Databases: File Security vs. File Access

One question that we field on a regular basis goes something like this: Are you ever going to let me secure my cabinets with a password? Or, are you ever going to let me give individual files passwords?

The short answer is no. The reason? FileCenter doesn’t use a database. Leading to the next question, what does a database have to do with it? Read on!

Two Approaches

There are two ways to store files: in regular Windows folders, or in a database.

Everyone understands Windows folders. These are the drives and directories on your machine. It’s where you’ve been saving your files since you first started using a computer. My Documents is a folder.

On the other hand, users don’t tend to understand what a database really is. Think of a database as a black box that holds a vast store of data. Only the database software understands what’s in the black box and how to pull things out. If you want something from the black box, you have to ask the database software to retrieve it for you. If you want to put something in the black box, you hand it over to the database software and, like a valet, it takes your data away and stores it until you ask for it back. With many databases, even if you were a highly technical person who understood how things work in the black box, you still couldn’t get into it because of its locks and security. A database is, quite literally, its own little universe, separate from the rest of your PC.

So how does FileCenter store its files? In regular Windows folders. You can see this for yourself. Click the Cabinets button on the main toolbar and notice that each cabinet has a Location. Now open Windows Explorer and browse out to one of those locations. You will see all of your cabinet data laid out in an organized tree of Windows folders.

Which may now lead you to ask the obvious question: Is it a strength that FileCenter doesn’t use a database, or a weakness? Answer: It’s both.

On the flip side, almost every other document scanning/filing system we know of uses a database and can encrypt and password-protect files. Is that a strength or a weakness? Answer: It’s both.

There are two issues at play here: file accessibility vs. file security. You can choose either one, but you can’t have both. To understand why, let’s take a closer look at databases.

The Pros and Cons of a Database

People assume that the best document management software has to use a database. Not necessarily. If you go with a database, you can control who has access to your data right down to the individual file. BUT, because your files are now stowed away in a black box, you’ve limited not just which people can access them, but also which programs can access them.

For example, you no longer have the option to use DropBox or Google Drive or OneDrive to give you remote access to your files. Your backup software can’t restore individual files. Your favorite PDF editor or CAD program or tax calculator won’t work with the database unless the database explicitly supports it. In fact, you’re probably limited to using only Microsoft Office products and little else from this moment forward. It’s all dictated by the database and which programs it can integrate with.

Do you want to migrate your old files into the system? You have to do a mass import. Do you want to pull a file out of the system? Expect to do an export. In fact, if you ever decide to stop using the system altogether, you now have to worry about how you’re going to get your files out and what kind of format they’ll be in if you do get them out.

In short, all access to your files is now at the mercy of the database software. You have gained security, but at the price of accessibility.

A Cautionary Tale

Let’s take a quick aside to illustrate this. One of the early “electronic file cabinet” systems, called PaperMaster, garnered thousands upon thousands of loyal users over the course of about a decade. PaperMaster had a nice interface users liked. It also stored everything in a database. Then, in 2007, the company changed hands. The new owners weren’t interested in maintaining PaperMaster, and they abruptly dropped the product. But here’s the real clincher: because they felt no loyalty toward their newly-acquired user base, they didn’t expend any effort to give users a way to export their data.

Initially, no-one batted an eye. Users felt content to sit on the final release of PaperMaster and keep running it indefinitely. But then they started upgrading to Windows 7, and lo and behold, PaperMaster wouldn’t run any more. It had incompatibilities with the newer versions of Windows that kept it from working.

Now the panic set in. Users had decades’ worth of scanned documents securely locked in a database that not only wouldn’t run any more, it didn’t have any usable mechanism to free the files.

Bringing us back to the question: is a database-driven system a strength or a weakness? It’s both.

The Pros and Cons of NOT Using a Database

FileCenter takes a radically different approach. It eschews a database, which is almost heresy in the document management world. But in avoiding a database, FileCenter creates a level of file accessibility that’s unheard of. You can use, quite literally, any program with the system. If you want to put your files on the Cloud with DropBox, Google Drive, or OneDrive, FileCenter won’t bat an eye. If you have a favorite CAD program or PDF editor or tax calculator, it will work side-by-side with FileCenter. If you have other file management tools you enjoy, FileCenter won’t mind sharing control. Need to restore an individual file from backup? No problem. Do you prefer Open Office or WordPerfect or even ancient WordStar to Microsoft Office? Have at it. And if you ever decide to stop using FileCenter, you retain complete access to your files.

The downside, of course, is security. But this is less of a downside than you may think. Windows has its own mechanisms for securing files, and they work seamlessly with FileCenter: encrypted volumes, file/folder-level user rights, network share security, etc.


So at the end of the day, you need to ask yourself what matters more: the security of knowing your files are locked down in a database, or the freedom of having unfettered access to your files. It’s a key decision, and the answer isn’t the same for everybody. The good news is that, if file access matters, you now have a full-featured, robust option: FileCenter.