Tag Archives: onedrive

OneDrive Files on Demand is back – will users get confused? And how does it look to applications?

Microsoft is restoring a much-requested feature to its OneDrive cloud storage: placeholders, or what is now called Files on Demand.

The issue is that when users have files in cloud storage, they want easy access to them at any time, but downloading everything to local storage may use too much disk space. There are also scenarios where you do not want a local copy, for example for confidential documents, especially if you do not enable Bitlocker encryption.

You can use OneDrive through the web browser, but Windows users expect File Explorer integration, the most natural way of working.

Windows 8.1 introduced placeholders, where OneDrive (then SkyDrive) files appeared in File Explorer but were not actually downloaded until you opened them. It was a popular feature, but Microsoft removed it in Windows 10, saying that users found it confusing. I suppose they might have thought a file was on their PC, boarded a plane, and then discovered they could not work on the document because they it was not actually there.

This was a user interface issue, but apparently there were other technical issues, particularly for applications using the Windows file APIs. Perhaps the problems were so intricate that the team did not think it could be fixed in the first releases of Windows 10.

Now the feature is back, and I have installed it on the latest Windows Insider build:

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But could users still be confused? Files in OneDrive now have four possible states:

Hidden. You can still choose not to make all folders visible in File Explorer. In fact, hidden seems to be the default for folders previously not synced to the PC, though you can easily check an option to show them all:

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Online-only: Files have a cloud icon and are offline until you open them:

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Locally available:

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Always available:

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So what is the difference between “Locally available” and “Always available”? It really is not explained here but my assumption is that locally available files could automatically revert to online-only if there is pressure on disk space. It could catch you out, if you saw that a file was locally available and relied on that, only to find that Windows automatically reverted it without you realising.

If you right-click a file in OneDrive you can change its status or share a link. If you want to make a file online-only, you choose Free up space (I think it would be clearer if this option were called Online-only, but this is a preview so it might change).

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How do online-only files look to applications? I ran up Visual Studio and wrote a utility that iterates through a folder and shows the file name and length:

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You will note that the API reported the size of the file online, not on disk. This is the kind of thing that can cause issues, though if the file size were reported as zero bytes – well, that could cause issues too.

Incidentally, you can also now sort files in File Explorer by Status. I imagine the latest Windows 10 SDK will also have a way to report status so that applications can catch up.

How to get a Bitlocker recovery key on Android

Scenario: you are out and about with your laptop and phone. Laptop protected with Bitlocker encryption. You start up your laptop and it decides for no obvious reason to demand your Bitlocker key before booting up.

If your laptop is domain-joined, this key is normally stored in Active Directory. If is not domain-joined, it is normally stored in the OneDrive linked with your Microsoft account. These are options when the Bitlocker encryption was applied.

This laptop is not domain-joined and the key is in OneDrive. So I pick up my phone and find the link, which is here.

Android helpfully opened this link in the OneDrive app, but not to the location of the keys, just the home page. No idea how to find the recovery keys in there.

The solution I found was to copy the link and paste it directly into the browser. You might need to get a code sent to your phone if you have 2-factor authentication. I found I needed to check the box for “I log on frequently with this device” before it worked.

Then I could see the key in the Android web browser. Phew.

New Office 365 OneDrive for Business sync client now supports team sites

Microsoft has announced new capabilities for its next-generation OneDrive for Business sync client – the software that lets users access OneDrive documents through Windows Explorer rather than having to go via a web browser.

Technically, there are two ways to access OneDrive with Windows Explorer. One uses WebDAV and only works online, the other makes a local copy of the documents and synchronises them when it can. Microsoft pushes users towards the second option. If you use WebDAV, repeated authentication prompts and lack of offline capabilities are annoyances that many find it hard to cope with.

Problem is that the old OneDrive for Business sync client, called Groove, is just not reliable. Every so often it stops syncing and there is often no solution other than to delete all the local copies and start again.

Microsoft is therefore replacing it with a new OneDrive for Business sync client, which has been in preview since September 2015. “The preview client adds OneDrive for Business connectivity to our proven OneDrive consumer client,” explained Microsoft, abandoning the problematic Groove.

There was a snag though. The new client did not support Team Sites, also known as SharePoint Online, but only personal OneDrive for Business cloud storage. Many businesses make more use of Team Sites than they do of the personal storage. Users with both had to run both the old and new sync clients side by side.

I was among those complaining so it is pleasing to see that Microsoft, a mere 15 months later, has met my request, by adding support for Team Sites to its new client.

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(I had no idea until I looked today how much support the feedback had received).

Today’s announcement also includes a new standalone Mac client, which can be deployed centrally, and an enhancd UI with an Activity Center.

There are also new admin features in the Office 365 dashboard, like blocking syncing of specified file types, control over device access, and usage reporting.

There may still be some snags – and note that the new client is still a preview.

Competitors like DropBox and Box have some technical advantages, but Microsoft’s key benefit is integration with Office 365, and the fact that it comes as part of the bundle in most plans. If it can iron out the technical issues, of which sync has to date been the most annoying, it will significantly strengthen its cloud platform.

Microsoft publishes new OneDrive API with SDK, sample apps

Microsoft has announced a new OneDrive API for programmatic access to its cloud storage service. It is a REST API which Microsoft Program Manager Ryan Gregg says the company is also using internally for OneDrive apps. The new API replaces the previous Live SDK, though the Live SDK will continue to be supported. One advantage of the new API is that you can retrieve changes to files and folders in order to keep an offline copy in sync, or to upload changes made offline.

Unfortunately this does not extend to only downloading the changed part of a file (as far as I can tell); you still have to delete and replace the entire file. Imagine you had a music file in which only the metadata had changed. With the OneDrive API, you will have to upload or download the entire file, rather than simply applying the difference. However, you can upload files in segments in order to handle large files, up to 10GB.

I have worked with file upload and download using the Azure Blob Storage service so I was interested to see what is now on offer for OneDrive. I went along to the OneDrive API site on GitHub and downloaded the Windows/C# API explorer, which is a Windows Forms application (why not WPF?). This uses a OneDrive SDK library which has been coded as a portable class library, for use in desktop, Windows 8, Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows Phone Silverlight 8.

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I have to say this is not the kind of sample I like. I prefer short snippets of code that demonstrate things like: here is how you authenticate, here is how you iterate through all the files in a folder, here is how you download a file, here is how you upload a file, and so on. All these features are there in this app, but finding them means weaving your way through all the UI code and async calls to piece together how it actually works. On top of that, despite all those async calls, there are some performance issues which seem to be related to the smart tiles which display a preview image, where possible, from each file and folder. I found the UI becoming unresponsive at times, for example when retrieving my large SkyDrive camera roll.

Gregg makes no reference in his post to OneDrive for Business, but my assumption is that the new API only applies to consumer OneDrive. Microsoft has said though that it intends to unify its two OneDrive services so maybe a future version will be able to target both.

At a quick glance the API looks different to the Azure Blob Storage API. They are different services but with some overlap in terms of features and I wonder if Microsoft has ever got all its cloud storage teams together to work out a common approach to their respective APIs.

I do not intend to be negative. OneDrive is an impressive and mostly free service and the API is important for lots of reasons. If you find the OneDrive integration in the current Windows 10 preview too limited (as I do), at least you now have the ability to code your own alternative.

Microsoft OneDrive and OneDrive for Business: a guide for the perplexed

Microsoft’s price plans for additional cloud storage are odd:

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Hmm, £1.60 per month for 1TB or £3.99 for 200GB. Difficult decision? Especially as OneDrive for Business appears to be a superset of OneDrive:

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It is not that simple of course (and see below for how you can get 1TB OneDrive for less). The two products have different ancestries. OneDrive was once SkyDrive and before that Windows Live Folders and before that Windows Live Drive. It was designed from the beginning as a cloud storage and client sync service.

OneDrive for Business on the other hand is essentially SharePoint: team portal including online document storage and collaboration. The original design goal of SharePoint (a feature of Windows Server 2003) was to enable businesses to share Office documents with document history, comments, secure access and so on, and to provide a workplace for teams. See the history here. SharePoint supported a technology called WebDAV (Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning) to allow clients to access content programmatically, and this could be used in Windows to make online documents appear in Windows Explorer (the file utility), but there was no synchronization client. SharePoint was not intended for storage of arbitrary file types; the system allowed it, but full features only light up with Office documents. In other words, not shared storage so much as content management system. Documents are stored in Microsoft SQL Server database.

SharePoint was bolted into Microsoft BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite) which later became Office 365. In response to demand for document synchronization between client and cloud, Microsoft came up with SharePoint Workspace, based on Groove, a synchronization technology acquired along with Groove Networks in 2005.

I have no idea how much original Groove code remains in the the OneDrive for Business client, nor the extent to which SharePoint Online really runs the same code as the SharePoint you get in Windows Server; but that is the history and explains a bit about why the products are as they are. The OneDrive for Business client for Windows is an application called Groove.exe.

OneDrive and OneDrive for Business are different products, despite the misleading impression given by the name and the little feature table above. This is why the Windows, Mac and Mobile clients are all different and do different things.

OneDrive for Business is reasonable as an online document collaboration tool, but the sync client has always been poor and I prefer not to use it (do not click that Sync button in Office 365). You may find that it syncs a large number of documents, then starts giving puzzling errors for which there is no obvious fix. Finally Microsoft will recommend that you zap your local cache and start again, with some uncertainty about whether you might have lost some work. Microsoft has been working hard to improve it but I do not know if it is yet reliable; personally I think there are intractable problems with Groove and it should be replaced.

The mobile clients for OneDrive for Business are hopeless as DropBox replacements. The iOS client app is particularly odd: you can view files but not upload them. Photo sync, a feature highly valued by users, is not supported. However you can create new folders through the app – but not put anything in them.

Office on iOS on the other hand is a lovely set of applications which use OneDrive for Business for online storage, which actually makes sense in this context. It can also be used with consumer OneDrive or SharePoint, once it is activated.

The consumer version of OneDrive is mostly better than OneDrive for Business for online storage. It is less good for document collaboration and security (the original design goals of SharePoint) but more suitable for arbitrary file types and with a nice UI for things like picture sharing. The Windows and mobile clients are not perfect, but work well enough. The iOS OneDrive client supports automatic sync of photos and you can upload items as you would expect, subject to the design limitations of Apple’s operating system.

Even for document collaboration, consumer OneDrive is not that bad. It supports Office Web Apps, for creating and editing documents in the browser, and you can share documents with others with various levels of permission. 

What this means for you:

  • Do not trust the OneDrive for Business sync client
  • Do not even think about migrating from OneDrive to OneDrive for Business to get cheap cloud storage
  • No, you mostly cannot use the same software to access OneDrive and OneDrive for Business
  • Despite what you are paying for your Office 365 subscription, consumer OneDrive is a better cloud storage service
  • SharePoint online also known as OneDrive for Business has merit for document collaboration and team portal services, beyond the scope of consumer OneDrive

Finally, what Microsoft should do:

  • Create a new sync client for OneDrive for Business that works reliably and fast, with mobile apps that do what users expect
  • Either unify the technology in OneDrive and OneDrive for Business, or stop calling them by the same name

I do understand Microsoft’s problem. SharePoint has a huge and complex API, and Microsoft’s business users like the cloud-hosted versions of major server applications to work the same way as those that are on premise. However SharePoint will never be a optimal technology for generic cloud storage.

If I were running Office 365, I think I would bring consumer OneDrive into Office 365 for general cloud storage, and I would retain SharePoint online for what it is good at, which is the portal, application platform, and document collaboration aspect. This would be similar to how many businesses use their Windows servers: simple file shares for most shared files, and SharePoint for documents where advanced collaboration features are needed.

In the meantime, it is a mess, and with the explosive growth of Office 365, a tricky one to resolve without pain.

Microsoft has a relatively frank FAQ here.

Postscript: here is a tip if you need large amounts of OneDrive storage. If you buy Office 365 Home for £7.99 per month or £79.99 per year (which works out at £6.66 per month) you get 1TB additional storage for consumer OneDrive for up to 4 users, as well as the main Office applications:

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The way this works is that each user activates Office using a Microsoft account. The OneDrive storage linked to that account gets the 1TB extra storage while the subscription is active.

Another option is Office 365 Personal – same deal but for one user at £5.99 per month, or £59.99 per year (£4.99 per month).

Even for one user, it is cheaper to subscribe to Office 365 Home or Personal than to buy 1TB storage at £3.99 per month per 200GB. When you add the benefit of Office applications, it is a great deal.

Despite the name, these products have little to do with Office 365, Microsoft’s cloud-hosted Exchange, SharePoint and more. These are desktop applications plus consumer OneDrive.

OneDrive, SkyDrive, whatever: Microsoft needs to make it better – especially in Office 365

This week brought the news that SkyDrive is to be renamed OneDrive:

For current users of either SkyDrive or SkyDrive Pro, you’re all set. The service will continue to operate as you expect and all of your content will be available on OneDrive and OneDrive for Business respectively as the new name is rolled out across the portfolio.

I have no strong views on whether OneDrive or SkyDrive is a better name (the reason for the change was a legal challenge from the UK’s BSkyB).

I do have views on SkyDrive OneDrive though.

First, it is confusing that OneDrive and OneDrive for Business share the same name. I have been told by Microsoft that they are completely different platforms. OneDrive is the consumer offering, and OneDrive for Business is hosted SharePoint in Office 365. It is this paid offering that interests me most in a business context.

SharePoint is, well, SharePoint, and it seems fairly solid even though it is slow and over-complex. The Office Web Apps are rather good. The client integration is substandard though. A few specifics:

Yesterday I assisted a small business which has upgraded to full-fat Office 365, complete with subscription to the Office 2013 Windows applications. We set up the team site and created a folder, and used the Open in Explorer feature for convenient access in Windows. Next, run Word, type a new document, choose Save As, and attempt to save to that folder.

Word thought for a long time, then popped up a password dialog (Microsoft seems to love these password dialogs, which pop up from time to time no matter how many times you check Remember Me). Entered the correct credentials, it thought for a bit then prompted again, this time with a CAPTCHA added as a further annoyance. Eventually we hit cancel out of frustration, and lo, the document was saved correctly after all.

Another time and it might work perfectly, but I have seen too many of these kinds of problems to believe that it was a one-off.

Microsoft offers another option, which is called SkyDrive OneDrive Pro. This is our old friend Groove, also once known as Microsoft SharePoint Workspace 2010, but now revamped to integrate with Explorer. This guy is a sync engine, whereas “Open in Explorer” uses WebDAV.S

Synchronisation has its place, especially if you want to work offline, but unfortunately SkyDrive Pro is just not reliable. All the businesses I know that have attempted to use it in anger, gave up. They get endless upload errors that are hard to resolve, from the notorious Office Upload Center. The recommended fix is to “clear the cache”, ie wipe and start again, with no clarity about whether work may be lost. Avoid.

One of the odd things is that there seems to be a sync element even if you are NOT using SkyDrive Pro. The Upload Center manages a local cache. Potentially that could be a good thing, if it meant fast document saving and seamless online/offline use. Instead though, Microsoft seems to have implemented it for the worst of every world. You get long delays and sign-in problems when saving, sometimes, as well as cache issues like apparently successful saves followed by upload failures.

OK, let’s use an iPad instead. There is an app called SkyDrive Pro which lets you access your Office 365 documents. It is more or less OK unless you want to share a document – one of the the main reasons to use a cloud service. There is no way to access a folder someone else has shared in SkyDrive Pro on an iPad, nor can you access the Team Site which is designed for sharing documents in Office 365. Is Microsoft serious about supporting iPad users?

Office 365 is strategic for Microsoft, and SharePoint is its most important feature after Exchange. The customers are there; but with so many frustrations in trying to use Office 365 SharePoint clients other than the browser, it will not be surprising if many of them turn to other solutions.