File Sharing and Collaboration Systems: How to Choose?

File SharingWe’ve recently been examining file sharing, synchronization and collaboration systems, so we thought we’d pass on some tips for picking one.

The market has become crowded. The latest Gartner Magic Quadrant for Enterprise File Synchronization and Sharing reviewed 19 vendors and mentioned another 21 who didn’t meet their exact criteria for inclusion. The rejects included some good products, such as SugarSync, which was excluded because it didn’t have enough customers with 5,000 or more employees. Since most of the organizations we work are much smaller than that, we don’t consider the Gartner approach to be perfect. The point is, there are a lot of good products out there, so it’s hard to do the research and choose.

It’s been complicated for us, too, so we’re not going to tell you everything you need to know in this post. This is the first of a series. What we will cover now is how to decide what basic products to look at. Subsequent articles will discuss how to choose among them.

The obvious, and correct, place to start is with your needs. We think the best way to discover these is to go out and talk to your users. If you can be systematic and thorough, so much the better. We did this recently, and the additional legwork paid off, our understanding of needs became much more nuanced.

The Fundamental File Sharing Needs

We’re looking at the situation from the point of view of a small, but not tiny, organization, somewhere around 50 users, plus or minus 20. An organization this size can be expected to have the usual office applications, email, Office, financial apps and perhaps CRM. A foundation will have a grants management system.

The work users want to perform is to be able to work on the same files. Some people prefer to do this in real time; others will take turns editing or commenting on a document over a few days or so. Sometimes working collectively on documents is part of a workflow; sometimes, it’s just an ad hoc project. Sometimes, it only involves people inside the organization; sometimes external users must participate. When the collaboration is over, people want to know where to find the files or documents, and they want to know which is the official version.

We’ve found that the most basic needs for file sharing, synchronization and collaboration are clear:

1. The Limits of Collaboration Using Email

Email becomes a bottleneck for two reasons, usually. First, attachment size limits mean that you can’t attach large files. Sometimes, mailbox size limits can affect this, too. While these limits can be tweaked on the email server, files are getting larger and larger, so that tweaks aren’t always enough.

The second reason is that managing comments in multiple attachments is hard. If you send out the same file to six people at the same time, you (or somebody) is going to have to go through all the returned documents and reconcile all the different responses. This is not easy, and mistakes can be made. Inevitably, also, choices have to be made, and sometimes this means more rounds of attachments.

2. The Limits of the Internal File Server

One way around using attachments is to send collaborators a link in email to a file on a shared drive on your file server, which we assume is behind your firewall on your local area network. This has the advantage of avoiding the file-size and attachment-blending issues, but it raises issues of its own.

First, many organizations have people who work at home or on the road. Getting to the file server may be a challenge. Organizations who use Windows Remote Desktop or similar products to do this report disconnections or other connection issues. If you happen to use a Mac, access can be more difficult, and if you use a tablet or smart phone, you’re out of luck. You can improve file downloads to Windows computers by using Windows Direct Access, but the other clients won’t be helped.

The second issue you may discover is that you may not only want to follow links to a file. You may want to search for something. File servers are today’s example of the tragedy of the commons. This is when a number of unregulated, self-interested parties use a shared resource. They all tend to use it for their personal gain, the result being that the resource is diminished. The classic example is a bunch of shepherds overgrazing common land. Each wants to feed more sheep, but eventually the whole area is ruined. In the file server, people want to use it quickly, so they save documents according to their own needs and organizational method. Other users trying to use your files may find the wrong version, or not be able to find the right document at all. In a Windows environment, this quest may use Windows search, in addition to wandering through somebody else’s folder structure. Unfortunately, Windows search is a very limited search engine.

3. The Need for Synchronization

Another result of people working outside the office on a variety of devices is that they need to easily move files from their office environment to their mobile ones. This is made a lot easier when the latest versions of files on all devices are updated to match the most recent changes on any device. Without this, you have to spend a lot of effort making sure you’re working on the right version. This is synchronization. Synchronization also provides backup, because if you lose the files on one device, you can always get them back from another.

4. The Needs of External Users

Many of us have become familiar with sync services from our mobile devices, where we’ve done things like back up and share photos. This has, in fact, dismayed IT managers who worry about sensitive files ending up on devices outside of the organization’s control. This has led to several solutions. One is centralized management where all files and users can be monitored by a manager. Another is exercising control over files on mobile devices. Some apps let you encrypt anything you share and restrict access to the encrypted file. Others allow you to restrict access to the mobile device or to wipe the device’s files if it is lost or stolen.

At the same time, many organizations want to make files available to external users, by which we mean users that are not in the organization’s email domain. Sometimes, you want to set up a site where large numbers of users can view and/or download but not edit and/or upload files. Sometimes, you want to give some external users full collaboration rights. Not all file sharing and collaboration programs provide the same features here.

 

Enterprise File Sharing and Synchronization

Enter the enterprise file sharing and synchronization services. As we said, there are a huge number of them. Most of them, however, are converging on a basic set of features. They all store files in a location that is accessible from remote devices. Usually, this repository is in the cloud, but a few products work with your local file server to provide remote access. They all allow you to avoid using email attachments, and virtually all of them allow uploads of at least 2 GB per file. The products differ in terms of how much storage is included and in which devices can sync with which other devices. They also differ in what rights they give to external users and in how much adding external users costs.

If all you’re interested in is remote access and getting rid of attachments, however, many products provide those basic services well. A few are Dropbox, Box, Egnyte, Citrix FileShare, SugarSync, OneDrive for Business/SharePoint, Salesforce Files, Google Drive, Hightail, and EMC Syncplicity. Amazon has just released a new one, called Zocalo. We’ll discuss these in another post.

 

Beyond Share ‘n’ Sync

As the market is evolving, however, products are adding features to enrich collaboration or to provide more services, such as project management, content management, calendaring, workflow, and integration with other applications, such as Salesforce. Thus, you must also ask yourself whether you want to take some of these needs on, at the same time you deal with file sharing. For example, if you want to clean up that tragic file server, you may need a content management system, or at least a store and sync service with some basic content management features. Our next post will address these additional needs.

Tim Haight
About the Author
I'm VP of Technology Services for CGNET. I love to travel and do IT strategic planning.

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