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

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, A 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.

This story, "Review: Box beats Dropbox -- and all the rest -- for business" was originally published by InfoWorld .

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