Replacing Traditional File Shares…A High-Level Introduction to AWS WorkDocs

The Ever-Increasing Remote Workforce

By all accounts, the number of remote/work-at-home employees is increasing.  The third article seen within the Additional Resources heading at the bottom of this post stats that the remote workforce has increased by 159% since 2005.  It also states that up to 90% of the US workforce would like to work from home at least part-time.

I found the following stats from the article “17 Stats About Remote Work in 2019” interesting:

  • Remote workers may exhibit “astonishing” productivity, even as much as a full day’s worth of work each week over a traditional worker.
  • The flexibility provided by a work-at-home program increases employee satisfaction, thus increasing employee retention.
  • Working from home typically reduces costs for workers as remote employees will likely spend less money on gas, car maintenance, eating out for lunch, and even clothes since a fancy wardrobe isn’t mandatory.
  • Working from home may also reduce the impact on the environment and improve air quality since there should be fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  Plus, imagine the stress relief for not having to deal with bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours each day.
  • Working from home has reduced costs for employers as they save on real estate and operational costs.  I’ve seen articles suggesting companies can save anywhere from $2,000 – $10,000 per remote full-time employee.  Who knows, maybe a portion of those cost savings will be passed onto all employees in the form of bigger raises! (I can hear you laughing but it’s possible.)
  • Organizations supporting a remote workforce see the employee talent pool increase since a position is no longer tied to a specific physical location.  Organizations can hire employees from all over the globe, thus increasing diversity within the company.

Maybe you don’t believe the remote workforce is growing but I can tell you that Adam (yes, virtualBonzo Adam) and now myself, as I started a new job this week, are full-time remote employees.

My Final Incomplete Project at NWN – An AWS WorkDocs PoC

As I said above, I started a new job this week and I wasn’t able to bring to completion one of the last projects I started at NWN, an AWS WorkDocs PoC.  The client in this case had just completed a data center evacuation, moving compute resources to AWS….but they were evacuating their data center because they were also evacuating their office, going full remote workforce.  Thus, they began to seek solutions to replace traditional Windows servers for file sharing services.

The initial solution to provide file services was to migrate their files to an internet accessible O365/SharePoint server.  My understanding is that almost immediately the customer began to express their displeasure with this solution.  I heard that one problem was directory/file title character limits…if you try to save a file 7 directories down from the root maybe you had to shorten the file name to fit within a character limit, something to that effect.  Another problem was a “cumbersome sharing process” and that launching Word was “slow”, but I really believe the problem was properly summarized when one of the users wished to have their file shares and mapped drives back because it was so much “easier”.  And there you have it.  It can be hard to transition to a new way of doing things, to go beyond traditional file shares that have been in use for 20+ years and embrace a more cloud-centric approach to provide access to files.  SharePoint may be a great solution, but it was not embraced because it lacked the “simplicity” of a file share and mapped drive in the eyes of the end user population.

To address the issue, the client considered the following options:

  • The AWS environment contained an RDS server (publishing a desktop) accessible through an RDS gateway.  One idea was to build a new Windows-based EC2 instance in AWS, migrate the files from SharePoint to it, install Word on the RDS server, and then access the files from a mapped drive on the published desktop.  This was disregarded because the client stated the desire to launch Word from their local device, not through a published application.  The files must be accessible without connecting to an RDS session.
  • A second choice was to install a VPN device in the AWS environment and have the users connect to AWS resources, and thus the file shares, via a VPN client.  Once the VPN connection was made, drives could be mapped, and files could be accessed using their local copy of Word.  They would still build a new Windows-based EC2 instances in AWS and migrate files to it.  But how big do you make the file share volume?  100GB more than the total size you need?  500GB?  How much space do you want to pay for and not use?  How much are you willing to pay for a VPN appliance running in AWS 24/7?  Ultimately, I don’t think cost was an important consideration for they would once again see and access their precious mapped drives.

At this point in the conversation, I asked if they were willing to consider an AWS WorkDocs PoC to evaluate its feasibility as a solution for their needs/requirements.

What is AWS WorkDocs?

I suppose before I go too much further, I shouldn’t assume you know what AWS WorkDocs is.  At the beginning of the re:Invent video referenced in the Additional Resources section below, the speaker starts out by asking how many session attendees support file shares in their environment and approximately 95% raised their hands.  The second question asked was how many people have heard of AWS WorkDocs and only 5% raised their hands, thus a basic description of AWS WorkDocs may be beneficial.

Though it seems the majority of people have never heard of AWS WorkDocs, I bet many are familiar with and have saved/stored files in the cloud using Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, Box, Apple iCloud, O365 SharePoint, you name it, and in that way, you have some familiarity with the service provided by AWS WorkDocs.  To oversimplify, AWS WorkDocs is secure cloud-based storage managed by AWS.  To expand on that, let me quote the AWS Documentation:

Amazon WorkDocs is a fully managed, secure enterprise storage and sharing service with strong administrative controls and feedback capabilities the improve user productivity.  Files are stored in the cloud, safely and securely.  Your user’s files are only visible to them, and their designated contributors and viewers.  Other members of your organization do not have access to other user’s files unless they are specifically granted access.

Files stored in AWS WorkDocs can be accessed using a web browser, mobile applications, or via the WorkDocs Drive client that can be installed on Mac or Windows desktops to provide document synchronization AND more importantly in this specific use case, Windows Explorer accessibility which provides an “unchanged desktop experience”.

Why Would a Client Be Interested in an AWS WorkDocs PoC

Below is a non-exhaustive list of the potential (or real, though they may not have been perceived) benefits of AWS WorkDocs that we discussed with this client and their initial responses:

  • Documents stored within WorkDocs can be accessed “anywhere from anything” – browser, mobile, desktop client
    • Sounds good but for us….Meh.
  • No Windows EC2 instance needed to establish file shares.  No over-provisioned EBS volumes to pay for.  In fact, if you successfully convert to WorkDocs, you should never have to worry about running out of hard drive space ever!
    • Meh….we miss our file shares.
  • No AWS resources or local client installs needed to support VPN connectivity into your VPC.  Why spend money on AWS resources you don’t need for this use case?
    • Yeah, we understand and would like to keep costs as low as possible but we really want our mapped drives back.
  • Ok.  How about this?  If you install the WorkDocs Drive client on your desktop/laptop, you will have access to your files and those shared with you through a mapped drive in Windows Explorer (defaults to W:) using your existing AD credentials!  Additionally, the WorkDocs drive client installation can be automated using GPOs….
    • Wait, what?!?  (It all came together at this point) So we can use AWS WorkDocs and the WorkDocs Drive client to get a mapped drive through which we can access both our personal and shared files to which we have permissions?  And we wouldn’t need to deploy an EC2 instance or VPN appliances?  YES!!!  We must have this!

In Closing

In this post, I’ve shared with you a use case for AWS WorkDocs.  In a perfect world, I’d also be able to share with you the results of the PoC….what the organization liked, what they didn’t but that may not be possible since I’ve recently started a new position on the AWS team at World Wide Technology (it’s going great).  I will try my best to obtain the PoC results and will share them if obtained.  Regardless, I plan on at least one more post detailing a basic WorkDocs setup, integrating with AD, setting up WorkDocs users, installing the WorkDocs client, etc.

My encouragement to you is to consider and test WorkDocs yourself.  Consider some of the following:

  • Are you evacuating your data center and/or office space?
  • Are you tired of managing servers that provide file services?
  • Are you constantly challenged to find more storage space for file services?
  • Are traditional file services limiting your users sharing and/or collaboration capabilities?
  • Is your email server storage being consumed with attachments because email is your primary collaboration tool?
  • Is your workforce increasingly transitioning to remote workers forcing you to spend more on VPN hardware/licensing to in order to support more concurrent connections?
  • Are you piloting AWS WorkSpaces?  If the answer is yes, you could be piloting AWS WorkDocs without knowing it.  In full disclosure, this was my case.  I didn’t realize that when I deployed a WorkSpaces PoC, it also created a WorkDocs site/environment that is accessible outside of WorkSpaces.

These questions are only a few to consider when asking yourself if WorkDocs is a fit for your organization.  In evaluating the totality of your file services environment, you may indeed find that it’s time to think differently about traditional file shares and that AWS WorkDocs, a secure and fully managed collaboration service, is the solution to the challenges facing your file services infrastructure.

A Call for Information

I would love to hear more about ANY WorkDocs experience you may have/had.  Please leave comments section of the post or if you prefer, use virtualBonzo’s Contact page to send us an email.  We’d love to hear from you.

Additional Resources / Sources

If you’re interested in reading more about remote work(ers) and AWS WorkDocs in general, use the links below.

17 Stats About Remote Work in 2019

Stanford Study Shows Astonishing Productivity Boot of Working From Home – Scott Mautz (@scott_mautz)

Latest Telecommuting/Mobile Work/Remote Work Statistics

A Guide to Conquering Remote Work Loneliness from Remote Workers Around the World

Saying Goodbye to Network Shares with Amazon WorkDocs Drive – AWS re:Invent 2018 Presentation

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