NTFS Permissions and Share Permissions – What’s the Difference?

Organizations rely on share permissions and NTFS permissions to manage access to local resources. Both permission types serve the purpose of protecting sensitive data and preventing unauthorized access. But what is the proper way to combine them and how do NTFS vs. share permissions interact? In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at the differences between share permissions and NTFS permissions and illustrate some best practice examples for using both methods in Microsoft Windows environments.

What Are NTFS Permissions?

NTFS (New Technology File System) is the standardized file system for Microsoft Windows NT and newer versions of Microsoft’s operating system. NTFS permissions govern access to folders and files on Windows drives.

What’s special about NTFS permissions is that they apply both when access is made locally using a computer and for access via network. That’s the main difference between NTFS permissions and share permissions: The latter only apply when access is made via the network. They have no effect on direct access on a machine, i.e. locally.

Setting NTFS Permissions

Setting NTFS permissions is not overly complicated, though there are a couple of things you should be aware of. Our article Setting NTFS Permissions covers the 5 most common mistakes and outlines the best practices for dealing with NTFS permissions.

To set an NTFS permission, right-click on a folder or file and select “Properties”, then navigate to the “Security” tab to edit permission levels for different groups. For maintenance and security reasons, you should not apply permissions to individual users. This is the window you will be looking at:

The Windows menu for permission management.
How to set NTFS permissions

While share permissions only allow the three options (Full access, Modify and Read), NTFS permissions allow you to set access at a more granular level, both for individuals and groups.

The level of access you choose to set can be passed on to subordinate files or folders due to the NTFS permissions’ inheritance properties. The following NTFS permission levels are the most important ones:

  • Full control: The user has permission to change the contents of files and directories and can furthermore change system settings (e.g. permissions or ownership of the folder).

  • Modify: The user has permission to see, read, execute, write and delete files.

  • Read & Execute: The user has permission to view file contents in the folder including scripts and may execute programs.

  • List folder contents: The user has permission to see directories and files contained in the folder.

  • Read: The user has permission to see which directories and files the folder contains and can also view the contents of these files and folders.

  • Write: The user has permission to add files and subfolders and to write to files.

What Are Share Permissions?

Share permissions are used to control access to shared folders (and their subfolders and files) when accessed over a network. This means if access is made locally using a PC, the share permission has no effect. To set share permissions, right-click on the folder, go to “Properties“, click on the “Sharing“ tab, then “Advanced Sharing“ and, finally, click on “Permissions“. You will then see this window:

The Windows menu for managing network file shares.
Share Permissions

Unlike NTFS permissions, share permission levels are limited to “Read”, “Modify” and “Full access”.

  • Full Control: The user can change folders and files within the share, as well as edit permissions and take control of files.

  • Change: Users are permitted to read, execute, write and delete folders and files in the share.

  • Read: Users are permitted to view folder contents.

The Issue With Share Permissions

The last thing you need in your company are complicated, messy and convoluted access structures. But if you decide to use share permissions only, that’s probably what you’re going to be dealing with – one reason being that share permissions allow you to have different levels of permission within the same folder hierarchy, and that can be very confusing and misleading.

Users might unintentionally end up receiving more rights to a folder than intended because the share permission for a subfolder allows more access than the folder above it. Click here for more information about the disadvantages of using share permissions only.

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Can You Combine NTFS and Share Permissions?

The short answer is: Yes, you can mix share permissions and NTFS permissions. But in order to do so, you need to understand which permission takes priority over the other. Else you might end up giving your employees too many or not enough rights.

When accessing a folder or file via network, share permissions take priority over NTFS permissions. If access is made locally on the file server, only NTFS permissions apply. The most important thing to remember, however, is that share permissions cannot grant a higher level of access than the active NTFS permission. It can only be used to further restrict the NTFS permission.

Note: If share permissions and NTFS permissions are used together, the more restrictive permission overrules the other.

Examples of Mixing Share and NTFS Permissions

Let’s examine how share and NTFS permissions behave when they are used together in the following example: Assume that access to our folder “\\srv\Department\Sales“ is made via network share and not locally (otherwise, share permissions wouldn’t even factor into it).

Example 1

If the sharing permission is set to “Read“ and the NTFS permission is set to “Full Control“, the user will only get “Read“ access to the file because the more restrictive share permission prohibits “Full control“ access via network.

Diagram illustrating different levels of permissions and the effective permissions that result.
NTFS vs. Share Permissions: The more restrictive permission overwrites the other. (c) tenfold Software

Example 2

If the sharing permission is set to “Full Control“ and the NTFS permission is set to “Read & Execute“, the user will only have “Read & Execute“ access to the file. While the share permission would permit “full“ access, the NTFS permission restricts access to “Read & Execute“.

Diagram illustrating different levels of permissions and the effective permissions that result.
NTFS vs. Share Permissions: The more restrictive permission overwrites the other. (c) tenfold Software

Best Practices for Combining Share and NTFS Permissions

As you can tell, with only 3 permission levels, the security options for folder shares are very limited. Using NTFS permissions to manage access provides much more granular control. The main consideration for share permissions should be to make sure that they do not accidentally block access via the network because of conflicts with NTFS permissions.

We therefore recommend setting share permissions for admins to “Full Control” and to “Change” for regular domain users. Do not set any other share permissions.

This way, it is guaranteed that the NTFS permissions you set take effect and will not be restricted when access is made via network. Using NTFS to control access on file servers brings the following advantages:

  • Combining NTFS permissions and share permissions is confusing and complex.
  • NTFS permissions offer more fine-grained control.
  • NTFS permissions apply even if access is made locally on the server.

Automated NTFS and Share Permission Management

Keep in mind that setting NTFS permissions comes with a few obstacles and considerations of its own. For example, there’s the issue of creating the necessary permission groups in the Active Directory and implementing Microsoft’s recommended structure, also known as the AGDLP principle. Additionally, you may want to enable access-based enumeration in order to hide folders from users who do not have permission to view their contents. This makes it easier for employees to navigate through the file server, while preventing them getting the wrong idea from directories with telling names such as “2023_Restructuring” or “NY_Office_Staff_Changes”.

For organizations managing large groups of users, the easiest way to ensure safe and appropriate access accross your entire staff and IT landscape is to automate user and permission management through an IAM solution. Automated platforms for identity and access management assign and remove permissions based on the roles and access profiles you define (an approach also known as role-based access control), all while implementing best practices for Active Directory security and group structures.

And the best part? tenfold saves time and frees up your admins to focus on more important tasks. To learn more about how to best manage permissions in Windows environments, download our free whitepaper below.

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Best Practices for Access Management In Microsoft® Environments

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About the Author: Nele Nikolaisen

Nele Nikolaisen is a content manager at tenfold. She is also a book lover, cineaste and passionate collector of curiosities.