What is file-sharing software and how does it work?

When you need feedback on a piece of content, how do you share it? In the far distant past, you might have printed out your document and walked it across the office. In the case of videos and images, you had to provide physical tapes or copies to your team. And who could forget scanners and fax machines?

Later, the “modern” approach became emailing files to colleagues — which was less than ideal when it came to version control and security. Not to mention, most email servers have attachment limits that restrict the size and number of files you can send. Alternatively, you could load a file onto a removable storage device, such as a USB flash drive or portable hard drive and physically hand the device to a collaborator. Again, not secure, and far less than ideal. 

Today, there's a much easier and more secure way to share files and content with your collaborators. File-sharing software lets you transfer content to other people's devices seamlessly. Several types of file-sharing software programs exist. Read on to learn more about how each one works and the benefits of using these programs. 

File-sharing software lets you transfer content to other people's devices seamlessly

What is file sharing?

When you share a file, you offer another user access to it. You can share multiple types of files using a file-sharing program, including documents, PDFs, audio files, video files, images, e-book files, and even entire computer programs. The type and size of files you can share varies based on the program you use and your permissions level. Some programs limit the size of each file, while others allow you to share files of unlimited sizes.

File-sharing software is just one way to transfer files to other users and ease collaboration

How does file-sharing software work?

Generally, file-sharing software works in one of two ways. A program can either access files on another computer or access files stored on a server. When the program accesses files stored on someone's computer, it's known as peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing. 

P2P programs have developed a bit of a bad reputation, however. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, P2P programs, such as Napster, facilitated sharing music files between individuals. Two teenagers created the program, which quickly became popular among high school and college students, who shared MP3s of their favorite songs. 

The problem was that the people sharing the music files didn't have ownership rights over the files — and had no legal right to share them. While P2P file sharing is illegal in some cases, the practice is acceptable among rightful content owners. 

File-sharing software can also work by storing files on a server and transferring them to a computer. The server might be a physical server, or it could be cloud-based. Files shared from a server get uploaded to the server, where an authorized user can access them. Depending on permissions, the user can edit the file, download it, or delete it. In some instances, a user might only have permission to view the file. 

File-sharing software can also work by storing files on a server and transferring them to a computer

Types of file-sharing software

Within the P2P and server-based file-sharing categories, there are multiple types of file-sharing software programs. Take a look at the different types and learn how to share files with them:

Types of file-sharing software - system local file sharing, client-server file sharing, peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, cloud-based file sharing

1. System local file sharing

Operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS include the option of sharing files over a local area network (LAN). A local area network is what it sounds like: a group of computers in the same general area, connected over the same network. If your company has a centralized workplace, the computers in the office building are probably on the same network. Schools and libraries might also use a LAN to connect devices.

If there's a LAN, it's possible to create a network drive that can be accessed from any computer on the network. You can also connect the computers on a LAN to the same printers and internet connection. 

Usually, files you share locally end up on a mapped drive. A mapped drive is in some ways similar to your computer's local drive. But while you can only reach a computer's "C" drive — or whatever name you give the local drive — when using that particular device, you can access the mapped drive from any device on the network. You can save a .doc or .pdf on the mapped drive on computer B, then walk over to computer D, click on the mapped drive folder or icon, and open the same file.

To prevent users from deleting or overriding their peers' work, when a file stored on a mapped drive is open on one device on the network, a user typically can't open it from a second device. The second user will get a message that the file is open on a different machine. They'll need to request that the first user close the file or wait until that person is finished.

2. Client-server file sharing

A client-server file-sharing program stores files in a server and sends them to users upon request. This type of model can take several different forms.

File transfer protocol (FTP) is an example of a client-server file-sharing program. With FTP, you can send files to and from different devices over the internet. To use FTP, an individual needs access to the FTP server, for instance, by logging into an FTP client. Some FTP servers require a username and password. The servers that don't need a username and password are typically anonymous. They share files that are open source and meant to be available to anyone. Some FTP servers work through a web browser and don't require a user to install a separate FTP client.

FTP shares files through two channels. The first is the control channel, which establishes the contact between the computer that wants access to the file and the server. The control channel also verifies user information, if necessary. The other channel is the data channel. It's responsible for transmitting the data from the server to the other computer.

Every FTP server has an address, which looks similar to an IP address or URL. It can take the form of words, such as ftp.sharemyfiles.net, or a series of numbers, such as 123.456.789. 

Using FTP to share files involves two things:

  1.  Uploading them to the server so someone else can access them
  2. Downloading them from the server

For example, you might upload files to an FTP server to use on a webpage. Or, your colleague might upload a video file to the FTP server for you. You can then log into the FTP client to download it to your device.

FTP is an early example of a file-sharing program. It dates to the days before there were graphical interfaces. Back then, there weren't concerns about data breaches or security like there are today. FTP doesn't have the security features you'd find in other file-sharing programs. If you're interested in using it, consider these slightly more secure options:  file transfer protocol secure (FTPS) or secure file transfer protocol (SFTP).

FTP is an early example of a file-sharing program

Sending files over email is another example of a client-server file-sharing system. To send a file over email, you need to attach it to a message. You can send the same file to multiple recipients simultaneously. There are several major drawbacks to using email for file-sharing, including limitations on file size, version-control issues, redundancy of files, difficulty of oversight by IT, and other security concerns.

3. Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing

One way to think of P2P file sharing is that it cuts out the intermediary — the server. Instead of uploading files to a server or a mapped drive, a P2P file-sharing program lets you share files directly from one computer to another. Napster is a well-known example of a P2P file-sharing program, but there are many others. While some individuals use P2P for unethical or illegal reasons, such as sharing pirated music or video files, it has legitimate uses. 

If you create content, such as music and video files, and want to share them directly with fans, you can make the files available on a P2P program. You can also use the software to share files with your colleagues. 

While some P2P programs are large and have users stationed around the country or the world, smaller programs exist. It's possible to set up a P2P network that only connects the computers in an office building or the company's devices.

P2P file sharing, also referred to as decentralized sharing, comes with security concerns, however. There’s always the risk of downloading a virus or other type of malware, and, as Francis Dinha, a Forbes Councils Member puts it, “I believe that no VPN that allows P2P file-sharing is truly safe or secure.”

4. Cloud-based file sharing

A cloud-based file-sharing program lets you store content in the cloud — a system of remote servers on the internet. With cloud-based file sharing, you can access your files on any device, from any location that has an internet connection. If you upload a file to the cloud while in the office, then realize you need to make changes to it when you're at home, you can do so, and the changes will sync with the file. Cloud-based file sharing also allows multiple users to edit the same file in real time while keeping track of each person's changes.

Cloud-based file sharing has become the file-sharing option of choice for many companies for multiple reasons. For one thing, it's mostly device agnostic. Employee A can use a Mac, and employee B a PC, and both are able to access the cloud. Cloud-based file sharing also frees up storage space on devices, because the files are stored remotely rather than on a specific computer or physical server. 

Cloud-based file sharing has become he file-sharing option of choice for many companies

Security is a notable concern for cloud-based file-sharing programs, and many have built-in features to protect your content. For example, files might be password protected or require multi-factor authentication to access. A file-sharing program also typically allows content owners and IT teams to set user permissions. You can decide to make a piece of content accessible to all and limit who can edit or delete it. For example, a document can be set to be viewed or read by anyone, but you might assign only employees from a certain domain editing permission. 

Compared to other file-sharing programs, cloud-based programs allow for faster uploads and downloads. When you upload something to a P2P network or FTP server, you're limited by your internet connection speed. The same is true for downloading from a P2P program or FTP server. Since you aren't actually downloading the file when you use a cloud-based program, you don't have to wait for it to transfer from the server to your device. 

What to look for in a file-sharing program

The right file-sharing program can help improve your productivity while giving you and your team a centralized place to access and store your content. As you begin the search for a file-sharing platform, it's essential to consider what you need from the program and the features it offers. Some of the things you might look for include:

1. High-speed transfer

If you typically upload large files such as videos or music files to a server, you don't want the process to take all day. The same is true when it's time for another user to access and download those files. Time is money, and the longer it takes files to upload or download, the less time you and your team will have to collaborate on those files. 

With some file-sharing programs, the transfer speed is limited by your connection speed. Additionally, some internet service providers impose caps, meaning your connection might slow down drastically when you try to upload a 1-GB or larger file. Since cloud-based file storage and sharing programs store content remotely, there's no need to download them to a specific device. The files can load instantly, letting you and your collaborators get to work right away.

2. Ease of use

Some file-sharing programs are easier to use than others. Ideally, the program you choose won't require an extensive amount of training to use. You want to get everyone up to speed on how it works so you don't experience a disruption in your productivity. 

One feature to pay close attention to is user-friendliness. A program designed to be intuitive will be much easier to implement than one that's overly complex. Some ease-of-use features to look out for include link sharing and drag-and-drop file uploading.

A program designed to be intuitive will be much easier to implement than one that's overly complex

3. Simple deployment and management

If you start using a new file-sharing program, you'll need to onboard your team members. Doing so shouldn't be too complicated. A program that's easy to deploy will likely integrate with apps you already use and create a seamless onboarding experience.

Once you've deployed the program, it's also crucial that it be easy to manage day to day. Updates are important, but there shouldn't be so many updates that you risk using an outdated system. The platform's company should keep you up to date on any developments and changes and should also be committed to ensuring their platform is among the best available.

4. Excellent customer service

Questions are likely to come up when you use a file-sharing platform, both during the onboarding process and daily use. Maintaining access to your content and ensuring the right users can get to it is critical for your company's functioning. For that reason, you want to look for a platform that has excellent customer service. 

Customer service includes providing detailed training so everyone understands the functions of the platform and what it can or can't do. It should also involve being there to answer any questions you have about how the platform works. 

5. Security

Security varies from file-sharing program to file-sharing program. For example, email isn't necessarily the most secure way to share files, as a bad actor can intercept a message. FTP isn't a secure file-transfer method unless you are using FTPS or SFTP. Most cloud-based file-sharing platforms include security features that aim to keep your data confidential and out of the hands of bad actors. 

Security varies from file-sharing program to file-sharing program

Depending on your industry, these security features may be critical to ensure you comply with regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or with other specific laws. Security features to pay attention to include encryption while data is at rest and when it's being transferred, link expiration, and the ability to control user permission levels. 

6. Customization options

Your file-sharing platform should work for you — you shouldn't have to work for it. A platform you can customize will better meet your needs and serve your company than one that offers no customization. One customization feature to look out for is app integrations. If your company already uses certain apps, such as Google Drive, OneDrive, Slack, or Salesforce, it will be easier for you to work with a platform that integrates with those apps rather than one that requires you to start from scratch.

Storage needs also vary from company to company. If you're just getting started, you might want a platform that can grow with you rather than one that offers limited storage options or massive amounts of storage for a high price.

7. Good reputation

Reputation matters when you're choosing a file-sharing platform. What are others saying about it? Are the reviews largely positive? Another thing to consider is the company's history. Has it lost files, or have there been any significant data breaches? The platform's uptime is also worth consideration. If there is a history of crashes or time offline, consider how that will impact your company's ability to access and work on its content.

Reputation matters when you're choosing a file-sharing platform

Share files with Box 

Box offers a secure collaboration platform that gets your team working in the cloud. The Content Cloud lets you create, share, edit, and store files. With Box, your team can quickly access content ranging from PDFs to MPEGs, docs, and JPEGs. Additionally, you can assign users to each file and set their permissions level. For example, managers might have the option of deleting certain files while interns might only be able to view some files. 

Box integrates with more than 1,500 apps, which allows you to use it seamlessly within your workflow. The platform was designed with your needs in mind and is built to be intuitive. Security is also important, which is why Box protects your data from end to end. Features such as password protection, audit logs, and encryption keep bad actors away from your data and let you keep tabs on what's going on.

Box makes it easy for you to share your content. Contact us today to see how it works.

Box make it easy for you to share your conent

**While we maintain our steadfast commitment to offering products and services with best-in-class privacy, security, and compliance, the information provided in this blogpost is not intended to constitute legal advice. We strongly encourage prospective and current customers to perform their own due diligence when assessing compliance with applicable laws.