Many pieces of software exist that enable file-sharing and collaboration, but it is worthwhile looking at wide area file services (WAFS).
WAFS work well over poor lines and allow separate offices to share files, both large and small, in real time. It can be a piece of software, but is generally is sold as a “black-box solution” — a piece of hardware with pre-loaded software.
WAFS works by caching copies of files — saving them on a small, quickly-accessible memory —from the primary site with the secondary site, that is, from head office with a site office. The caching can be “seeded” so that it can be performed on a local area network at high speed, before distributing to the remote site. This cuts down on the initial time to synchronise.
Once at the remote site, users access data and files as a normal file-share. Anything that has been cached already will be immediately available for work. Anything that it is not cached will take a little time to transfer to the remote site.
When a file is opened, it is locked at both ends so that only one person may access a file at a given time. When the file is saved, only the changes to the file are saved back across the network, not the whole file itself. This saves time and network bandwidth, further facilitating collaboration.
The fact that the file is in two places at once, in perfect synchronisation, means it need only be backed up in one place, for example, at the head office. This minimises the potential for error at the remote site, which usually has no IT staff. This serves business continuity strategies well.
Because files are cached, if the network goes down, the remote site can carry on working — if the remote site was working directly off the server in head office, then disaster would have struck. The files automatically synchronise when the network returns.
The better WAFS devices are also print servers, and provide Active Directory, DNS, DHCP and so on. In fact, they provide everything a remote site needs in order to function, and replace the need for any other server.
Anything this good has a downside, and that is price. A typical site can cost up to £10,000, but the main site needs a box too, so that cost can effectively be doubled.
However, weigh that cost against the price of a server, a back-up device, support and maintenance, and things begin to look a little better. Now add the benefits of real-time collaboration for your distributed team. You may just be onto a winner for all sizes of practice finding it difficult to operate at distance.
Many firms offer different flavours of WAFS, including Cicso, Blue Coat and River Bed.