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Explaining OneDrive: Will the Real OneDrive Stand Up?

The most frequent confusion that I encounter with users is related to what are OneDrive and OneDrive for Business, and how do I know the difference. There’s good reason for this. The OneDrive brand has been used to refer to two different services and multiple different components.

To be simple about it, OneDrive is the cloud file synchronization platform for Microsoft. OneDrive keeps files on your PC in sync with files on a cloud-hosted server. OneDrive has a personal and a commercial offering. In the commercial offering, OneDrive is also the mechanism that is used to synchronize SharePoint sites.

OneDrive Personal

This is the consumer-based offering that is available for free for a few gigabytes. It provides the same kind of synchronized files feel as competitors like Google Drive, Box, DropBox, etc. The files look like they’re on your PC – which they may or may not be – but there is a copy stored (and backed up) on a server in the cloud. You can view your files either on your PC or via a web browser on the cloud-hosted storage.

OneDrive for Business

OneDrive for Business surfaces the same features as the personal version and largely looks identical, except that there is additional storage available. However, OneDrive for Business creates the capability to not only synchronize a personal space for files, but also to synchronize shared files that live in SharePoint sites across the organization. This capability means that you and your colleagues can have synchronized copies of the same files from the places that you work together.

Synchronization Clients

The program that manages the synchronization of files for both OneDrive Personal and OneDrive for Business is simply called OneDrive. It’s included with Windows 10 but is also available for earlier operating systems. In the past, Microsoft also had a separate program for synchronizing OneDrive for Business. This tool evolved from Microsoft’s acquisition of Groove and went through a series of name changes before ending at OneDrive for Business. This synchronization tool has been deprecated for all situations except for synchronizing files from on-premises SharePoint servers.

The OneDrive program will display multiple cloud icons on your taskbar – but these are the same program. The blue cloud is your OneDrive for Business connection, and the white cloud is your OneDrive personal connection.

When the OneDrive program is synchronizing to the cloud, you’ll see a set of circular arrows. When the arrows aren’t present, the program is not synchronizing any files.

Offline, Online, Synchronizing

You can see with OneDrive whether a file is synchronized, available for download online, or needs to be synchronized by looking at the icons in the file explorer – or the file open dialog.

The green checkmark next to a file means that the files is downloaded and available locally. The blue arrows indicate that the file is synchronizing – either from the local machine to the cloud storage or from cloud storage to the local machine. The final icon is the cloud icon, which indicates that the file is available online only or that the whole folder isn’t available offline. If you click on the file, it will be transparently downloaded to your local system and the default application for the file will be launched.

Files on Demand

The name for the feature that allows you to connect OneDrive to cloud storage but not download all the files is called “files on demand.” The files, as indicated above, are downloaded on demand. When they’re needed, they’re downloaded, and eventually, as the PC needs more storage – or the file is changed on the server – the files are removed. This allows you to synchronize even very large libraries without needing to have all that storage on your local system.

If you know that you’re going to want to have the files available to you, and you’ll be offline, you can right-click a file or folder and select Always keep on this device. The folder will change to a synchronizing icon, then eventually a green check.

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