Review: Box beats Dropbox -- and all the rest -- for business

Box trumps Dropbox, Egnyte, Citrix ShareFile, EMC Syncplicity, and OwnCloud with rich mix of file sync, file sharing, user management, deep reporting, and enterprise integration

By Serdar Yegulalp, InfoWorld |  Cloud Computing, Box, cloud storage

In the beginning, there was Dropbox, and enterprises far and wide were appalled. How dare corporate and business users make use of a file sync and sharing service that's meant for consumers? But the convenience and flexibility of Dropbox were hard to ignore, and soon file repository services for businesses of all sizes began to spring up.

As the number of file storage services for businesses and enterprises has mushroomed, so have the options they provide and the third-party services they can leverage. (It's an app world, after all.) Today, the problem is more of too many choices than too few.

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In this article we'll look at five enterprise-level file sync and sharing services (Box, Dropbox, Egnyte, Citrix's ShareFile, and EMC's Syncplicity), as well as one system you deploy on your own hardware (OwnCloud). What we found is heartening. There really is a storage service for just about every need.

Business-level sync and storage services focus on delivering features that will be valuable to a connected enterprise. Single sign-on capabilities let you use your organization's existing credentialing system (typically Active Directory) to log in. Activity logging and reporting let you see at a glance who's doing what, while granular permissions help you make sure people aren't doing things they shouldn't. However, not all these solutions deliver the same features in the same ways. Reporting, for instance, varies enormously across the products.

It may come as no surprise that Box is the leading contender in this space. Its feature set and third-party integrations rise above the rest, and it offers some of the most granular reporting, permissions, and user management features of any competing service. Syncplicity and Egnyte aren't far behind, with Syncplicity leveraging its close integration with EMC storage solutions, while Egnyte provides generous storage allotments and a well-wrought UI.

ShareFile's biggest drawback is its astonishingly small storage allotments, compared to the other products here, although its management capabilities and app selection are excellent. Dropbox for Business isn't a bad product -- it may well be the easiest solution for those looking to convert a batch of existing users into a working team -- but it's severely hampered by poor reporting. And though OwnCloud is a novel solution, it not only lags the others in features but also requires you to do some heavy lifting. Consider it if you're planning on hosting or building something around it.

Whether it's ease, flexibility, transparency, granular control, integrations with existing systems, or rich mobile support, all of these solutions have something to recommend them. Read on for the full reviews. 

Dropbox for BusinessBusinesses have long fretted about Dropbox being a potential security hole, but no one can deny that its convenience, utility, and familiarity make for a compelling way to share files among multiple computers and users. Small wonder Dropbox has gone on to offer a business-level tier for its services, with a slew of security, team management, and reporting functions.

Dropbox for Business doesn't have the breadth or granularity of functions found in competing services, so it's best for smaller, more intimate teams that don't need as much top-down control. But using it is a snap to anyone who has a Dropbox account, and storage isn't metered for a full-blown business account. Whereas Dropbox Pro is $99 per user per year with 100GB of storage, the Business tier is $795 per year for five users (plus $125 for each additional user per year) with no storage limits.

To use Dropbox for Business, you can either go with an existing Dropbox account or create a new one from scratch. The first account on a given team is automatically made an administrative account. Adding team members is functionally similar to the way existing Dropbox users invite each other to share resources: type a name, pick a user. Once a user has been added to the team, the only obvious change in the way Dropbox works is that some behaviors -- such as sharing links to nonteam members -- may be administratively restricted. A shared folder that appears in all Dropbox accounts for the team can also be automatically created.

Admins for a business account have access to a dashboard where they can survey their Dropbox account by user or activity. Each user's devices, browser sessions, apps, and activity are shown, and you can download CSVs of team activity reports -- who signed on from where, what members were added, and so on. Browser sessions can be closed, devices unlinked, and third-party Dropbox apps can be disabled for all users from this interface.

Organizations who want greater security over their Dropbox setup can elect to turn on a number of different authentication mechanisms, including two-step verification. You can also configure single sign-on via Active Directory or a third-party SSO provider, though you can't always use two-step verification and single sign-on together. Another useful security feature is a global password reset button, which provides a handy way to lock everything down at once in a matter of seconds.

One of the bigger shortcomings of Dropbox for Business is the lack of auditing tools for files themselves. You can't, for instance, inspect the contents of an individual user's account or look up an earlier revision of a file. The only way to do those things is to log in as the user and browse his or her files. Further, the activity reports lack details about uploads and external shares, which also makes auditing difficult.

Another potential gotcha stems from Dropbox's popularity with consumers. End-users with personal Dropbox accounts will want to create a separate account specifically for team access, lest they accidentally conflate files between the two. For bigger corporate setups, this isn't likely to be an obstacle, but informal teams with only a few people will need to be cautious. Fortunately the Dropbox folks seem to be aware of this: When you're invited to a team, you're given the option to join with your currently logged-in account or to create a whole new one.

Dropbox for Business's team management features make it easy to corral a slew of existing Dropbox users into a working team. On the downside, the member activity reports lack too much detail to be really useful.

OwnCloudThe big selling point for OwnCloud is doubly inviting in this post-PRISM era. It's a file storage and sharing service that runs entirely on open source software and the hardware of your choice, which you can deploy within your own four walls. It also comes with an optional at-rest file encryption module -- useful if you're running on shared hosting and want to keep out prying eyes.

I looked at a previous 4.x version of OwnCloud and was impressed, but the product's been redesigned almost completely from the inside out for its 5.x iteration. Most crucially, the at-rest encryption system used in 4.x has been scrapped entirely and replaced, so users of OwnCloud 4.x will need to take care when migrating their setup.

Installing OwnCloud could hardly be simpler, in theory. Unpack an archive to the desired destination folder on your Web server, navigate to said folder in your Web browser, and create a master user account. You can elect to use MySQL, MariaDB (preferred), SQLite, or PostgreSQL as the database. In practice, setting up OwnCloud can be trickier, in part because your PHP installation needs to be correctly configured for OwnCloud to work right. In my case, it was "strongly recommended" that I add the fileinfo module for proper MIME-type detection, and similar tinkering was needed to get the file-encryption plug-in running.

The functionality of OwnCloud is provided through a range of add-ons or "apps," several of which are bundled with the system by default: a file manager, a music player and library manager, a CardDAV-driven contacts manager, a CalDAV-compatible calendar, a picture gallery, and add-ons for the likes of OpenID and WebDAV support and in-browser viewing of various document types (ODF, PDF, and so on). Dozens of other apps are available through OwnCloud's app library. This makes OwnCloud more than just a file depository. It can become, in time, a nexus for many different kinds of collaboration and sharing in an organization.

Files can be uploaded into an OwnCloud instance either via drag-and-drop into the browser, or by using a Windows or Mac client that synchronizes the contents of a folder with an OwnCloud account, Ă  la the desktop clients for Dropbox. The only limits on file sizes or storage are those you set yourself. Incidentally, the desktop app is free, but the mobile apps are $1 each -- a smart way for the company to indirectly monetize the free community version of the product.

One of the major add-ons, included but not enabled by default, is the server-side encryption plug-in. Files saved to the server when the plug-in is enabled are encrypted and cannot be read even by the server administrator. Note that file names are not encrypted, just the contents, although I imagine in time this too can be addressed.

The biggest advantage to OwnCloud is also its biggest disadvantage: You have to run it yourself. The total control it gives you over the way files are stored and managed comes at the cost of having to set up and maintain the program. What's more, OwnCloud requires some expertise with Web servers -- Apache, PHP, and MySQL -- to use effectively. An instance of OwnCloud I set up on my own local server ran very slowly -- probably because it wasn't properly optimized. When installed on a Web server maintained by a hosting company, it ran much faster. Your mileage will definitely vary.

The folks at Turnkey Linux have created a virtual appliance edition of OwnCloud for fast installation, albeit only the earlier 4.x version. It's also possible to have OwnCloud hosted by an authorized service provider who can set up and manage an OwnCloud instance for you.

One of OwnCloud's many built-in apps is a photo gallery. The biggest advantage with OwnCloud is the total control you get over your data; the biggest hurdle is the work involved in setting it up.

Citrix ShareFileCitrix ShareFile does one thing, and it does it very well: It provides an enterprise with a customizable, protected space where files can be uploaded and shared. Other services may be more expandable, but ShareFile is extremely granular and configurable right out of the box.

Among the first decisions you'll need to make when setting up ShareFile is how to deal with user credentials. You can use ShareFile's own native user database or set up federation with Active Directory or another SAML-compatible system. The native user database will suit smaller organizations that will be using ShareFile in an ad hoc way, although I would've liked to see a slightly better gamut of tools for bulk-uploading users.

ShareFile splits users of the system into three categories: clients (people outside your organization who need access to what you're sharing), employees (rank-and-file users), and superusers/admins. People can be promoted or demoted between those ranks, and the privileges within them can be granted to users on an extremely granular basis -- such as management of remote forms, access to account-wide reporting, and so on. Companies can also apply their own logos and custom branding to the ShareFile interface, and each account comes by default with up to three custom subdomains in the format subdomain.sharefile.com.

The most straightforward way to upload files is through the browser, via a drag-and-drop interface. You can supply descriptions for files in the upload process, too, if a file name isn't descriptive enough. Fine-grained options for each folder allow you to configure file versioning, define the sort order for files, and set file retention policies on a folder-by-folder basis. ShareFile can also work with Citrix's StorageZones to incorporate Microsoft SharePoint shares and other on-premises repositories, providing for greater flexibility where the files are stored.

In addition, ShareFile comes with a wide range of client apps. Windows and Mac users can install apps that sync folders on their desktop with a ShareFile account. iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry users can sync from their devices with apps for each of those platforms, too. An Outlook plug-in automatically substitutes a ShareFile link for an attached file, so you don't end up mistakenly emailing someone a 10MB file. Also included is support for Secure FTP, a handy fallback, and command-line scripting tools for automating file uploads, downloads, and synchronizations.

ShareFile puts strong emphasis on reporting, which ought to gratify those who want or need detailed activity auditing. Reports for each account or folder can be downloaded as Excel files, and users can have their access to reports granted or revoked as a separate privilege.

The biggest problem with ShareFile is the minimal amount of storage. The basic $29.95-per-month tier, for up to two employees, provides a measly 5GB of storage. Even at $99.95 per month for 20 or more employees, you get a mere 20GB. This makes ShareFile most useful only if you're using it to share a few well-trafficked files. In an age where cloud storage providers are throwing theoretically unlimited amounts of storage at their customers, Citrix seems downright stingy.

ShareFile doesn't give you a lot of storage to work with, but it does give you a fine user interface, granular controls, and detailed reporting.

Egnyte"Do not defy data gravity" is the motto that appears on Egnyte's home page. By this the company means it doesn't always make sense to shove every file up into the cloud, and to that end its services are designed to allow files to live in the right place -- cloud or on premise -- depending on their size and sensitivity.

Egnyte's services are split into three tiers: Office, Business, and Enterprise. The lowest tier, for teams of five to 24 users, costs $8 per user per month and offers a batch of basic features along with a whopping 1TB of storage and a 2.5GB maximum file size. Go up a tier to Business (25 to 100 users, $15 per user per month) and those limits are 2TB and 5GB; you also get Outlook integration and custom branding options along with the standard desktop sync and FTP. The Enterprise level requires that you call for a price quote, but it has no limit on the number of users, starts at 3TB of storage, ups max file size to 10GB, and provides auditing and reporting and integration with third-party enterprise apps.

Egnyte's Web client is so good that you might not even use the local desktop app. Not only files but entire folders can be dragged, dropped, and uploaded into your Egnyte account, and entire folders can even be downloaded as zip archives. One-click sharing lets you provide a public or invite-only link to any object or folder. Shares can be set to expire after a certain period of time or a certain number of downloads.

While you can preview a great many file types right in your browser, the way this works is occasionally quirky. Some document types are converted to PDF for online viewing, but the conversion process doesn't always render complexly formatted documents properly. The most problematic documents were (what else?) DOCX files from Microsoft Word.

The desktop client app could be best described as a "pull" client rather than a "push" one. Set it up and point it at a folder somewhere on your system, and the contents of selected folders in your Egnyte account are pulled into that folder. A separate tool, Map Drive, lets you add the Egnyte file repository as if it were a locally mounted drive. (I actually preferred using Map Drive over the default Egnyte desktop client.)

If there's any one feature that shows the general level of elegance and intelligence at work in Egnyte, it's the user-import feature, where you can add users en masse by simply uploading a CSV. Egnyte even provides a sample CSV so you don't have to guess at the format. CSV import is then processed in the background, and you're notified by email when it's done. Any errors in the import are returned to you by way of an annotated copy of the CSV you uploaded, so you can fix them quickly. It's all remarkably painless.

The number of integrations with third-party enterprise and Web apps is small, but well chosen. The Storage Sync option runs on a number of VMware virtual machines as a virtual appliance and synchronizes files between a local file store and a cloud-based one. Similar sync options are available for NetApp, Netgear, and Salesforce. Files can also be imported from Google Drive or sent to a DocuSign account for signing.

What's wrong with Egnyte? Two details come to mind. One, there's no completely free usage tier, although that's fairly common with services aimed at corporate customers. (You get a 15-day free trial of the basic Office tier, though.) Two, the selection of enterprise-level options is limited compared to Box or Syncplicity. However, the options offered are good ones that most businesses are likely to employ.

Egnyte's Web client is slick enough that you might not use the desktop client at all. Just keep in mind that the in-browser document preview doesn't always render complex documents properly.

EMC SyncplicityWhile most of the competition seems to focus on sharing with users outside the company, Syncplicity focuses just as much on file sharing within an organization. From the outside it looks and behaves like Box and Dropbox, but it has a few features not seen elsewhere that may make it exceptionally appealing to certain corporations.

Syncplicity has roughly four tiers: the free, personal-use-only version (2GB, two devices); the personal edition ($15 per month, 50GB, five devices); and the Business and Enterprise editions, which have no hard limits on the number of users, devices, file sizes, file versions, or storage amounts. That said, the Business edition starts at $45 per month for three users, while the enterprise edition requires a custom quote.

If your exposure to Syncplicity starts with the desktop app, much of its behavior is in line with the other services discussed here, but there are handy additions. For one, the Syncplicity client isn't limited to a single folder and its subfolders -- any folder can be synced back to Syncplicity's services. Combined with the unlimited-storage tier, this freedom turns Syncplicity into a backup system of sorts (though I'd still want to stick with a full-disk imaging solution for making any OS-level backups).

When you have the Syncplicity client installed, you can right-click on any folder or file and share it with other users in your organization. Individual items within a folder, such as subfolders or individual files, can also be selectively excluded from sharing, a feature I haven't seen elsewhere. However, anyone with whom you share files must have or create a Syncplicity account; you can't share files anonymously.

The first business-class features you're likely to encounter are the security and behavioral policies. These let you control such details as whether links to shared files must be password protected, which Active Directory domains allow Syncplicity syncing, how complex passwords have to be, and where activity reports get exported. Note that some policies are called out with a warning icon that indicates when a certain version of the user client is required. Rich reports allow you to audit all sorts of activity including per-user behaviors, such as storage consumption. And you can save the results into a file folder on your account.

Syncplicity's most striking enterprise-level feaure is EMC storage integration. If you have one of a number of supported EMC storage systems -- EMC Isilon Scale-Out NAS, EMC Atmos Object Storage, or EMC VNX/VNXe -- you can elect to sync users' Syncplicity accounts only to your own on-premises storage. Files thus stored are never uploaded to Syncplicity's own data centers. This is a great boon for companies that want absolute control over their own data.

Any folder on your local file system can be backed up to Syncplicity's cloud, which can even be stored in an approved EMC-branded storage solution on your own premises.

BoxOriginally Box.net and now just Box, this company offers one of the best-known storage services for small and midsize businesses and large enterprises. Not only does Box offer generous amounts of storage -- 1TB for business users -- but its business and enterprise plans sport some hugely ambitious and useful features.

The basic, free, single-user Box -- the Personal tier -- gives you 10GB of storage and a 250MB file size limit, but you can ramp those up to 100GB and 5GB for $5 per month. An array of desktop and mobile clients let you sync and upload from most any device. Using the Box Edit app, you can download a given file and edit it on your computer (provided you already have an app that can edit that file type). Your changes are saved back automatically. With the full Box Sync app, which keeps shared folders echoed to your local system, you edit files locally.

The really professional features come out at the Starter tier, for up to 10 users. Files can be locked, set to automatically expire, have permissions assigned to them, and versioned with up to 25 previous versions stored. The full-blown Business tier ups the file version history to 50 and adds external authentication, user management, and audit logging. Go for the Enterprise tier -- you'll need to get a price quote -- and even more management and API-level features are unlocked.

Object permissions are a good example of how much more functionality is unlocked as you ascend Box's tiers. At the Starter level, only two user roles are available: editor and viewer. With Business and Enterprise accounts, you have Previewer, Uploader, Viewer, Previewer-Uploader, Viewer-Uploader, and Co-Owner as well, each with different sets of permissions available. Business and Enterprise customers also have access to detailed reporting. The reporting goes far beyond that of Dropbox to include things like who read or modified which files.

Box is most famous for the wealth of apps and extensions available for it, the sheer range of which dwarfs most of the competition. Aside from the usual crop of sync-files-to-a-device apps (for Windows, OS X, Android, and more), there are apps for working with specific desktop applications (Box for Office), apps to provide integration with different online services (Box for Google Apps), apps for accessingh legacy infrastructures (the Box FTP server app) -- the list goes on. Note that while some of the apps are available free, others come only with the premium levels of the Box.com service, and still others are available for-pay through third parties.

If you want further proof of Box being designed to appeal to professional customers, the range of single sign-on options ought to do it. Aside from being able to authenticate with Active Directory, Box can authenticate with Salesforce, NetSuite, Jive, and DocuSign accounts. The Business tier is limited to the use of one SSO authority; the Enterprise tier has no such limits. On the other hand, custom portal branding is only available at the Enterprise level; that's a feature Citrix ShareFile offers even on its most basic tiers.

With granular user management functions, integrations with various business apps and services, and a wealth of third-party add-ons, Box is easily the leader of the pack in enterprise-oriented features. 

 

This article, "Review: Box beats Dropbox -- and all the rest -- for business," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in cloud computing at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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