Staff are increasingly sharing files through these offerings, sometimes without the approval or in defiance of IT. We look at a new breed aimed at enterprises

The cloud has a way of sneaking up on enterprises and biting them.

For all of the convenience of doing things online, cloud computing often causes IT managers to shiver.

Take personal file sharing services like DropBox, a free service which allows a person to upload a file to an account so a colleague can download it later.

It made its debut in 2008 and took off. Two years later Wi-Fi tablets hit the market and demand soared.

The number of what has become known as file sharing and synchronization services aimed at consumers also jumped to include Google Drive, Apple iCloud, Microsoft Skydrive and many others.

IT managers have been going grayer ever since.

Why? Because some of these services have no enterprise-level security. Control over what content goes in and out of organizations has never been easy. Now, in addition to being able to cart out sensitive data on a USB stick or send it by email, staff can also upload it to a public cloud.

That’s why a number of organizations have flatly refused to let staff use these services.

In response a new breed of file sharing services with security features has emerged aimed at organizations: Accellion, Acronis, Box, Egnyte, DropBox for Business, EMC Syncplicity, Citrix ShareFile and many others.

Although there is risk, experts say the potential advantages for collaboration means organizations have to at least consider if these stronger services work.

First, the players are varied: Some are standalone file sharing services, while others are extensions of content management, mobile device management or backup and recovery services.

Kristine Kao, an associate analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, noted that two years ago there were eight offerings for consumers and businesses; now there are 60, in part because as a cloud service it’s easy to start. That also makes it easy to add capability, she says — on average services add new features every six weeks.

They include the ability to create hybrid cloud storage so sensitive data stays on premise, support for mobile operating systems, direct access to Microsoft SharePoint or other corporate data stores, encryption, single sign-on through integration with LDAP or Microsoft Active Directory and more.

But are they good enough for the enterprise?

There are two schools of thought from IT managers: “Not on your life,” and “Better to choose a service that meets my needs than have staff do what they want.”

In the latter camp is Rob Koplowitz, an information workplace analyst at Forrester Research. “This is very compelling,” he said in an interview. Organizations “should be thinking about this and thinking about rolling it out to employees, whether they have self-provisioning technologies or not.”

These are tools that can help make staff more productive, he argues. But, he cautions, file sharing services have to be carefully evaluated to make sure they meet the needs of the organization.

(One caveat: Most of the well-known services that don’t have true hybrid offerings have their cloud storage outside this country. Those worried about data residency either for security or compliance reasons, will have to find a provider offering file sharing here.)

Here’s quick profiles of five providers:

Egnyte Inc., of Mountain View, Calif., started in 2008 as an enterprise file sharing service. Initially customers were largely for SMBs (up to 5,000 employees), says Rajesh Ram, vice-president product management and co-founder. But in the last two years larger companies have subscribed.

What makes its solution appealing to organizations is that it’s hybrid, he said, leveraging on-premise storage for sensitive data.

However, a recent Gartner report said content doesn’t stay behind users’ firewalls. Instead it is synchronized to the cloud.

All data is encrypted during transmission and storage, with encryption keys held by each subscribing organization.

Access to files is set by administrators. The service also integrates with directories.

A personal cloud service synchronizes desktop files.

The company offers three service plans (all prices here U.S.): Office, $8 a month for between 5 and 24 user, with up to 1 TB of storage and files no bigger than 2.5 GB; Business, $15 per employee a month for 25-100 employees. Includes up to 2 TB storage and files no bigger than 5GB. Includes integration with Micrsoft Outlook; and Enterprise, custom priced for more than 100 employees.

In addition to more storage and bigger file uploads, Enterprise subscriptions includes Active Directory and LDAP support, audit reports, integration with Salesforce, synchronization with NetApp local storage and other features.

Most recently announced a mobile data management suite including remote wipe.

• EMC Syncplicity. Syncplicity was a startup bought by EMC last year to get into online file sharing “which is growing in leaps and bounds,” said Kashif Ansari, EMC Canada’s chief technology officer.

A hybrid solution, it synchronizes any data between the desktop, laptop, tablets and mobile phones – the Gartner report noted that some solutions only synchronize files in a special folder — but keeps content in the local data centre.

There are three version, each with different feature sets. The Personal Edition is limited. Only the Enterprise Edition links to EMC Documentum, its content management suite. Only The Enterprise and Business Editions plug into Active Directory of SAML for single sign-on.

Depending on the edition, administrators can control who users share files with, including the ability to mark files as no longer sharable beyond a certain date. End users can also specify which folders on their desktops can be shared for collaboration.

Right-clicking on a file gives a “Send Secure” option and lets it be automatically sent without opening Syncplicity.

There are three pricing plans: Personal Edition for individuals costs $15 a month, with maximum storage of up to 50 GB. But IT can’t control file and folder sharing outside the business, or remotely wipe devices.

The Business Edition starts at $45 a month for three users, with unlimited storage. But, like the Personal Edition, doesn’t include access to on-premise storage.

The Enterprise Edition is for more than 24 users and has custom pricing.

Citrix ShareFile. Citrix got into this market by buying startup ShareFile in 2011.

According to Astha Malik, Citrix’s director of product marketing, the service’s hybrid solution lets organizations set up what it calls StorageZones for data held on premise or in the cloud.

Forty per cent of customers use the hybrid option, she noted.

To make things easier it just announced connectors for SharePoint and network drives, which Malik said provides direct connectivity for mobile devices to enterprise data. Also new is ShareFile integration with Citrix’s XenMobile mobile data management suite.

ShareFile also integrates with directories through SAML (security assertion markup language) for identity authorization.

Security capabilities also include remote wipe, device lock, data expiration limits, encryption and forbidding certain apps from interacting with sensitive data.

There are four pricing options for those who want cloud storage: Basic: $29.95 a person a month for up to two people and 5 GB; Professional: $59.95 for up to 10 people and 10 GB; Corporate; plans start at $99.95 for 20+ people, 20 GB; and Enterprise: Custom pricing, up to 100 GB.

• Accellion. One of the bigger players, it dates back to the 1990s as a managed file transfer provider that morphed into file sharing, synchronization and collaboration solution.

The service has single sign-on through LDAP and Active Directory, with plug-ins for Outlook, SharePoint Lotus Notes and HP Autonomy iManage. Files and folders are transmitted through secure links. There’s a hybrid cloud option.

Hormazd Romer, senior director of product marketing says the company has been adding features regularly. One of the latest is Kitepoint, that allows access to SharePoint files over iOS and Android mobile devices without a VPN.

Files can be opened in a Microsoft Office-compatible editor on mobile devices.

Support for other content management systems will be added later this year, he said. He also said mobile management is coming.

• DropBox for Business. Formerly DropBox for Teams, it’s a version of the consumer offering that includes an administrator console giving mangers the ability to set sharing controls to keep shared folders and files behind the firewall, or allow staff to decide access.

Team members can be required to keep two-step verification enabled. Team members’ Web sessions, devices or third-party apps can be remotely unlinked.

There’s also the ability to generate reports on activities including logins, passwords, apps and devices.

Single sign-on capability through directories was announced last month.

Pricing for the Business version –which includes unlimited data — starts at $795 a year for up to five persons, $3,295 for 25 persons and $31,420 for 250 people.

In its report, Gartner noted that the best solutions include encryption of data in transit.

What IT managers want to know is are these and similar services safe? It depends on your organization’s risk profile, says Forrester’s Koplowitz.

The first thing, he advises, is to find out how many staff are already using consumer-grade file sharing services. There’s risk right there for some enterprises. For others with low sensitive material, it may be okay.

“You can look at it as an opportunity to better serve employees,” he said, “as well as an opportunity to shut down some rather risky channels you may have been turning a blind eye towards.”

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