Google Drive for Desktop across multiple mac users? No.

My lab uses a Mac Pro with 512GB RAM for most of our computationally intensive analyses. It’s been a great resource, giving us local control and immediate access to high-performance computing, while providing a familiar environment (Mac OS) where we can also test software that will be run by many Mac users. We also use Google Drive to continuously sync and share all of our files related to each lab member’s project. Only 3 lab members utilize the Mac Pro, and until recently all of us had been able to access their Google Drive files locally on the Mac Pro, avoiding the need for cumbersome manual syncing through the browser.

The previous solution. Google Drive until recently offered two different desktop apps: Backup & Sync and File Stream. File Stream did not allow multiple users to log into the same computer, so our solution was that 1 group member (me) used File Stream, while the other 2 group members used Backup & Sync. One downside of Backup & Sync was that it didn’t allow local access to shared directories (and unfortunately our institution does not allow us to create shared drives on Google Drive). By using File Stream I was able to access files and directories that were shared by other lab members to me (but not the other way around). Another downside of Backup & Sync is that it stores all files locally. This recently became untenable, as we started to run out of storage space on our main drive. So we decided to modernize and all switch over to the new Drive for Desktop app. One of the main features of the new version is that it supports multiple Google accounts, which we thought would easily solve our problems.

The new solution. Bright and early this morning we got together to make the switch to the new Drive for Desktop app and get everyone logged in. Easy, right? Unfortunately, no. We first made sure two test users (A and B) had admin rights on the machine. We then installed Google Drive via user A’s local profile. We then signed in user A’s Google Drive account, then user B’s Google Drive account (still on user A’s local profile). Multiple Google accounts signed in on the same computer, brilliant! Both accounts were indeed mounted within /Volumes (a location accessible to all users).

We then proceeded to try to provide user B with access to their Google Drive directory. Spoiler alert: we did not succeed. We tried a number of strategies:

  • Looking for user B’s mounted Google Drive directory via their local profile, no such directory appeared to exist on their end. Some digging into permissions revealed why: “Sharing and Permissions” of each Google Drive directory from user A’s profile showed that user A had “Read & Write” permissions but “everyone” had “No access”. It initially seemed that it might be possible to change these settings (i.e. add user B, change the group access, or change the owner to user B), but all of these changes were immediately reset. Google did not approve.
  • Perhaps we could use chmod to change permissions of specific files or folders within user B’s Google Drive directory? Only the “user” permissions could be changed (i.e. add “execute” permissions), but no permissions could be added for “group” and “other”.
  • What if we add a shortcut to user B’s Google Drive directory in another location where they have access? They could access the shortcut, but the location it pointed to did not exist.
  • Disconnect user B’s Google Drive account from user A’s profile, switch to user B’s profile, and log into user B’s account there? The only way to get this to work was to disconnect user A’s Google Drive account. Then user B’s Google Drive account could be successfully signed in on user B’s profile. But then the same problem faced user A: attempting to connect user A’s Google Drive account via user A’s profile ended in error.

Our conclusion: it does not seem to be possible at this time to connect to different Google Drive accounts across multiple user profiles on Mac. That being said, there are at least two possibilities that we did not try: (1) install another instance of Google Drive on user B’s profile, and connect user B that way, or (2) log into the same Google Drive account across multiple local user profiles. With a bit more advanced hacking it might be possible to figure out a solution, but after spending most of the day trying various solutions and striking out, I was ready to stop resisting Google’s unwritten (and possibly unintended) rules and try something else. (Also: Google please fix this.)

The workaround. So here’s what we did instead. We have a large semi-external storage drive that we use for storing datasets and analysis results. We created a user folder for each group member on that drive. Using a new feature of Drive for Desktop, I (user A) added the contents of that storage drive to Google Drive. It now shows up under “Computers” on my Google Drive account:

I was then able to share each user’s personal directory with them via Google Drive. The plan is for each group member to store all of their project-related files in these directories, which have local access to on the Mac Pro and cloud-based access on other devices (including “local” access on other machines) to via the shared Google Drive folder. Other users will not have access on the Mac Pro to their own Google Drive files, which would have been ideal, but this is a workable – and Google-approved – solution for our lab’s needs.

In closing, I share this somewhat tedious story with the hope that other researchers who use a Mac Pro for their lab’s computing needs can avoid some of the pitfalls and dead-ends that we ran into. We had very little luck searching online for solutions – there is a lot of discussion about multiple Google accounts and little discussion about access to Google Drive for multiple mac users. There’s also a lot of older discussions that pre-date the new version of Drive for Desktop and essentially advocate the previous Backup & Sync solution (which Google is now strongly encouraging users to uninstall). If you find a solution we didn’t think of, please feel free to share in the comments below.

Also: Google please fix this.

2 thoughts on “Google Drive for Desktop across multiple mac users? No.

  1. Dave S.

    Thanks for publishing your findings. I have the same issue where we’re using the Google Drive app to access shared drives (Google) in a business environment. One user has unfettered desktop access, but subsequent local user accounts cannot sync to the service (“Can’t Load” error).

    Did you open a ticket with Google that we can upvote for traction on this issue?

    1. It didn’t occur to me, but it’s worth a try! If you do, link to the ticket here so I and others can upvote.

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