Collaboration Gets Social
File transfer and sharing press IT to embrace SaaS tools.Collaboration squarely meets the "consumerization of IT" when users leave corporate tools such as email to use more convenient and effective applications with which to share files and work together. The growth of inexpensive, easy-to-access software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings such as Dropbox and Box.net have traditional email and FTP on the ropes. The concept of anytime, anywhere access to data from any device is pushing IT to accommodate business-user needs at a challenging scale (number of devices) and breadth (range of device types).
While ad-hoc collaboration is gaining popularity, businesses still have a burden to be good data stewards. Users who access regulated data for collaborative projects are subject to stringent controls that often preclude the legitimate use of SaaS products. And unregulated data, such as sales proposals, merger-and-acquisition plans, and production forecasts are often valuable enough in their own right to warrant internal governance controls on par with regulated data. Managed file transfer presents a real set of problems to IT.
The most high-profile exposure of limits of online tools was the June 2011Dropbox security failure that left customer files accessible for hours using any password. This deterrent to online services is likely to be short-lived as users feel compelled to share files that are difficult to move using authorized corporate tools including email and content management systems such as Microsoft SharePoint.
Despite emerging shortcomings, email and corporate content management systems are the first tools most users turn to when they need to collaborate. When files are too big to push through the traditional systems, users are most likely to turn to the no-cost, publicly available email services including Google's Gmail, Yahoo Mail and Microsoft Hotmail. Beyond these tools, Dropbox.com, Box.net, YouSendIt and a host of other SaaS Internet-accessible tools present an almost irresistible alternative when policy fetters-most commonly file-size restrictions-stymie workers' collaboration efforts.
The no-cost systems are here to stay. IT managers need to present business managers with solutions that can bring well-intentioned employees back into a controlled environment.
Changing Collaborative Landscape
One of the most notable changes in the collaborative landscape is the impact social media has on file sharing. The best example is Salesforce.com's Chatter. Chatter makes it possible to share files and work collaboratively on common projects within the secure confines of your organization. eWEEK Labs' tests showed that version control was only so-so, but nonetheless, enterprise social tools make sense as a logical place for in-common work projects.
Established file sharing and secure collaboration product makers are updating their wares as well. Over the last several years, eWEEK Labs has looked at a number of file sharing systems including Accellion managed file transfer and YouSendIt Corporate Suite.
These tools, along with others that I looked at for this story, including Ipswitch MOVEit, provide much more stringent controls over data movement. For example, Accellion and Ipswitch both provide user access controls and audit reports that show who sent what information where and when. In many cases, these products can also show when the file was accessed.
Even in the latest versions, IT managers will find that when it comes to sheer ease of use, the licensed tools are more difficult to use than the no-cost SaaS products. For example, I installed version 9 of Accellion secure file transfer at eWEEK Labs and used it to share large files with my fellow lab analysts. It took a grueling amount of work on the part of our test user for access (log in, check email for a verification code, create a moderately strong password for his account) before being able to finally download the test file. In the real world, unless a job sanction was in place it would be easy to see Dropbox appear in this scenario.
The Expanding Horizon
Productivity is pressing IT on a number of fronts, all of which are getting bigger.
Business users collaborate on "large files." These files are only going to get larger. Any ad-hoc, collaborative-file-sharing system must recognize the increasing file size of most data files. For example, high definition photos can be created by anyone with a smartphone and are easy to add to a PowerPoint deck. If any single factor can be cited for the growth of SaaS file sharing, it is the file size quota in existing email systems. Unless email administrators can change this fundamental underpinning of email systems, it is almost certain that alternative platforms will have to be implemented.
The diversity of user devices is on the rise. Anytime, anywhere access and from any device-ranging from smartphones to tablets to laptops and desktop systems-is a competitive advantage and is therefore a mandatory feature that IT must support. Whether collaboration tools do this with Web-based or device-native applications is beyond the scope of this story, but it is clear that business users must be able to collaborate wherever they are. The Chatter client is available for almost every device. Many of the other SaaS tools have this some capability. IT managers should put multi-device support on their evaluation list of collaboration tools.
Collaboration tools must now also take into account the context in which shared work is taking place. Version control is a basic form of providing context by showing who made what changes. Social media tools are vastly expanding context by enabling co-workers to follow documents and other types of files, form ad-hoc groups that collectively focus on shared files and then comment on the progress of the work. Version control, check-in/check-out and context are all collaboration features that SaaS tools have already implemented and that IT managers should expect to see.
There are reasons to put boundaries on user collaboration, and licensed SaaS and on-premise tools are often best equipped to put these restrictions into practice. Blocking restricted data is among the chief reasons to curtail user file sharing. Helping well-meaning employees stay on the right side of the law when it comes to using regulated data is an important feature that is missing from nearly all the no-cost Internet services. Providing an audit record to corporate governance boards is another function that is part of paid tools. Finally, no-cost services usually have terms-of-service that are intolerably lenient when it comes to commercial data privacy. For these reasons, it is incumbent for IT managers to help the business balance ease of use and productivity with the very real needs to maintain control over valuable business data.