End of the road for traditional file servers? – News Couple

End of the road for traditional file servers?

In this article, I will focus on Azure File Sync, explaining the service and use cases. I won’t be able to touch everything about Azure File Sync, but I will try to include the most important things and guide you through the rest so you can find them in the documentation or additional resources.

What is Azure File Sync?

When I try to explain Azure File Sync, I usually start with: “Think of distributed file system replication for Windows Server on drugs, or Office 365 One Drive for servers.”

Therefore, to understand file synchronization, we need to understand the local equivalent and the client equivalent first.

Microsoft Office 365 OneDrive

With OneDrive, users can access and store files from different devices such as Windows clients, mobile phones, and web browsers. Access is designed to be easy and secure. Users can collaborate with others on files inside or outside the organization. Users can share these files using the Microsoft Content Delivery Network. To access OneDrive, you need either a web browser or the OneDrive client that integrates with the client’s operating system or mobile device.

OneDrive is primarily designed for user files like the ones you traditionally place in the user’s file server home directory. It is not meant to be used as a classic file sharing file.

Distributed File System Replication

Distributed File System Replication or DFS Replication is a role service within a Windows file server that was introduced in Windows Server 2008. It has since become a part of all Windows servers. DFS R is the successor to the File Replication Service, or FRS. It was created to replace FRS as the replication engine for DFS namespaces as well as the SYSVOL folder for Windows Server Active Directory Domain Services (Windows ADDS). This folder contains Active Directory domain information for a domain and forest. You can enable DFS R to replace NFS starting with Windows Server 2008 or later domain functionality level.

DFS-R is a very good Windows service, sometimes a little tricky and hampering setup and stability, but it does its job.

Compared to Azure File Sync, you can consider File Sync as a cloud-managed DFS-R service that uses Azure Storage Backend as well as on-premises file servers.

How it works

In difference with distributed file system replication, Azure Files works with a sync client like OneDrive.

The client syncs all data with Azure Storage File Sharing. Azure Storage acts as a central repository for all attached file servers.

You can use Azure File Sync to sync file sharing and servers from 2012 R2 and later. You can synchronize file server groups and standalone servers.

This gives you a great option to set up global Fileshares with DFS Namespaces and also set up redundancy without hustle of group devices.

Azure File Sync to sync file sharing and servers

With file and file sharing, access control lists (ACLs) are also migrated between servers. If you only want to use a local file server, you don’t need to do anything in addition to that, but there is also an option to directly use the Azure Fileshare target without a file server. This would be a great scenario if you are already in Azure and want to save some money or have a branch or data center very close to the Azure region. Response time should be less than 12ms.

File sharing in Azure, Azure Region

There is just one small issue, Azure Files are based on Azure AD users, groups, and permissions. Therefore, every user or computer who wants to use file sharing must have a synchronized/sync with the cloud. To achieve this, your Windows Active Directory must be synchronized with Azure Active Directory. A guide to configuring the hybrid connection can be found below.

Azure AD Connect Sync: Understand and Customize Sync | Microsoft . docs

Here you can find more information about File Sync and Identity integration.

Introduction to Azure File Sync | Microsoft . docs

Another feature worth mentioning is cloud shredding and cloud site backups that are possible with Azure Files and Azure File Sync.

cloud shredding

With cloud layers, you can enable a feature that only caches frequently accessed on-premises files on local storage. Other files are transferred to Azure and kept only as a local link. These files can be downloaded upon request. You can control the number of files uploaded by limiting the storage and local disk space used locally on the file server.

For more information about cloud layers, Please visit Cloud Layers Overview.

You can also set up different peer policies. You will find a detailed guide about these policies as well as the requirements here: Choose Cloud Layer Policies for Azure File Sync | Microsoft . docs

Cloud Site Backup

We all know the difficulties of backing up a file server, especially when you don’t want to affect the user while reducing the performance of the file server during backup.

You usually only have a small time frame to back up your file server. This time frame is mostly outside of business hours during the night. However, there are two issues ahead:

    • If the backup fails, you’ll see it the next morning and you probably won’t have a backup from the day before.
    • If the file server becomes larger, it may run out of time when backing up many changes or new files.

By using Azure Backup along with Azure Files and File Sync, you can avoid these issues. Azure Backup can be run at any time without any impact on storage performance.

It also enables faster recovery. If you need to restore files, you can restore them on Azure and the files will be copied to all connected file servers automatically.


I don’t want to go too deep into the implementation process because there is a very thorough tutorial on Microsoft Azure Docs, but let me basically explain what you need:

    • Create Azure file storage and download the sync client
    • Install the client on your file server and connect it to file sharing
    • If you want to implement a hybrid identity, you need to implement and configure Azure AD Connect

As said, you will find all the required instructions by following the link below.

Planning an Azure File Synchronization Deployment | Microsoft . docs

Use cases

I don’t want to go through all the possible use cases, but I will focus on the most common.

File Server Replication

As discussed above, the most common use case for Azure File Sync is to replace file replication between servers and branches at a regional or global level. Clients use Azure for caching and redundant file storage or discover file servers from Azure Storage.

Azure File Sync copies the files to the Azure Storage Vault and pulls the changes from the Azure Storage Vault if the files are changed. Intelligent information is done to manage duplicates or access by Azure File Sync Service Azure component.

Azure FileSync Storage

So, there is nothing really fancy and unusual about this use case.

Reducing storage cost for branches and data centers

Another commonly used case is reducing storage costs in a data center or branch. The reasons for lowering storage costs are obvious, in the workplace you typically pay around 23 cents per gigabyte in storage costs, while in the cloud about 2 cents plus another 5 cents on bandwidth for file access.

So it makes no sense that you want to copy rarely accessed data to the cloud rather than keep it on disks in your own server.

To be honest, this scenario only makes sense when you can meet the following requirements:

    • Have cold data uploaded to Azure
    • You have enough bandwidth to download cold files if for some reason they need to access them

If you want to use file access on Azure directly without any download, you must also meet the following requirements:

    • Slow latency access to the Azure region that stores data. I usually prefer a response time of less than 12ms. Moreover, you can encounter problems.

This scenario has some great benefits:

    • Reduce storage, electricity and operating costs
    • Improve your economic and environmental footprint
    • Reduce the space required in the data center and branch for equipment.
    • Free up resources for other operations or projects

You can also use Azure Backup or Altaro Backup to back up your files directly to the cloud.

Back up Azure File Shares in Azure Portal – Azure Backup | Microsoft . docs

This improves resource usage for devices still running, and you can possibly move file servers on converged systems like Azure Stack HCI or others.

Azure Stack HCI Solution Overview – Azure Stack HCI | Microsoft . docs

The next scenario would be file migration and hardware replacement.

File Server Migration

In the past, I’ve had clients who used Azure File Sync to migrate their file servers to other devices, virtual machines, or locations. They just set up Azure Filesync to sync all the data to Azure and then all the way to the new file server.

File Server Migration

After the migration, they just removed the old file server and Azure Filesync Migration and Agent.

Therefore, they save licensing costs and development time for migration tools and scripts and only spend Azure costs during migration.

File server cleaning

To clean the file server, there are two options. One is to reduce the amount of storage used and the other is to completely remove the file server from the site.

Reduce storage

When you use the storage reduction scenario used on the file server, you are mainly using the classification feature we discussed before. You will use the cloud layer feature. There are two options to reduce the amount of storage.

    • Silent removal: You can use the cloud grading feature, keep your data on the premises and wait for the staging feature to start. This means that data is silently transferred to Azure and removed from storage depending on the usage
    • Big Bang: You can copy all data to Azure, connect Azure to a new server or folder on the server, and keep all data in Azure if it is not needed. If necessary, data is downloaded on demand.

remove file server

As mentioned earlier, another common scenario is to completely remove the file server from a branch or data center. Here you copy the data to Azure and then disconnect the file server as an endpoint. Then you can upload file sharing directly from Azure to your clients using DFS-N or direct link and turn off the original file server.

So Azure File Sync is a great tool for shutting down traditional file servers.

Is it really the future then?

As we already learned through the previous blog about Azure files, it may not be the right tool or service for everyone. If you fit in with limitations and scenarios, this is a great service to work with. Azure File Sync eliminates the issues we all encountered for example with DFS-Replication timeouts or SMB transfers over wide area networks.

It also brings more value to the enterprise, as for example we are thinking of OneDrive, Dropbox, etc. as an alternative to file servers. These tools are great for personal data, but if you have classic apps that need SMB or NFS, I’d stick with my file servers.

They also add extra security, as they encapsulate your traffic in SSL encryption.

Azure Storage Encryption for Inactive Data | Microsoft . docs

I highly recommend looking at Microsoft’s documentation and building a lab to test it.

Azure File Sync Documentation | Microsoft . docs

The lab manual can be found here:

Tutorial – Extending Windows File Servers with Azure File Sync | Microsoft . docs

Overall, it’s a great addition for every infrastructure engineer or responsible toolbox.

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