above. For instance, someone familiar with SharePoint could easily set up a site that allows users to upload and download files, to "check out" files so that others can't edit them at the same time, and to share contact information.

SharePoint's integration with Microsoft Office makes it easier to upload and download Office documents than most other project collaboration tools. It also integrates with Windows Active Directory, an application that manages user accounts and passwords, so it's a breeze to set up new users (if you happen to be already using Active Directory).

For those whose needs go beyond file sharing, SharePoint also supports more sophisticated searching, data sharing, site building, and more.

Unlike the online tools discussed previously, users will need to install SharePoint software on a centralized network server running Windows Server, and frequently install Microsoft updates and patches to maintain security. Typically, all the users who want to access files through SharePoint must be setup as user on your network, making this solution easier for employees and longer-term group members rather than one-off collaborators.

[Editor's note: Other web-based services, such as Huddle and Basecamp, offer many of the same file-sharing features as SharePoint. Citrix also offers ShareFile for uploading and sharing large files, also available from TechSoup.]

File Synchronization Software

If your group becomes more formalized, and projects extend beyond the short-term, you may require a more rigorous solution.

In this case, you might consider tools built to synchronize the files on your computer with files on other machines. In general, these tools allow you to select files or folders to share with one or more other computers over the Internet. Users can easily view the shared folders and files through a file explorer like Windows Explorer. When the shared files are updated on one computer, the files are automatically synchronized on all other machines over the Internet, regardless of where each computer is. For the most part, this is a convenient solution that doesn't require users to remember to upload new versions. However, if the frequency and volume of changes is high, or if users don't log in very often, the synchronization process may be slow and bog down your computers temporarily.

For example, consider:

  • Windows Live Mesh: Microsoft offers Windows Live Mesh, part of the Windows Live Essentials suite of free utilities. It allows users to sync files between two or more computers directly or via the Internet. It also includes remote desktop functionality, letting a user access one computer from another. It does limit the number and size of files to sync, however: up to 200 folders and 100,000 files, each up to 40 GB in size.
  • SharePoint Workspace: The widely-used SharePoint Workspace, formerly known as Groove, offers similar functionality to Windows Live Mesh, but in a much more robust version tailored to the needs of organizations. It's designed to allow sharing between distributed computers that are not always online, so it doesn't depend on a centralized network or even high-speed Internet access. Security is world-class, and it's easy to administer via permission levels. It integrates well with other Microsoft products, including SharePoint Server and Office. Using the software requires a one-time purchase, available through TechSoup. With no ongoing fees, SharePoint Workspace can be a great and very affordable solution for long-term use.

[Editor's note: Huddle is another option for uploading and editing files as a group, and includes full version history.]

Intranets and Document Management

If you're already using a Content Management System (CMS) like Drupal or Plone, don't overlook the fact that these systems can offer robust file-sharing capabilities. Although it probably doesn't make sense for your organization to set up a CMS just to share files, these systems also offer site content management, discussion forums, and data collection, which could make them a solid base for an intranet that also supports sophisticated file sharing.

If your organization requires more complex features beyond simple file sharing, you might consider enterprise-level document-management systems, which will allow users to track document updates, store previous versions, "check out" documents to prevent simultaneous editing, and rigorously manage and search documents. SharePoint offers additional products that fall into this category, along with Alfresco, Interwoven, and OpenText. These tools are intended for those with complex needs, and are likely to be more costly to set up and maintain than simpler tools.

How to Decide

There are many options, but it's less daunting to choose if you start by thinking through the needs of your organization or group. Do you need to share documents for a short-term, informal collaboration or for ongoing day-to-day staff operations? Are the members of the group primarily in one location or working remotely from all around the country? Temporary and more amorphous groups typically call for more temporary solutions, such as Google Docs or a project-collaboration platform, while more permanent, official groups with ongoing projects may need more robust and centrally maintained options like file synchronization software or VPNs.

If your documents are fairly polished, and you just need a way for people to reference them, something like a project-collaboration platform might work fine. However, if they are in flux or frequently updated, consider tools like Google Docs, file synchronization software, or a VPN that help to prevent issues with file versions.

Finally, don't forget to consider the level of technical expertise in your group. Some of the more complex options may require an IT professional to install or maintain, while some of the simpler tools don't require either installation or maintenance. At the end of the day, there are lots of tools available to help you share files, but be sure you pick one that everyone feels comfortable using.

Regardless of your solution, remember the human side of the equation. If you're sharing a lot of files, you'll likely need to put someone in charge of keeping your files organized, getting rid of junk documents, establishing some policies, and helping users with the application.

With a little time and effort, you can be on your way to seamlessly sharing files with your colleagues and friends … leaving you a little more room in your email inbox, and a little more time to focus on how your organization can make the world a better place.

Additional Resources

Learn more about cloud computing for your nonprofit or library on TechSoup's cloud page.

Thanks to TechSoup for their financial support of this article, as well as to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help:

This article was edited by Idealware; any errors or omissions are solely Idealware's responsibility.

Image: Uploading files, Shutterstock