Q&A With Fabian Uhse, Program Manager for Work Folders in Windows Server 2012 R2

Hi Folks –

A few months back I wrote a blog article on Work Folders, one of the new “hero” features in Windows Server 2012 R2 and Windows Storage Server 2012 R2. In this post, I’ll share the perspective of Fabian Uhse, a Program Manager for Work Folders at Microsoft.

Fabian Uhse

Q: Why did Microsoft develop Work Folders? What customer pains did you set out to solve?

Put simply, we set out to make it easier for people to access their files. When we looked at all the ways that people access data on a file server, we realized that more and more people are transitioning to a sync-based approach, which offers benefits such as offline access. We already had a sync-based approach for accessing data on SharePoint Server, and wanted to provide modern, sync-based access to file server data as well.

Q: What exactly is Work Folders, and how does the feature work?

Work Folders gives users access to files on a company file server while allowing organizations to maintain control over that data. Here’s an overview:

  • It works by syncing the data between end-user devices and the file server, which means that IT admins can use all the same familiar file server management tools to manage and secure that data.
  • From a technical perspective, there are two parts to Work Folders: on the server, it’s a sub-role under File and Storage Services that can be enabled on any file server running Windows Server 2012 R2 or Windows Storage Server 2012 R2.
  • On user devices, the Work Folders “client” is what connects to the server and handles synchronization of the files in the background, without the user needing to do anything else. All the user needs to think about are his or her local files.

Q: How does Work Folders compare to other Microsoft sync technologies?

Here’s how I suggest people look at the different sync options we provide:

  • First of all, there’s OneDrive—formerly called SkyDrive. OneDrive is a consumer solution, so it’s really not appropriate for business data.
  • Second, there’s OneDrive for Business—formerly called SkyDrive Pro. You can think of OneDrive for Business as a similar, almost-parallel technology to Work Folders. OneDrive for Business offers a rich collaboration solution, which is great for SharePoint-based data. So if you’re looking for a file sync solution for data that’s already stored on SharePoint, then OneDrive for Business is all you need. It’s worth noting the difference between Work Folders and OneDrive for Business as both can exist in parallel; Work Folders is a feature of Windows Server 2012 R2 that allows data sitting on a file server to be synced, whereas OneDrive for Business syncs data stored on SharePoint—including both SharePoint deployed on-premises and as part of Office 365. By offering Work Folders in parallel with OneDrive for Business, we’re bringing new and improved sync capabilities to organizations that have opted for file servers over SharePoint.
  • Third, there’s Offline Files. You can think of Offline Files and Folder Redirection as predecessors to Work Folders. Both of them use the SMB protocol to provide users with access to their data and require a VPN connection to the corporate network. In comparison, Work Folders has a new and more efficient sync protocol and does not require a VPN connection.

Q: How does Work Folders work with Offline Files? Why would someone use both?

We don’t recommend deploying Work Folders and Offline Files at the same time on the same device because it presents a user education problem and potential for lost work. Here’s why:

  • On a device where both are deployed and Offline Files and Folder Redirection are redirecting “My Documents”, the user will see his or her data in “My Documents” as expected.
  • If the admin chose to enable Work Folders on this same data set, the user may also see the contents of My Documents in the Work Folders folder. As administrators, we know that Offline Files with Folder Redirection and Work Folders are both pointing to the same data set.
  • However, the user might think one copy is redundant and delete it from the device to free-up space. Because doing so would cause this change on the local device to sync with the server, the data would be deleted from the other location on the user’s device as well.

That said, Work Folders and Offline Files can work together in parallel to share the same files—they’re just two different sharing mechanisms, with different protocols. So if you’re looking to provide data access for devices that can’t take advantage of Work Folders, you can grant them access via SMB—so that those devices can continue to use Offline Files.

Q: Which platforms and/or devices does the Work Folders client support?

Support for Work Folders is an integrated component of Windows 8.1, including Windows RT. We’re currently working on releasing a download for Windows 7, which will bring this functionality to the large number of devices still running Windows 7 in existing environments. Stay tuned for more information on client platform support as this work continues.

Q: What opportunity does Work Folders present for Microsoft partners who help companies deploy Windows Server 2012 R2?

Work Folders presents an excellent opportunity for Microsoft partners to promote the adoption and use of Windows Server 2012 R2. Here’s why:

  • One of the biggest pain-points for IT departments is how to address the BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) movement that is happening in companies around the globe.
  • With Work Folders, we help solve this problem via sync and appropriate clients for user devices.
  • Our vision is to support all the devices people might want to use for accessing and working with corporate data, while at the same time giving IT a set of controls ensuring compliance with corporate data governance policies.

Q: How large is the opportunity for adoption of Work Folders?

It’s important that Microsoft—and its partners—do not underestimate just how many organizations continue to rely on file servers for information-worker files:

  • We see Exabytes of new storage being deployed on file servers every year.
  • Most organizations have also customized their file server environments to meet their exact needs, utilizing the vast ecosystem of file server tools and utilities that exists today.
  • Work Folders integrates seamlessly into this environment and protects all the investments in it that companies have made, while at the same time allowing IT to continue to use Windows-based file servers for the very same reasons they chose them in the first place—including dependability, cost efficiency, and scalability, to mention just a few.

Q: What’s involved in deploying Work Folders? Is it more complex with some customers than with others?

There are a few steps involved in deploying Work Folders; none of them are highly difficult and most organizations already have the necessary infrastructure. Here’s what I recommend:

  • Start with an evaluation setup: A server running Windows Server 2012 R2 with Work Folders configured and two clients running Windows 8.1 as physical or virtual machines.
  • After these VMs or physical machines have been created, the part that takes the most time is already over—setting up Work Folders and a successful sync partnership should only take a matter of minutes.

We have a great deployment guide that helps setting up the evaluation and gives further introduction into how to set this up for a production environment. Some organizations’ IT environments may be a little more complex than others and thus require a bit more planning; however, we have great documentation and a vast partner and consulting network to help even those companies with complex IT infrastructures quickly and efficiently deploy an optimal Work Folders solution.

Closing Thoughts and Additional Resources

My thanks to Fabian for taking the time to share his perspective on Work Folders. If you’d like to learn more about this cool new feature, here are some additional resources:

Scott M. Johnson
Senior Program Manager
Windows Storage Server