Computer Files: Access, Formats & Sharing

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

In this lesson, you will learn how to access files locally and remotely through cloud storage, NAS devices and VPNs, and how to share files with colleagues, students, friends, and family members.

Accessing Computer Files Locally

Text files, movies, photos, spreadsheets, databases, and PDFs. You can't have a computer without files. A computer file is a place on a computer where information is stored in a package - like paper documents in digital form. You use files to store your data (from photos to reports you write for work or school), but files also contain all the programs that you run on your computer.

There are many different types (or formats) of files: 'doc' files contain text, 'JPEGs' and 'PNGs' contain photos, 'mpegs' contain videos, 'exe' files are PC programs that run on the computer, and so on. All of these can be accessed by simply turning on the computer and double-clicking on the file. This is called local file access, because you are in the same place that your files are stored - you are accessing them from nearby.

Accessing Computer Files Remotely

However, sometimes you want to access files while you're away, like in a coffee shop or on holiday in Hawaii. This is called accessing files remotely - from a location that is different from where the file is stored. For example, you might need a document you left behind on your computer.

There are many ways to access files from a remote location. Probably the most common these days is something called cloud storage. Cloud storage is where your files are stored or backed up on the internet. They are stored securely on someone else's computer which runs around the clock, and allows you to access them using the internet whenever you need to, and from wherever you are. There are many advantages to this. It's convenient, reliable, and backups can be done automatically so that any changes you make on your computer are immediately available online.

Google drive is one option for cloud storage
Google drive is one option for cloud storage

However, technically you are relying on the security of someone else's system. That someone else might be Microsoft (OneDrive), Google (Google Drive) or Apple (iCloud); pretty trustworthy, but it's still possible that they may have a security failure.

Another option is to access files on your computer directly from a remote location. This can be done by turning your own computer into a kind of mini cloud server. You can do this three different ways: by buying a dedicated piece of hardware called a NAS (network attached storage) device, by installing VPN (virtual private network) software on your computer, or using another system like an FTP server. NAS devices can be expensive, and FTP servers are not very secure, so for many people, setting up a VPN is the best option. Indeed, this is how most businesses allow their workers to access their files from home. If you've ever worked from home and had access to the items on your computer at work, this is probably how it was done.

Example of a NAS device
Example of a NAS device

File Sharing

But what if you need to share files with multiple people? Well, there are ways to do that too. Again, internet services are the most common. There are websites like Dropbox and Google Drive, which not only allow you to put your files online for easy access, but also let you invite other people to access folders that you set up. This can be a great and easy solution if you need to share files between family members, with students (if you're a teacher), or colleagues. But a VPN can also be used by businesses to provide access to shared folders as well.

Dropbox is a common way to share files
Dropbox is a common way to share files

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