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Think beyond simple sync and share

Providing an alternative to public cloud-based file sync-and-share services is a good idea, but be prepared to expand services to other processes.

Providing a safe alternative to public cloud-based file sync-and-share services is a good idea, but be prepared to expand those services to enhance other business processes.

Cloud-based files services like Dropbox have changed the game of file data access. Making file data more accessible is a long-standing problem that was first addressed by consumer-level products that were free of enterprise encumbrances.

On the heels of the success of consumer file sync-and-share services, we're seeing enterprise strategies and products emerge that can deliver some of the same benefits for business environments, along with better access, more scalability and lower cost. In many cases, the interest in enterprise offerings is compelled by users who have already turned to consumer-grade services, especially for syncing mobile devices.

The reason users have turned to cloud sync and share is simple: Cloud file services give users an entirely new level of data accessibility (many devices from anywhere) that allows them do their jobs and manage their lives better. Still, putting your enterprise data access strategy in the hands of users is a bad idea. Moreover, an enterprise will have entirely different requirements for governance and control than is likely to be addressed by consumer-level services. The good news is that there are a number of vendors with solutions that are appropriate for the enterprise.

The list of companies offering enterprise cloud-based file services can be categorized by their focus on enabling ubiquitous any-platform global access, support for various levels of enterprise integration and their ability to enable enterprise control over data. It's an active landscape, with vendors such as Box, Ctera Networks, Egnyte, EMC Syncplicity, Huddle, IBM SmartCloud Storage Access, InfraScale FileLocker, Maginatics MagFS, MobileSpan, Oxygen Cloud, OwnCloud, SkyDox and TeamDrive.

But coming up with a strategy for cloud-based file storage is often daunting because businesses are just coming to grips with the idea of incorporating this capability as a business service. There are a few fundamental things IT managers should consider as they go down this path.

1. Determine if your need can be addressed with available public cloud services. The public cloud is uniquely accessible, available and scalable, well beyond the means of most enterprises. The primary driver for a file storage initiative is accessibility, and there's simply nothing that most enterprises can do that offers the global accessibility of a public cloud service. Moreover, cloud-based file services will likely see high usage and a deluge of data, and the public cloud can adapt to such changing demands more easily and much more cost effectively. While the security and governance/compliance requirements of many enterprises may seem to rule out public cloud services, some vendors are trying to integrate on-premises key control and encryption mechanisms while still offering public cloud storage back ends. Such systems may sufficiently meet the requirements of enterprises skeptical of public file sync-and-share services.

2. Carefully consider what your users need. Do your users just need file storage and access, or do they need collaboration and/or application enablement? These are some of the primary differences between Box and Dropbox in the public cloud space. When it comes to an on-premises enterprise solution, the difference between vendors for these two use cases is likely to be even more distinct.

3. Determine what extent of sharing and control you need today, and try to anticipate what you may need a number of years from now. File access can be a friend or foe of your control strategy, especially when it comes to data loss prevention and auditing. File collaboration products vary in their capabilities for consolidating and controlling access to data. For example, some products may be more easily leveraged as a form of gateway service for file access. Not all use cases may require local copy synchronization, and some solutions that enable enterprises to create Web or application portals to data can be used to control and audit how that data is accessed and shared. Of course, you need to ensure that any solution meets file access and collaboration needs, but don't overlook the fact that some products may also provide better data controls.

4. Step back and consider whether you're pursuing a cloud-based file sharing solution as a tool to fill a gap or as a key enterprise platform. Choosing a tool may be relatively easy, but there may be other consequences when IT makes file data more accessible. Often, users become interested in broader accessibility and better file enablement within enterprise apps. An example may be something on the order of sharing documents with suppliers and/or customers, such as when a manufacturer issues supplier orders from an ERP system by way of secure file transfer. Or an application may require dynamically generating PDF statements or reports that can be downloaded by a customer via HTTP and secure authentication. A sync-and-share service -- whether internal or public -- that's considered a short-term solution may fall short when requirements expand to other business systems.

File sharing may redefine your business processes by empowering users with new mechanisms for data access and data exchange, but it may also become a key platform that changes some essential business processes.

About the author:
Jeff Boles is a senior analyst at Taneja Group.

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What I've found interesting in using a variety of sync-n-share tools is that they often start out in a discussion about how to effectively manage files (eg. move away from complex shares), but they almost always evolve into a conversation about how to manage collaboration better. And this moves it from a sync-n-share discussion to an email replacement discussion, because the files are always part of a collaborative discussion. Then it becomes about tools like BaseCamp, Slack, chat tools, etc. The technology eventually becomes less important to how these tools impact the day-to-day process of people as they try and get their jobs done - how many tools to manage, how to handle notifications from different places, where is the best place to respond, etc.

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