Wednesday, November 27, 2013

When Should You Use Folders in SharePoint

One of the bigger misconceptions that I encounter with users is that they should NEVER use folders for their documents, images and other assets stored in SharePoint.

I have had lots of users tell me that they have read or had trainers tell them to never use folders in SharePoint.  To be honest, I usually convey the same message but make sure to prefix it with 'In most cases...'.

Why Discourage the Use of Folders?

It's not that you shouldn't use folders, it's that you shouldn't use them the exact same way you do in a standard file system.  It is typical in a file system for users to create folders that specify some properties (function, client, status, etc.) of the documents stored in them.  This allows users to easily locate the document in the file system.  In SharePoint you can use metadata to achieve the same goal and even provide a better experience to the user.

In addition to the benefits of metadata to locate a document, there are a couple good reasons to stay away from folders.

  • SharePoint's interface for navigating through documents (especially to a parent folder) is very clunky and slow.
  • There are some issues you run into when the URL path to your document is longer than 255 characters.  Each folder your documents resides in will be represented in the path.  So long folder names or very nested folders can come back to bite you.

When Should You Use Them?

Lots of Content

Based on the software boundaries and limits for SharePoint, a single list or library can support up to 30 million items with the following note:
"You can create very large document libraries by nesting folders, or using standard views and site hierarchy. This value may vary depending on how documents and folders are organized, and by the type and size of documents stored."
Without using folders, a single list or library can only support 5,000 items.  Matter of fact each folder in your library or list only supports 5,000 items so if you want to get to the 30 million mark, you will need to create a lot of folders.

If you are setting up a list or library and think that there is a possibility that it could contain more than 5,000 items, you will want to use folders.


If you have a list or library that contain items that have different security requirements than the other content, folders may be used to simplify the management of the security.  Instead of securing each item individually, you could create a folder and secure that folder with the unique permissions.  Now any items you place in that folder will be secured with the same permissions as the folder (unless you set unique permissions on the individual item).

Here is a common use case:  You have a subset of documents in a library that only members of the executive team should see.  You could create an 'Executives' folder and change the permissions so only the executive team can access the content.  Now all the content administrator has to do is upload the document to that folder to secure it.

Taking the use case a step further, you could create a list / library view for the end users that strips out the folders.  This will allow members of executive team to easily find their documents without needing any knowledge of the folder structure.

SkyDrive Pro / Mapped Drives

If you don't know what SkyDrive Pro is, I'll catch you up.  It syncs a library to your computer so you can access the documents on your local machine.  It even supports offline editing.

You can also map a network drive to a SharePoint library so you can access the contents like it was a network folder.

In both these cases the documents are accessed like they are in the windows file system.  This means you don't have access to the metadata in order to easily find what your looking for.  You will just have a folder with all the documents and absolutely no organization applied to it.

If you plan on accessing libraries that contain a significant amount of files using one of these 2 methods, you will want to use folders to make the experience better.  Just remember that you should still tag the documents with the appropriate metadata.

User Adoption

This is the least technical reason on the list but still a very important one.  I have seen users shy away from using SharePoint for their documents because they had a hard time grasping a folder-less document management system.  I get it, replacing folders with libraries and metadata is not an easy concept for everyone.

When SharePoint is first being rolled out to a new set of users, I don't want to deter user adoption so I often will tell users that if they feel like they have to use folders, use them with the following guidelines.

  • The structure should only be 1-2 folders deep.
  • Keep the folder names short
  • Folders should not replace populating the the metadata for the item.


Some third party applications that you may want to integrate with SharePoint require the use of folders.  Microsoft CRM is a good example.  If you integrate it with SharePoint, it will create a folder for each opportunity.

File Name Conflicts

Just like traditional file systems, file names in SharePoint must be unique.  If there is a chance where you may different files with the same file name, you need to use folders or separate libraries to avoid overwriting the files.  Typically this occurs when the document library is one component of a bigger solution and users typically see a filtered view of the library.

In Conclusion

There is a time and a place to use folders in SharePoint.  The misconception stems from the fact that it is different than how you would use folders in your standard file system.  You SHOULD be using SharePoint folders, just not for the same purpose you would outside of SharePoint.

Remember that if do use folders in SharePoint and the folder represents some information about the items inside of it, you should tag the items with the metadata.  You can look into setting up the "Column default values settings" the library / lists settings or using a SharePoint workflow to automate the task of populating the metadata for you.

I'm sure this list is not all inclusive so as I encounter more, I will update this post.  If you have any other cases where you should use folders, put it in the comments.

When Should You Use Folders in SharePoint

One of the bigger misconceptions that I encounter with users is that they should NEVER use folders for their documents, images and othe...