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File sharing in the cloud enables users to ditch file servers, VPNs

Users say file sharing in the cloud lets them get rid of in-house file servers, as well as reduce VPN costs and management.

Organizations turning to file sharing in the cloud to facilitate employees accessing files and collaboration from...

endpoint devices are discovering that these online services can also displace in-house file servers.

The ability to remove file servers is an added benefit IT managers have found as they adopt online file sharing services from companies such as Box, Citrix ShareFile, Dropbox, Egnyte Inc., Nomadix Inc., SugarSync Inc., Syncplicity Inc. and YouSendIt Inc. These cloud file services can reduce the costs associated with virtual private networks (VPNs) while eliminating the management complexity associated with file servers.

Despite the benefits, online file sharing is a challenge for IT groups because they have to manage more data stored outside the data center, including on smartphones and tablets. Still, file sharing service adopters say collaborating through the cloud instead of on VPNs made sense from a management as well as financial standpoint.

If I had to make the decision again, I would make the same one. In fact, I would have been more aggressive and got it done in two months instead of six.
Brandon GageSenior Vice President of Technology, United Capital Financial Advisors LLC

“We were tired of living in the Citrix [VPN] file server world,” said Brandon Gage, senior vice president of technology at Newport Beach, Calif.-based United Capital Financial Advisors LLC. “We sat back one day and said, ‘Why do we have all this complexity?’ Every server you have, you have to maintain patches and pay for licensing.”

Over a six-month period last year, United Capital phased out 10 Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. file servers and moved between 3 TB and 4 TB of data for more than 250 employees to the Syncplicity online file sharing service. Gage said the move reduced file sharing costs by 65% to 75%.

“If I had to make the decision again, I would make the same one,” he said. “In fact, I would have been more aggressive and got it done in two months instead of six.”

According to a market landscape report on file sharing and collaboration in the enterprise published in December 2011 by Milford, Mass.-based Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), the main benefits of online file-sharing services are ease of use, the ability to support any endpoint device and not having to log into a VPN for a shared device.

The survey of 611 midmarket and enterprise IT professionals found that 25% were using a Software as a Service (SaaS) model for file sharing and collaboration, ranking third behind customer relationship management (CRM) and email as the most popular SaaS applications.

“Considering the head start that both CRM and email have from a SaaS offering maturity standpoint, file sharing and collaboration plans have come a long way since DropBox pioneered the concept of file synchronization in 2007,” wrote the report’s authors Terri McClure and Kristine Kao.

Some organizations find VPN costs with file servers to be prohibitive, especially when dealing with remote workers in foreign countries. The U.K.-based Constructive Technologies Group (CTG), which has more than 80 staff and employs a large number of subcontractors, encountered not only high VPN costs but difficulty controlling file shares between remote sites. CTG switched to the Citrix ShareFile service to share construction and engineering drawings among employees in Great Britain, Ireland and India.

Adrian von Plato, CTG's head of technology, said the company previously paid $3,000 per month for its VPN. In contrast, ShareFile services cost the company just $500 a month.

“VPN costs were a factor for us,” von Plato said. “The file servers were on an office WAN [wide-area network], so we used VPNs to connect for remote file sharing. India has rolling blackouts and that was always an issue for us. And trying to set up permissions for a share for someone in India was a nightmare. We still have file servers for storage, but they're no longer used for file sharing.”

Los Angeles-based investment firm Hearthstone Inc. also eliminated problems by moving file sharing to the cloud. Robert Meltz, Hearthstone’s chief technology officer (CTO), said it took a lot of time to launch VPNs, and syncing files while off the network was a cumbersome task; he also found it impossible to enforce and track file syncing at the user level.

Hearthstone, which has offices in Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco, has approximately 250 GB of its file sharing data on Syncplicity’s online cloud service. The firm initially moved to Syncplicity as part of its disaster recovery plan, but found it easier to accomplish file sharing in the cloud than to move items through VPNs.

The firm continues to use a file server at its corporate headquarters, but Meltz said he plans to decommission three file servers and disk arrays at the branch offices.

“It became impossible to synchronize that amount of data in the old VPN, server-centric model,” Meltz said. “Our branch offices are small and it's easier to send those users through Syncplicity. We bought the file servers in 2008, and I’m going to phase them out as they come up for replacement.”

File sharing service options: public, private or hybrid cloud model

Like most cloud deployments, online file sharing services can be implemented in three ways: via public, private or hybrid models. File sharing vendors offer a public option, in which the provider takes responsibility for the full service. Vendors also offer a software license option, where the customer can install their own hardware behind a firewall to ensure better security. Customers can opt for a hybrid approach that includes on-premises and cloud file sharing.

“Some vendors don’t offer the hybrid model, some don’t offer the software option and some are just public,” ESG senior analyst McClure said. “But the primary driver behind this adoption is mobile devices. The old way of file sharing doesn't work for the mobile workforce.”

Egnyte is an example of a hybrid cloud for online file sharing. The company has built the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) directly into its software, which is downloaded onto a network-attached storage (NAS) device. The desktop is mapped as a local folder and it appears as a drive that's synchronized to the NAS. Data is copied to the NAS and replicated to the cloud.

Paul Hammes, IT director at Ewig International Marine Corp. (EIMC) in Jersey City, N.J., said EIMC stopped using its Dell file server for file sharing in March 2010. That was when it transferred data, which consisted of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, Adobe PDF files and other claim information files, to the Egnyte Cloud File Server service. The reason for the transfer was primarily for more efficient file sharing and collaboration among the company's mobile workforce. The company investigates cargo damage and loss on behalf of international marine insurance firms.

EIMC, which has approximately 30 employees, still needs its NAS, but eliminated local backups to tape.

“We don’t use tapes any longer because all data is backed up simultaneously to the cloud,” Hammes said. “We're still using the file server for our accounting software, but eventually we will get rid of it. If Egnyte goes out of business, I still have data locally with the NAS. It gives me that warm fuzzy feeling that I have complete control over my own data.”

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