Getting the convenience and security of a VPN requires careful configuration and ongoing maintenance. We recommend that most companies work with an IT professional to set up and maintain a VPN.
- Work with IT to purchase a VPN server
- Have IT configure a VPN account for each user
- Work with IT to purchase a file server for use with VPN
- Create a shared folder on the file server and give permissions to the desired users
- Install a VPN client on each user’s computer and configure access
- Map a network drive to the shared folder on each user’s computer
- Sign up for Dropbox
- Download the Dropbox application
Aside from configuring the VPN servers, IT has to create an account for each user, add appropriate permissions to shared folders on file servers, monitor performance, prevent malware, and train new users on how to connect to the VPN.
While both VPN and Dropbox can be used to facilitate the sharing of files through, for example, a shared folder, setting up one of these folders is much more intuitive with Dropbox. It doesn’t require any technical skills, adding user accounts is as easy as entering an email address, and your team has minimal new software to learn.
VPN lets your team treat shared files just like local files on your hard drive. You can edit files in place and avoid having to manually upload to and download from your server, as you do with FTP. The trade-off is that all of your interaction with a file takes place over a network connection, meaning performance is dependent on your Internet connection and the ability of the VPN server to handle incoming requests.
- Open your VPN software
- Enter the server address and your VPN account’s username and password
- Wait for the VPN server to authenticate your credentials
- Connect to the file server
- Add the file to the shared network drive created previously
- The file will automatically appear in your team member’s shared network drives
- Whenever anyone edits the file, changes will automatically be available to the rest of your team
- Create a new folder inside your Dropbox for sharing documents with your team
- Right-click the folder, and share the folder with team members
- Place the desired file in the shared Dropbox folder on your computer
- The file will appear in your team members’ Dropbox folders
- Whenever anyone edits the file, everybody else’s copy will automatically update
On the surface, Dropbox and VPN seem to deliver similar experiences when used to facilitate file sharing: files can be edited directly (no downloading required) and changes automatically appear in your team’s shared folders. However, Dropbox gives each user their own local copy of every document, making browsing and editing files significantly easier.
Additionally, unlike with VPN, where you can only interact with files while connected to the network, with Dropbox you can store files for offline access and editing, and Dropbox will upload any changes once you’re back online. Dropbox will also create a conflicted copy if multiple users edit the same file simultaneously, rather than locking other users into read-only mode.
Sharing files with clients via VPN can be difficult, as you don’t want to provide a non-employee access to your entire network without restriction. It’s both easier and safer to set up Dropbox or any other system in order to share files with a client.
If you insist on using VPN, one option is to use a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) VPN, a less common form of the standard that allows your system administrator to restrict access to specific servers or files on your private network.
- Work with IT early on to make sure your server can be configured as an SSL VPN
- Have IT create an SSL VPN account for your client that only has access to the needed servers and files
- Give your client the VPN account information
- Clients can log in to your SSL VPN using any web browser
- All permitted resources, including file servers, shared folders, and files will be shown on the web interface
- Right-click the file in your Dropbox folder
- Select the Share Dropbox Link menu item to generate a shareable link
- Send the link to your client. They can view or download the file with any web browser
Shareable links in Dropbox let you determine precisely which files your clients can see. Accessing them is as simple as clicking a link, bypassing the need to interact with complicated VPN software. You also have the option of adding passwords and expiration dates to links if you’re using Dropbox Pro or Dropbox Business. And you can revoke access to a document at any time by simply disabling the link.
Large files can be a problem for VPN. Each time you save, the entire file is sent through the VPN connection to the private network file server, which can be inefficient with large files.
One solution is to move the file from the network drive to a local hard drive to make changes, then move it back to the network drive when you’re done. The result is the same inefficient download/upload workflow as FTP, making it hard to keep files synchronized with the rest of your team.
- There are no file size restrictions for transferring files with VPN
- Working with large files can be unreliable due to VPN’s reliance on Internet connectivity
- Large files have to be resent in their entirety each time a change is made
- There are no file size restrictions when uploading via the Dropbox application
- When syncing, only the altered portions of a file are sent to Dropbox
Dropbox’s built-in versioning support records every edit behind the scenes. You can pull up the complete history of a document with a few mouse clicks, ensuring that you won’t accidentally delete information.
A file server only has a single, current copy of each file. It has no notion of a file’s history, which introduces the risk of losing data. For example, if one user deletes some information and re-uploads the document to the server, it’s gone forever.
- VPN does not support file versioning
- A common solution is to copy the file and rename it to include the version number
- Right-click the file in your Dropbox folder
- Select the View Previous Versions menu item to list the file’s history
- Select the desired version and click Restore
When your files live on Dropbox, every single save is recorded. If you realize important data was deleted a while ago, you can get it back with a few clicks of the mouse. Like file sharing, this is completely automatic— you never need to think about version control until you want to look at an old copy of a file.
Most mobile VPN clients focus only on establishing an encrypted connection. This is useful for secure web browsing, emailing, and VoIP, but it doesn’t offer much when it comes to file sharing. It’s usually up to another application to map a network drive and access your company’s shared files, and some even require special configuration by your IT department.
- Use the integrated VPN support or install a VPN app on your mobile device
- Connect to the VPN by entering its server address, and your username and password
- Map a network drive with a third-party application and access the file just like on your desktop computer
- Editing documents requires a stable Internet connection
- Download the Dropbox mobile application
- Sign in to your account, and preview documents right inside the Dropbox mobile app
- Using Dropbox-connected mobile apps like Microsoft Office, any changes you make are synced across all devices
The Dropbox mobile app avoids the hassles of establishing a VPN connection. All you have to do is sign in to Dropbox the first time you open the application. After that, you have a full-fledged file system on your mobile device. You can browse files, edit them with third-party apps, and create shareable links just like you would from the shared folder on your desktop computer.
Mobile VPN software is also particularly susceptible to dropped connections (e.g., when driving through a tunnel). Depending on the VPN software and the editing application, this can prevent you from working on files without a stable connection. Dropbox solves this problem by letting you download files for offline use.