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Online file sharing and collaboration comes of age just in time

ESG reviewed online file-sharing and collaboration apps to see if the market is finally maturing to a point where SMBs and enterprises alike can find a worthwhile IT investment.

Are today's online file-sharing and collaboration applications finally maturing to a point where SMBs and enterprises alike can find a worthwhile IT investment?

The Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) recently conducted a test drive of 13 corporate online file-sharing (OFS) and collaboration offerings. While this was an unsponsored assessment, participating vendors were asked to provide temporary licenses for testing purposes. Our goal was to uncover the strengths, areas of improvement and distinctive capabilities of each vendor's offerings, and obtain a real-world view of OFS solutions from the perspective of end users and IT administrators alike. Each product was tested using the same factors across four administration categories and six end-user categories, and each vendor was asked to identify three differentiated features we could test.

We then rated our user experiences across these categories on a scale that ranged from "Features were lacking or performed below expectations" to "Fast, easy, intuitive and exceeded expectations." A variety of products were tested, some offered as services and others as on-premises software. Each vendor decided what specific deployment model and license level we would test.

What we learned about OFS offerings

Our investigative work made one thing abundantly clear: Corporate online file-sharing and collaboration products are maturing from an administrative standpoint. There was a point when these tools weren't keeping pace with the demands of businesses, but the market now seems poised to hit its stride. A majority of the early OFS offerings were cloud-based services originally designed for consumer use, primarily photo and music sharing between users and then between computers and portable devices.

As consumer devices like smartphones and tablets have made their way into the business, so have these products. However, consumer offerings weren't designed to provide IT with administrative control or visibility into the file-sharing environment. That led to the development of products for business use. Some of these business-focused offerings are evolved consumer services -- Dropbox for Teams is probably the most well-known -- while others were designed from the ground up for business use, such as Syncplicity (now owned by EMC) and ShareFile (now owned by Citrix). And some, like GroupLogic activEcho and Accellion Secure Mobile File Sharing, are enterprise software offerings that can be installed on the premises so all data remains behind the firewall (Accellion also offers a cloud-based service).

In our testing, we found functionality ranging from basic file permission and account provisioning, to incredibly detailed and deep functionality with "every setting an IT administrator could ever ask for." A comprehensive report on the results is well beyond the scope of what can be covered in this column, but here are the highlights.

At the basic end are popular consumer offerings, such as Dropbox for Teams, SugarSync for Business and SOS Collaborate (now called InfraScale FileLocker), that are integrated with administrative control and functionality products. These are targeted at departmental or small-to-midsize business use. The administrative control is fairly lightweight, which isn't surprising given the SMB focus. The golden rule in this market segment is fast and easy, and these products accomplish that from both an administrative and end-user standpoint.

The next level up has services (public cloud-based and hybrid) targeted at larger businesses (those with a desire for more administrative control). Most of the offerings tested fell into this category, and there was an interesting array of functionality. At the basic level, Box did a nice job of balancing ease of use and administrative depth and control, and we liked the integrated comment threads and array of application integration. Some offerings, like Huddle from Ninian Solutions, are more about managing projects than files. Huddle is built around social collaboration and has integrated calendaring, workrooms and discussion threads.

Egnyte is more of an extension of the existing storage environment. It allows IT to use the existing NAS environment and mirror or extend that to the cloud; at the same time, it extends file sharing to mobile devices and desktops with easy-to-use clients. Soonr has solid administrative control, a mobile client with integrated editing and annotation, and pixel-perfect displays for PowerPoint charts. Citrix ShareFile is well suited to project management (and has some interesting security features that limit data retention on mobile devices), while Nomadesk is one of the few offerings to encrypt data on the laptop client. YouSendIt excels as an FTP replacement and has solid, basic file-sharing functionality, while EMC Syncplicity has a good array of administrative control and excellent sync performance.

We then looked at software with the sort of highly configurable enterprise functionality found in GroupLogic and Accellion. GroupLogic is the only on-premises solution we tested. We tested Accellion's service offering but much of its installed base runs on premises. The obvious advantage of an on-premises offering is that data kept inside the firewall is subject to the IT department's security and data protection practices. We found both of these products offered a tremendous depth of control and security settings, but it takes IT resources to manage them. They're also targeted at larger enterprises that want and need these levels of control. While they have default settings and can be run with minimal IT intervention -- the value in these offerings is the flexibility, control and security they offer -- you need resources to take advantage of that. These products weren't quite as intuitive or easy on the end user as those from the consumer space, but it's a small price to pay if an organization needs these levels of control.

Bottom line

The corporate online file-sharing and collaboration space is crowded and will likely become even more populated over the next year. IT needs to mobile-enable the workforce or employees will use their own file-sharing solutions. This is a dangerous practice because IT loses control of data, and has no visibility into what data is stored where or shared with whom.

In our test drive we found that the market has come a long way in the past 18 months as business-focused offerings have begun to emerge and mature. Some solutions excel at sharing, others at collaboration or project management. Administrative functionality ranges from basic to deep and wide. No matter the size of your storage shop or IT staff, there should be an option that appeals to your organization.

About the author:
Terri McClure is a senior storage analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, Milford, Mass.

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