Sharing files on your SBS03 server with external parties using Microsoft FolderShare

Sharing files on your SBS03 server with external parties using Microsoft FolderShare

NOTE: If you’re smart and patient, you’ll completely ignore this blog entry. See, here’s the story. I started working on this about a month ago and I got almost all of it working except step 5 of the solution, which involved running FolderShare as a service. I’ve tinkered with it on and off for a few weeks but never got it right, so I’ve been holding off on this post. Then, just as I was about to try a different solution – in which FolderShare would run as a scheduled task rather than as a service – I got the announcement that FolderShare is going to disappear in December, to be replaced by Windows Live Sync. So much if not all of what appears below will be obsolete. But I put a LOT of time into writing what you see here, and I’m damned if I’m going to let all that hard work go unnoticed by the rest of the world. Plus, the basic concepts will probably still apply. So feel free to read what’s below for your own enjoyment, but don’t bother actually following the instructions.

Challenge: A company running Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 wants to make some of the files on their server available to outside parties, such as a consultant. One option would be to create user accounts for these outside parties on SBS and have the outsiders use Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology to access the shared folders on the server. But this is a 10-year-old solution and carries a fair amount of administrative overhead, performance issues, and the like. Surely there is a better way?

Solution in brief:

  1. Install Microsoft FolderShare on the server and on the outside parties’ computers.
  2. Create a FolderShare account for the server.
  3. On the server, identify which folders are to be shared and which FolderShare accounts will have access to them.
  4. On the outside parties’ computers, configure FolderShare to access the shared folders.
  5. On the server, configure FolderShare to run as a service.

Total cost of new software: $0. (At least for now.)

Step-by-step instructions:

  • 1. Install Microsoft FolderShare on the server and on the outside parties’ computers.
    • Create a new account on the server (e.g., “FolderShare Account”) that will be used to install run FolderShare. The account must have permission to log into and install programs on the server and have read/write access to the folders that are going to be shared. Log into the server with this account.
    • Download the FolderShare software. (Note: on SBS2003, you will probably first have to add https://www.foldershare.com to your list of trusted sites in Internet Explorer.) (Note: there is a Mac client available, but I’m not a Mac guy, so I can’t tell you if it actually works.)
    • Run the installation program (Foldershare.msi) on the server. Just step through the wizard.
  • 2. Create a FolderShare account for the server.
    • After the installation wizard completes, there will be a new icon in the system tray (a.k.a. notification area). Click it and choose “FolderShare website.”

FolderShare menu

    • Assuming this is the first time you are using FolderShare, click sign up for a FolderShare account. (Note: if you haven’t already, on SBS2003, you will probably first have to add https://www.foldershare.com to your list of trusted sites in Internet Explorer.)

Sign in with your FolderShare account

    • Enter the required information. For the server account, you probably want to use something permanent like “foldershare@mydomain.com” rather than an individual employee’s e-mail as shown here.

Create your FolderShare account

    • If you have created the account successfully, you’ll see the confirmation window; otherwise you’ll get an error.

FolderShare is now installed 

Could not create your account

  • 3. On the server, identify which folders are to be shared and which FolderShare accounts will have access to them.
    • Access the FolderShare website (from the FolderShare system tray icon or simply go to https://www.foldershare.com/home.aspx.) If necessary, sign in with the account you created in the previous step. Ordinarily, you will not have to sign in each time because your credentials are saved.

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    • Choose “Create your first shared library.”

Create a shared library

    • In this example, I am going to share the folder that I created to download the FolderShare installation file. Normally, this is where you would share a folder that outside parties need to access. Navigate to the desired folder and click “Create library here.” Note: see below for advice on creating a “sandbox” folder for new FolderShare users.

Choose the folder you want to share

    • Enter the e-mail addresses of the outside parties who will have access to this folder, and assign the desired level of permissions for each user. Definitions of each permission level are shown below the list of assigned users. As we will see later, Contributor access can be rather problematic and should probably be avoided.

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    • You’ll see a preview of the e-mail that the outside parties will receive. You can personalize the body of the message if you want to. Click Send when done.

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  • 4. On the outside parties’ computers, configure FolderShare to access the shared folders.
    • The people you have invited to share your folder will receive an e-mail invitation. If they already have a FolderShare account, they will simply have to sign in. If they have not signed up for FolderShare before, they will be given a link to download the Foldershare.msi program and a temporary password to use during after installation.
    • The process of installing the FolderShare software on the outside parties’ computers is exactly the same as it was for installing the software on the server.
    • After installing the software and entering the username and password, the outside party will get a notification about the invitation you sent from the server.

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    • At the FolderShare web site, the shared library will be visible.

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    • Clicking on the name of the shared library will reveal information about the library. The outside parties should choose “Sync with a new computer” to gain access to the library from their computers.

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    • After selecting their own computer’s names, the outside parties will be asked where on their computers the synched folders will be stored. A couple notes about this:
      • The destination folder cannot be a drive on a network server, whether or not the drive is mapped. The folder must be stored on the outside parties’ hard drives.
      • The outside parties must drill down a couple of levels before selecting a folder. You cannot choose to put the folder directly on the Desktop or the root of any hard drive.
      • Pay very special attention to the instructions at the top of the screen: The folder you select will synchronize with this library. Any files already in this folder will be added to the library. Unless you really want existing files from the outside parties ending up on your server, you will probably instruct them to create a new folder for the purpose of synchronizing with your server.
    • The outside parties will have the option to sync in the background or on demand. (In this example, “Emily_Vista” is the name of an outside computer.) If they are only going to need access to a few files in a large folder, then on-demand synchronization might be the way to go.

Select the sync setting

    • The shared library will now appear on the pop-up menu of the FolderShare icon in the system tray, giving the outside parties a quick way to access their synchronized folders. They can also get to the folder by simply using My Computer or Windows Explorer to navigate to the destination folder they created earlier.
    • If on-demand synchronization was selected, the files will appear with a .p2p extension. This indicates that they are placeholders, not yet downloaded via FolderShare. Opening a .p2p file will trigger a download of the actual file from the server. (For this to work, the FolderShare must be running and signed in on the server, which is why the next step is important: configuring FolderShare to run as a service on the server.)
    • If the outside parties have permission to add files to the library, any files they add to their local copy of the folder will automatically be synchronized back to the server, even if they chose the on-demand synchronization option.
      • Note that Contributor access prevents any editing of the files on the server, including renaming. If an outside party with Contributor access attempts to rename a file, you will end up with a duplicate file on your server and the outside party will get a warning:

File deletion warning

      • Contributor access will also prevent the outside parties from changing the contents of what they added. The warning message will be slightly different in this case:

File changed in read-only library

      • For these reasons, you will probably want to choose either Reader or Editor access for your outside parties. If they need read-only access to some files on your server and read-write access to others, you will need to separate the files into separate folders and create multiple shared libraries with different permission levels.
    • Because this is a new way of sharing files among computers, you will probably want to create a “sandbox” folder consisting of sample files. Have your users and outside parties experiment in the sandbox before using FolderShare for sharing actual company documents.
  • 5. On the server, configure FolderShare to run as a service.
    • There are detailed instructions for doing this on Chris Blankenship’s blog. No need to repeat them here. However, I found a couple of typos in his instructions, so check my comments on the blog and see if he’s modified them in response.

Thanks to Sandy Berger for writing a blog entry that showed up high in Google and helped kick-start my research on this.

Posted in Services, Technology, Windows Live on Nov 19th, 2008, 8:26 pm by David Schrag   

One Response

  1. Dave Shackelford
    November 20th, 2008 | 8:09 pm

    David, I actually set this up over a year ago, and it worked without any heavy tweaking. A partner and I created a folder that was shared on both our laptops, a workstation, and an SBS Server. The nice thing was that the server could back up our data each night, and since the volume we were using had shadow copies enabled, we could use the Shadow Copies to grab previous versions of spreadsheets in a pinch.

    Then, within months after Microsoft bought the product, they pushed an update that disabled FS on servers and made it a workstation-only product, as far as I could tell, and the service would no longer start on our SBS box. So since then we’ve been using it on the workstations, but can tell that M$ broke it to push people toward Live Mesh…

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