When to use OneDrive vs SharePoint Sites Libraries

As we work more and more from home and use Office 365’s collaboration tools, we use things like OneDrive, SharePoint, Word, Excel, etc., but most of the time, we don’t understand the actual difference between the products. We know that something works in a certain way, but as users, we just think of products as similar or get confused by some of them. Worse than that, people misuse the features and end up having undesired issues, but we’ll get to that.

First, I want to answer the most common question. “What’s the difference between OneDrive and SharePoint Site Libraries?”.

Spot the difference

In the two examples below, what is a SharePoint site folder, and what is an OneDrive folder?

(First OneDrive, Second SharePoint Site Documents library)

OK, I cheated a bit and removed the headers so it wouldn’t be obvious, but they look quite the same, right? That’s because they use the same backend, but let’s take a look at the marketing materials to help us explain each one.

The marketing

Marketing will tell you that OneDrive is, according to Microsoft:

OneDrive is the Microsoft cloud service that connects you to all your files. It lets you store and protect your files, share them with others, and get to them from anywhere on all your devices. When you use OneDrive with an account provided by your company or school, it’s sometimes called OneDrive for work or school.

While SharePoint is:

SharePoint is a web-based collaborative platform that integrates with Microsoft Office. Launched in 2001, SharePoint is primarily sold as a document management and storage system, but the product is highly configurable and usage varies substantially among organizations.

The similarities

OneDrive for Business is a default library in a user’s 365 accounts, named “Files.” The contents can then be synced to any device and shared with others. Files sync back to the server on each change. In SharePoint Sites, you have a default library called “Documents.” Notice that I mention libraries because they are the same. As for OneDrive, only you have permission to access that library. In contrast, in the case of SharePoint Sites Libraries, the default one is shared automatically with everyone that has access to the Site.

The most crucial part is that the engine is the same. Notice this schema from Microsoft:

SharePoint engine serves as the backend from your OneDrive for business files. Microsoft was quite strategic in this implementation since, by using the same engine, you can take part in the configuration of permissions, sync of files, versioning, and (my favorite) automation. What they did was simple. With this also, they managed to evolve both quite quickly and integrate into other systems like Microsoft Teams that also are supported by a SharePoint site (although with different characteristics).

So they are not the same with some features reserved for one and another. But they share the same infrastructure behind the scenes. When you want to sync a SharePoint’s Site Library, guess what app takes care of that? OneDrive for Business.

Where they are different

Here’s a quick overview of the differences between them:

  1. SharePoint Site Libraries are for collaboration between people. Files inherit the permissions of the site automatically. OneDrive uploads the files and gives them access only to you unless you share them with someone else.
  2. Users access the OneDrive for Business’ site to manage files and not much more, while SharePoint Sites have more advanced features like news, calendars, or branding.
  3. SharePoint Sites can be Microsoft Teams Sites, powering the file management in SharePoint’s Sites Libraries.
  4. OneDrive has one Library (Files) where SharePoint Sites can have multiple (default “Documents”).
  5. OneDrive is private to a person, while a SharePoint Site is public or shared with multiple people.

So you can think as OneDrive as a private SharePoint site with a cool app to sync files between devices. Or it’s your “My Documents” folder in the cloud (don’t know the author but I like the description). It’s a simplified way of looking at things, but I want you to understand the concepts more than how things work under the hood.

When using one or the other

As I said previously, SharePoint sites are for collaboration. It can be public or private, but they enable team collaboration and sharing of information. They can have team calendars, news and integrate all kinds of other Microsoft Products like Microsoft Planner.

OneDrive is a private repository of information where you keep your files and share the ones you want. Files are removed if your account is locked so people won’t be able to access them, so be careful to use OneDrive to store files that are only important to you.

So, as a rule of thumb, keep temporary working documents in your OneDrive to ensure that they are not lost if something happens to your computer. All final files, upload, and save them to a SharePoint Site Library or a SharePoint Teams Site Library so that they endure any changes to your account.

Final Thoughts

I know that, in principle, both products look quite different, but I wanted to show you that SharePoint is powering a lot of your products like Teams and OneDrive. Besides, it’s essential to know when to use one or the other so that you take the most advantage of each one.

Finally, a few years ago, SharePoint had a bad reputation. Microsoft transformed it entirely in a fantastic way, so much so that it made it the central system for its other products. So give it a shot and use it wisely. I’m sure you’ll enjoy all the excellent features that each of them has to offer.

Have a suggestion of your own or disagree with something I said? Leave a comment or interact on Twitter and be sure to check out other Microsoft SharePoint-related articles here

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Manuel Gomes

I'm a Project Manager with experience in large projects and companies. I've worked in the past for companies like Bayer, Sybase (now SAP) and I'm currently working for Pestana Hotel Group.

View all posts by Manuel Gomes →

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