Tuesday, 7 June 2016

3 Key Ways Google Drive is Different from Other Online Storage

The number is ever increasing, but over 200 million people use Google Drive for their online file storage needs, and because Drive looks like the other SaaS file storage systems, many people just assume that it works the same way. This is just not true, under the hood Drive is quite different than the cloud storage services such as BoxDropbox, or Microsoft OneDrive. Here are three important examples of how Google Drive is different.

migrate to Google Apps and Google Drive

Google Drive is a Graph

When I write that Google Drive is different, I don't mean because Drive isn't just a storage system (you also get Google apps), because it offers the best online co-authoring experience, or even because of the built-in advanced search capability. No, I'm not referring to some marketing interpretation of the different cloud storage systems, I mean the actual file storage mechanism is different. Unlike the other cloud storage systems, Drive isn't hierarchical; it's a graph.

Although the term "folder" is used in Drive, they aren't really folders. Just like Gmail, Drive doesn't have folders in the traditional sense. Instead, files and folders are tagged with metadata "labels" and it's the labels that determine where things appear rather than a folder structure. In traditional file systems (including other cloud services), files are "located" inside folders. (People will commonly say "physical folders" even though the entire system is obviously digital.) Continuing with that terminology, Drive files are not physically inside folders; they can be tagged with multiple labels and therefore they can appear to be in multiple "places." You might think that the labels are similar to symlinks or shortcuts, but again that's not a valid comparison because Drive only has labels, whereas symlinks and shortcuts are used to reference traditional folders.

When you "move" a Drive file or folder, you're actually changing its labels. This is how you can add a file or folder to your drive so easily and freely move it around. It's not a copy, it's the same file/folder that everyone else with rights is seeing, but it can appear in a different place to each user. This affects the way that sharing works in Drive, but we'll get to that soon.

Google Docs are Not Syncing to Your Computer

I know that some people believe that copying Drive folders that are syncing to their PC is the same as copying all their Drive files and Google Docs (sheets, forms, etc), but that's false. Google Docs are handled differently than other types of files and one key difference is they're only stored on the Google Servers--the content is not copied to a user's computer during a sync. This can lead to some unfortunate outcomes. For example, the guy who deleted all his Google Docs files because he didn't understand how Drive works.

What users see when they sync Google Docs to their computer are actually shortcuts to the files. Other file types (e.g., Microsoft Office documents, PDFs, etc.) are actually copied. You can try a simple test yourself to see exactly what happens. Use a text editor to open a Google Doc from a synced folder on your machine and you'll see a reference like this:

{"url": "https://docs.google.com/open?id=1bxxxxaSz-mUda9_RQxxxCrmAPic", "doc_id": "1aCaxxxaxaSz9_RQ94vxxxmAPic", "email": "foo@bar.com", "resource_id": "document:1aCaMDxxxSz-mUda9_RQ94vixxxPic"}

What does this mean for the average user? Not a lot except it's important to understand that Google is backing up these files in their cloud infrastructure. Trying to add some type of extra backup mechanism will not be helpful. Yes, it's possible to download a copy of a Google Doc (e.g., as a Word doc or text file), but that's not something you'd want to do regularly for all the Google Docs stored in your Drive account.

There certainly are benefits to the way Google Docs are handled in Drive. For example, Google Docs are not counted against your Drive storage total. This means that you could take a large volume of Microsoft Office documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations, convert them to Google Docs and save money on storage space.

Drive Sharing is Different

Of all the differences, the way Drive handles file sharing might be the most obvious to an end user. The ability to send out a link that provides anyone with the ability to view (or edit) a document in a web interface is a super useful feature. I've seen this functionality used in many different ways including a Reddit writing group called Destructive Readers that openly invites members to tear apart each others' work. Yes, it's possible to do this with other file storage services, but Drive is the most popular solution for the group because it's easy to allow everyone to leave inline comments.

An important point to remember about Drive sharing is that anyone who has "Edit" access to folders can change the parent folder--including the ability to "move" folders or files to folders that don't have the same sharing rights. In other words, it's easy for a user to make files and folder inaccessible to other people by simply reorganizing the folders (i.e., changing the labels).

For more information about Drive sharing, check out this two-part video about Google Drive sharing.
Update: The Google Apps Show just added an episode about Google Drive syncing and sharing.

Google Drive has certainly grown up quickly. In a recent report about online storage solutions, Forrester praised Google Drive for product strategy and performance, "Google Drive delivers high-performing file sharing and storage services, even for very large formats, such as video, that cross into the hundreds of gigabytes. Most other EFSS providers have file-size limits that could impede advanced requirements."

Providing online storage features such as advanced search, access from anywhere on any device, having just one copy of each file, and the ability to organize your files--even shared files--the way you want are integral to the success of Google Drive. However, their modern cloud-based architecture enables some functionality that works differently than other online storage solutions. These are just a few examples, what others have you found?

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