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Dropbox For Business Review

Dropbox For Business Review

The enterprise file synchronization and sharing (EFSS) market includes both traditional on-premises vendors as well as pure-play cloud storage providers, including Dropbox, which we're reviewing in detail today.

In the recent explosion of the consumerization of IT, users have spoken. Employees, customers, and partners are more wired and enabled today than ever before, with a wider variety of powerful devices able to connect, create, retrieve, modify, share, and delete files.

This is the time of file and information sharing 4.0, as indicated by the evolution mainframes to client/server, then to intranet network sharing, and now to a generation of both geographically and logically dispersed data. In today's world, information lives across many corporate venues, including local drives, network shares, enterprise content management (ECM), enterprise platforms, collaboration engines, and public cloud sharing services.

Information technology departments are concerned with the nexus of insider threats and external hacking attempts. While sharing information is a tremendous need and opportunity, the counter-argument is that information leakage is a huge risk, with limited resources to manage and mitigate against. As unencrypted documents are spread across the zones noted above, the need for balance is quickly becoming an enterprise problem.

In this series of reviews, we will explore a number of offerings in the enterprise file synchronization and sharing (EFSS) market, encompassing offerings from both the pure cloud providers and on-premises vendors. Some of these have an incumbent position in traditional ECM solutions, while others are new to the world of content and document management. The first EFSS tool in our review is Dropbox for Business.

Dropbox for Business

Built on the foundation of the standard and Pro consumer product, Dropbox for Business is a pure-play cloud-based system with a friendly end user interface offering top-notch ease-of-use. The best features of the consumer product are here, coupled with the control, safeguards and extended APIs expected of an enterprise product. Dropbox for Business has so many group collaboration features, the product could easily be called "Team Dropbox." And in fact, the first iteration of the business focused product was called "Dropbox for Teams" when it launched in October, 2011; the company renamed it to Dropbox for Business in April of 2013.

Dropbox is unabashedly public cloud. From the time users open Business accounts (and get a change to connect to or open an additional personal account) the story remains consistent.

As illustrated by the slow adoption of in-house social networks, one of the trickiest and most risky aspects of any enterprise technology implementation is user adoption. Users don't automatically -- or quickly -- move to a new system, even after organizations spend millions of dollars investing in it.

Why is adoption relevant to EFSS and Dropbox? First, with any new solution, there is disruption, change management, and user pushback. Sometimes, even if employees are involved in the selection and implementation process, users complain. Other times, missing functionality erodes or destroys productivity. Finally, corporate pilots and trials rarely represent the user community; IT staff and executives are not the end-all to EFSS users.

Compared to other EFSS solutions, Dropbox is different. Thousands of employees at organizations of all sizes and types have chosen to use it, even before an EFSS evaluation was contemplated or announced. This is a huge win for both users and enterprise IT. Users have voted with their choice and preference for Dropbox, and organizations should reward this by giving it a chance. This is a pretty powerful argument for Dropbox.

Access, Administration, Monitoring

From a pure access perspective, Dropbox relies on the desktop (sync) client as a cornerstone of the Dropbox for Business story. While other vendors provide this, they often de-emphasize its use. For Dropbox, this functionality has continued to shine with reliability, flexibility, performance, speed, and ongoing automated updates. We've found that Dropbox updates the end-user client about once every three weeks.

The mobile client (available on iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone) is consistent, frequently updated, and makes use of the latest OS-based integration hooks, such as iOS 8's sharing extension.

The key takeaway is that Dropbox for Business is designed to simplify team management. Administrators have a moderate to high degree of power over sharing, link management, and team membership and exclusion. 

Specifically, administrators can control whether team members are able to share items with people outside the defined team (which can include the internal and external organization), and set different rules for shared folders and shared links. If sharing outside the defined team is enabled, members will still be able to make individual folders or links "team only" as needed. Admins can also default shared links to be visible to team members only, and can disable shared links from the admin console.

View-only permissions for shared folders allow members of a shared folder to always see the latest versions of the files without having the ability to edit them.

Passwords and expiration for shared links create boundaries around who can access content through shared links with an owner-defined password, and set an expiration for any shared link to provide temporary access to files or folders.

On the reporting side, administrators can generate activity reports at any time for several types of events, filtered by date range. Reports are available for individual users or entire team accounts and can be downloaded in CSV (comma-separated values) format or integrated directly into your existing security information and event management (SIEM) tools for analysis using the Dropbox for Business API. A wide variety of information is available to admins in user activity reports, including passwords, logins, administrative actions, linking of third-party apps to Dropbox, linking of devices to Dropbox, membership, and the aforementioned sharing.

Additionally, individual file and folder events (edits, deletions, and shared folder membership) can be tracked from each user's Events page.

User Interface

The easy and straightforward end-user interface of the consumer product continue here, but with the ease-of-use benefit comes a cost. Screen real estate isn't used as effectively or efficiently as other tools. This is especially true in the smartphone app, which doesn't take advantage of higher-resolution screens, and makes finding files and directories tedious. Dropbox recently introduced full-text search to the Business product, which finally extended results beyond file names, metadata and extensions.

Dropbox sticks to its core: it is a file sharing product with an enterprise-class back-end storage and universal access. While there is a dearth of standard built-in encryption, security control settings and administrative console-based repository connectivity, Dropbox continues to enhance the product to allow for third parties such as CloudLock and Splunk to fill gaps in reporting and security.

Some recent enhancements, which show Dropbox's growing industry and document management relevance, include being the first external party to directly integrate with Microsoft Office for iOS and the Dropbox Badge integration within Microsoft Office applications.

Security and Partner Ecosystem

For corporate administrators and security professionals, Dropbox is a mixed bag. To access local and private cloud data center storage, customers must utilize partner integrations. Since this is an additional level of effort, nothing hints of this capability out-of-the-box when administrators configure Dropbox for Business.

There are 256-bit keys maintained by Dropbox, which make this a highly secure tool for documents at rest. Note that the key management decision is driven by full-text search and file indexing; with client-managed keys, Dropbox would not be able to peer into files, according to its model.

It should be noted that the Business product is a separate tool; it is not Dropbox consumer with a slightly different branding, although it can appear that way. So the continued reliance on a partner ecosystem could make it difficult for Dropbox to penetrate demanding customers who are looking for a one-stop shop.

Unfortunately the built-in security settings are very limited, and pale in comparison to the other EFSS tools. For example, there are no subfolder-level permissions, and enabling encryption and other security functionality requires working with CloudLock, SkyHigh, or Splunk. This can delay implementation time, potentially introducing multi-vendor complexity, and increasing costs.

That's because while administrators can enable data loss prevention (DLP), digital rights management (DRM), and eDiscovery and "legal hold," all of these must be enabled by third-party partner solution, which communicate over the Dropbox for Business API. Similarly, the Dropbox for Business admin console allows site administrators to selectively disable features by group and user or universally (photo sharing, desktop client, etc.), but these are still evolving and not fully baked. 

Dropbox for Business might appear much like a work-in-progress to someone evaluating it as an ECM supplement or replacement; the interfaces are spread between tools and there is no "single source" to control access and review activity.

Creation Tools, Dropbox Badge And Help Guides

While Dropbox has been cautious about aligning itself with any specific editing tools, it was the first cloud-based storage system with an integrated editing tool (CloudOn in 2012). Today, Dropbox not only owns CloudOn, but it integrates seamlessly with Office for iOS (and Android) and publishes directly to and from any iOS app conforming to the latest iOS 8 standards. 

Again, through the partner ecosystem, there are a wide variety of tools that store files in and utilize Dropbox as its back-end storage and version control system. In many ways, Dropbox has become the Amazon Web Services of file storage -- it's providing value even though many users don't realize it at the time.

From a content management perspective, conflict resolution is currently a work-in-progress; files opened and edited by multiple users and saved over each other are appended with the machine name of the other user.

Large files can be handled with ease in Dropbox for Business. There are no file size limits like with other tools, LAN sync can avoid unnecessary round-trips to the cloud, and the actual updates sync is done at the block level across all file types, saving bandwidth and time. This makes it a very good corporate citizen.

In early 2015, Dropbox introduced the "badge" for Business users to gain insight into current state, ownership, and activity on files. This is a further evolution into the enterprise content management space, and is enabled by the XML file structure in Microsoft Office 2007, 2010, and 2013, and Office for Mac 2011 (and the forthcoming version to be released later in 2015).

This allows users to collaborate on files residing in the Dropbox folder structure on computers. This is conceptually similar to ECM client tools provided by EMC (via Documentum), OpenText LiveLink, IBM FileNet, and Microsoft SharePoint. The reason it is called a badge is that it's a notification mechanism first and foremost, and doesn't actually provide complex file locking and reconciliation of changes.

Enrollment into this functionality is done through the administration console, as shown below.

Dropbox is unmatched in its friendly presentation of online business end user help and the administration guide is a good resource. The web-based documents are consistent across the user interface and provide excellent insight and clarification on using, configuring and running the Dropbox for Business platform.

Dropbox for Business: Pros & Cons

If the goal of your EFSS program is to extend or augment your current document management infrastructure with a tool designed for easy sharing, Dropbox can't be beat. It is easy to set up, seamless to use, and makes sharing files with employees, customers, partners, consultants, and suppliers nearly effortless.

IT professionals should trust -- but also question and verify -- Dropbox's roadmap and collaborate on a complete strategy, including ecosystem partners, to see if the long-term capabilities and partner integrations align with your enterprise plans and policies.