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Dropbox on a Network Drive

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 31, 2013 1:08 pm    Post subject: Dropbox on a Network Drive Reply with quote

Q: How can I use Dropbox on a network?

We are installing Dropbox in our small business. We now have 7 users. One of those users which I will call the Large User now is set up with 100GB of storage space. Some of the directories are to be shared, to either one, or a few, or all of the users. The plan is to put onto the Large Users account the directories to be shared. These are the ones most likely to accumulate storage. Now what I would really like to do is to move everyone's local drop box to one computer on the network so that we don't have many computers (which are involved in the sharing) having to use up so much local storage space. If I cannot do that, then, as I see it there is a lot of duplicating of storage space. Let's say that 5 users each have a computer which is normally theirs, that's 5 computers. There are 50GB worth of files which all of these users frequently use. So EACH of these 5 computers will have to have the capability of handling at least 50GB reserved for this purpose. I realize that the files are ultimately stored in Dropbox's server and that's great for security. But for efficiency there are also the synced files kept on the local harddrive. I'd like for this to happen on just one computer in our network. Is that possible? I tried to move one dropbox to that computer using Preferences > Advanced > Move > Dropbox location. I just got this error ... 'Target folder is on network media'. Someone else I read from on a forum seemed to think it couldn't be done. But I don't want to give up. Is there some way or even a work around? I know Dropbox has a Team version which is much more expensive and likely has features beyond what we need.

You need to install DropBox on the server itself (with direct access to the hard drives) and authenticate with the "large user" account. Once all the files are in sync you can enable network sharing like you would normally.

If you need to, you can create a symbolic link to point to the DropBox folder.

mklink /d c:\data \\server\share\path

Keep in mind with DropBox if you actually "share" a folder, as opposed to sharing a link to the folder/file, users are able to manipulate the files completely (delete, extract contents to sub-folders, etc.) You could mitigate against this by enforcing NTFS permissions on the network share rather than a localized copy on the end-users workstation.


OK. I have now installed the Dropbox app on the server machine and authenticated with "large user" account. I've moved this folder to the location on the HDD of my choice and it's synced and happy. We want all of our users to have full permissions for most of the folders in this account. Now, as one of these users, I open this dropbox folder from another computer in the network. I am able to see the directory and to open and edit and save files located there. That seems like the result I am wanting. Here are several points that come to mind...
1. When I access the "large" account this way, the icons do NOT have the small indicators that show whether or not that file/folder is in sync. If I could see those indicators, I could be sure that I was in fact editing a file that's in Dropbox rather than a mere copy. Will I need to live with that without the indicators?
2. Even though users have network permission to access folders in the "large" account on the server, we should still, I think, carefully assign sharing of folders using Dropbox protocol so that proper sharing is in place when users access these folders via the Dropbox website, especially when they are off site. Is that correct thinking?
3. For folders NOT to be shared with all users, I would merely apply NTFS permission restrictions, as you mention above.
4. To avoid consuming space on a given user's workstation, he/she should not even have the Dropbox app installed on that workstation. He would rather access a file that's in "large" account either...
a. Using Windows Explorer as he's been used to doing, or...
b. Going to the Dropbox site and using his own account.
Am I thinking right on that?
5. When I access a file from the Dropbox website, I am actually downloading it. Evidently I have to consciously upload it again in order to not lose my edits. Is there a more foolproof way to process an edit that way?

1. Installing the DropBox application itself provides the synced/syncing icons on the DropBox folder, sub-folders, and files on the local machine only. As you've discovered, this functionality is currently not available for the network share design suggested here.

2. Bear in mind the NTFS permissions will only apply on the LAN level; once those files are uploaded to the DropBox cloud, these permissions have no effect. So yes, you will want to carefully assign who has access to what. The Team version of DropBox gives you greater control over permissions. The regular version simply allows Full Access (only accessible to those you invite) or Read Only (available to anyone who gets the link), depending on if you "share" the file/folder or send a "link" to given file/folder.

3. Again NTFS would only apply on the LAN level; for "restricted" folders you'd be limited to granting Full Access to specific users only (with regular DropBox.)

4. Yes, that's correct.

5. Installing DropBox locally (the intended design) provides that "foolproof" functionality as changes are saved to the local file system, detected by DropBox, and synced to the cloud. With a LAN share it should work that way as well (changes detected on the server-side), so long as users are saving changes to the same "dropbox aware" network location.

It's the out-of-office, direct online access that users would have to remember the caveat you've detailed.

Keep in mind you need the DropBox process to run under an account with sufficient NTFS privileges to access all folders for proper cloud sync.
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PostPosted: Sat Aug 31, 2013 1:10 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

How to use a network path for Dropbox’ content folder

Dropbox puts its application data in %APPDATA%\Dropbox. “APPDATA” is an environment variable (the % prefix and suffix tells us APPDATA should be treated as an environment variable and not as a literal string), typically referring to SYSTEMDRIVE:\Users\USER\AppData\Roaming (capitalized words should be replaced, for example SYSTEMDRIVE is typically “C”). This folder contains applications’ roaming application data, which is data that gets a special meaning when used with roaming profiles: their roaming parts are copied from (at logon) and to (at logoff) a profile server, which is a centralized place for storing user profiles. Anyway, the Dropbox folder mentioned is used for storing Dropbox configuration settings.

When you configure your Dropbox account a second Dropbox folder is created, this time meant for Dropbox content related to your Dropbox account. This folder is located by default at %USERPROFILE%\Dropbox. Just like APPDATA, USERPROFILE is an environment variable, typically referring to SYSTEMDRIVE:\Users\USER (capitalized words should be replaced, for example SYSTEMDRIVE is typically “C”). By default this folder belongs to the roaming part of a profile. You can change this folder location through the Dropbox GUI: right-click the Dropbox icon in the notification area, select Preferences and click on the Advanced button. There, in the section “Dropbox location”, you can change the folder where to put the real Dropbox content; not only do you change the folder, possibly previous content is moved (not just copied!) to the new location too. Changing this location can be useful for a number of reasons: perhaps you want to be able to access this folder very quickly through Windows Explorer (for example, by browsing to C:\Dropbox instead of SYSTEMDRIVE:\Users\USER\Dropbox) or perhaps you want to exclude this piece of data from the roaming part of a profile because logon and logoff with roaming profiles is too slow because of the huge size this data has? You may not forget that this content includes the Dropbox cache, which can be many, many gigabytes!

In the case we want to exclude Dropbox content from the roaming part of a user profile we actually have a few different options:
• Make the folder “local”: through group policy we can exclude some folders from the roaming part of a folder. Logon and logoff will become faster and the Dropbox content just stays on the system and isn’t synced with the profile’s central copy at the profile server.
• Move the folder through the Dropbox GUI to a location under a local folder (for example %USERPROFILE%\AppData\Local, which is excluded from the roaming part of a profile by default). This has the same result as the previous option, but is achieved through another way.

Both options lead to new problems:
• What if user profiles are deleted at the system after logoff? In many environments where roaming profiles are used the local copy of the profile is deleted after logoff to save disk space and/or to minimize merging issues when the user logs on again (merging happens between the cached version and the version at the profile server). In such a scenario the Dropbox content is deleted too, which means a lot of content should be downloaded again instead of reused from the Dropbox cache. In some cases this is okay (for example, with very high speed network links that are far from saturated it could be acceptable), in other cases it isn’t…
• Even if the content isn’t deleted, what happens if a user works on different systems (for example a Terminal Server (TS) farm, now called a Remote Desktop Session Host (RDSH) environment)? The cache is saved locally on system 1, so after logon to system 2, the cache isn’t there anymore. With other words, sometimes a central location is necessary for the Dropbox content, even while that content doesn’t belong to the roaming part of a profile.

What I want to make clear is that in some scenarios (and they are more common than you might think) there is a need to keep the Dropbox content, put it somewhere central, but not in the user profile. There are many possible reasons for this: you want to keep Dropbox content of one or more (or even all) users on a NAS, you work in a Terminal Server farm, your local disks haven’t enough free disk space left (one Dropbox cache can take in many, many gigabytes, don’t forget this!),… The answer is simple: change the Dropbox content location to a network path.

Simple? The problem is Dropbox doesn’t want you to change the location to a network folder, like \\SERVER\SHARE or \\DOMAIN\SHARE. If you think you’re smart by mapping a network drive letter to this path and use the drive letter in Dropbox, forget it! Dropbox sees the drive letter is mapped to a network “medium”. Dropbox shows the error “Target folder is on network media” in a message box titled “Error with selected folder” (see picture below).

I’ve searched the Net to find a solution or workaround, but nada! So I had to find out myself, right? Well, what if we fool Dropbox? Here’s the procedure:
1) Choose a still available drive letter you would use to map to a network path. For example, we could refer to \\SERVER\SHARE with the drive letter H. Don’t enforce the mapping yet, just choose the drive letter for now. If the network path is already assigned to a drive letter (for example, H), unmap and choose that drive letter.
2) Assign H to a local formatted partition. You probably have to add a new disk to do this. If you have a virtual machine (VM) you would simply add another hard disk, let Windows rescan the available hard disks, make the disk online, initialize the disk, create a partition and format it. Then you assign H to the drive.
3) Start Dropbox and configure the new location, for example H:\.
4) Dropbox creates the folder “Dropbox” under H:\ and moves already available content to this new location.
5) Shut down Dropbox.
6) Move the Dropbox folder to your network path. Now we have \\SERVER\SHARE\Dropbox and beneath it the Dropbox content.
7) Make the disk offline. H doesn’t exist anymore now.
Cool Map H to \\SERVER\SHARE.
9) Start Dropbox. Dropbox won’t check if H is a network drive anymore.
The thing is Dropbox only checks if the location is a network drive at the moment you change the location. Now you can use Dropbox with your network path!

It’s obvious this isn’t a real and supported solution. It’s just a workaround, using a small hole in Dropbox’ defense we exploit. Be aware there could be one or more reasons why Dropbox doesn’t like network paths for its content, although I don’t think the absence of the drive letter is a big issue: if we unmap the drive letter and start Dropbox we just get the following message, so we shouldn’t loose any data.

The bottom line is Dropbox doesn’t seem to like network paths and doesn’t allow them. There is a way to fool Dropbox though, as just explained. Different reasons to do this exist, one of them being a TS/RDSH farm scenario where normally roaming user profiles are used. I must admit the workaround cannot be automated easily: you probably have to execute the procedure for every user… So if you have to do this for hundreds or thousands of users, well, good luck! It’s doable for a few dozens of users, but still… For a few users this workaround is very manageable though. Sorry for those with many Dropbox users, but I guess this workaround is better than nothing, right?
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