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

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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 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 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. 

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

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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