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Can Dropbox go from consumer hit to business success?

Can Dropbox go from consumer hit to business success?

Administrators will see an additional "Admin Console" option added their minimalistic Dropbox Web interface. Note also the additional Dropbox for "CIO.com."

Administrators will see an additional "Admin Console" option added their minimalistic Dropbox Web interface. Note also the additional Dropbox for "CIO.com."

Apple iCloud. Google Drive. Microsoft OneDrive. Box. Dropbox. Hightail (formerly YouSendIt). Online storage services have been a mainstream option for consumers for some time now. But as the business world wrestles with adopting cloud-based collaboration services, can a so-called independent company offer a competitive product to the business-centric offerings by Google (Apps/Drive), Apple (iCloud for Work) and Microsoft (Office 365)?

To answer this question, we take a closer look at Dropbox, arguably one of the most popular online storage services today, with more than 400 million registered users as of July 2015. Though it went through some security missteps in its early days, Dropbox successfully leveraged its popularity and success with consumers to develop a credible business-grade service -- Dropbox for Business -- that was launched in April 2013.

Despite being priced at $15 per user per month -- compared to $10 per month for Dropbox Pro -- Dropbox says the service now has 100,000 customers around the globe. (Unfortunately for power users looking to make the switch to Dropbox for Business, the plan starts at a minimum of five users. This means that small companies with fewer than five users will have to pay the equivalent of $150 per user, or $750 per year.) So what does the more expensive Dropbox for Business offer over the nonbusiness version of the product?

What you get is more than what you see

To be clear, Dropbox for Business builds off the basic Dropbox offering, which includes strong encryption, support for two-step authentication and the trademark simplicity of Dropbox. In addition, both "personal" Dropbox and Dropbox for Business accounts are supported by the official software clients -- albeit separately; both can also be accessed from the Dropbox home page.

This is where the similarity ends. Unlike Dropbox Pro, Dropbox for Business comes with a long list of capabilities that include unlimited storage (available upon request; users are initially allocated 1GB each), centralized billing, phone support and an Admin Console for administrators. The Admin Console is used to access a range of other capabilities and controls endemic only to Dropbox for Business:

  • Transfer files from a de-provisioned Dropbox for Business user into another team member's Dropbox.
  • Initiate a remote wipe of remote Dropbox files on a specific PC or Mac -- when it next comes online.
  • Invite new members, delete existing users or assign admin-levels rights.
  • Enforce mandatory two-step authentication for all Dropbox for Business users.
  • View organization-wide statistics such as the total storage utilized, links created and active devices used (across all platforms).
  • Force an individual or organizational-wide password reset.

Depending on industry vertical, some businesses may be more concerned about the possibility of data leakage due to "over-sharing" or accidental leaks. On that front, Dropbox for Business offers various ways that organizations can tighten the lid with such controls as the ability to limit the sharing of links to external parties, or the joining of shared folders outside of your organization.

In addition, administrators can also mandate that only one Dropbox account can be linked to each computer -- though users would still be able to access their private Dropbox accounts from the Web. Ultimately, while the controls won't stop a determined insider from leaking confidential data to competitors, they should go a long way towards preventing any unintended sharing of files.

Finally, organizations will be interested in such Dropbox for Business features as its comprehensive audit log, creation of groups, unlimited file recovery and integration with third party services, each of which are outlined below.

Dropbox for Business maintains a comprehensive feed of various activities under the "Activity" tab, ranging from the sharing and un-sharing of a folder, and the creating and sharing of links. Similarly, activities including those related to passwords, groups, membership, logins, admin actions, apps and devices are also logged.

Audit logs brings increased visibility and control over sharing and access of company data, and could be inordinately useful to trace data leaks, as well as to narrow down misconfigured devices. By being able to track permissions and apps that are linked to the Dropbox for Business account, administrators could also potentially find successful phishing attacks, and even identify data that's been compromised.

It's important to note that individual file edits, deletions and additions are not currently shown in the Activity feed reports, though a running history of edits, deletions and additions of all files can be viewed from the main Dropbox Events page.

Creating a group

Larger organizations will appreciate the Group feature in Dropbox for Business, and how it allows them to create departmental or project-level groups for easier collaboration. This feature makes it possible to share new information directly with an entire group instead of having to add each person individually -- and likely missing some team members. Moreover, any new members that are added to a group will be automatically granted access to all shared folders to which the group has previously been invited.

You can also manage the permission of a Group as a single entity when it comes to granting editing or view-only access, while the ability to create Groups can be restricted by the Dropbox administrator, or be left open to everyone. When individual and group permission settings differ, Dropbox will always grant the permissions that grant users with the highest level of file or folder access.

Unlimited version history and file recovery

One of the most powerful capabilities reserved for Dropbox for Business is undoubtedly its automatic storing of all versions of a file, as well as the ability to recover deleted files. In fact, it's this author's opinion that Dropbox for Business currently offers the best versioning support among the top cloud services.

Specifically, there is no limit to the number of versions that are saved, and versioning does not contribute your account's total storage cap -- which is unlimited anyway. Similarly, there are no time limits on when deleted data can be recovered.

While this feature certainly shouldn't supplant a proper offline backup and disaster recovery strategy, storing multiple versions of a single file can be help users, groups and companies quickly recover from editing mistakes, whether the mistake is noticed hours, days or even weeks later.

Third-party enterprise integration

Dropbox for Business also stands out due to the many third-party apps and services that are built on top of the Dropbox for Business API. The API essentially gives developers access to the members, groups and audit log data for a particular Dropbox for Business deployment.

While there are too many for an in-depth evaluation in this space, a few categories stand out:

  • Data loss prevention (DLP). For organizations that require better tools to manage sensitive data stored on Dropbox for Business, services like CloudLock and Elastica promises enterprise-class DLP with auditing and compliance functionality.
  • Identity management. Larger organizations or those using Active Directory can rely on cloud services such as Microsoft Azure AD or third-party offerings such as Centrify and Meldium to keep their Dropbox for Business managed and authenticated in a seamless fashion.
  • eDiscovery. Integration with industry leading tools (Nuix, Splunk) makes it possible for administrators to respond to litigation, arbitration and regulatory investigations involving files stored on Dropbox for Business. The comprehensive Activity feed data is automatically collected and visualized to help businesses better understand activities related to sharing, devices and security.

Of course, there are also the many third-party apps and services that work perfectly fine with the Dropbox platform without relying on the Dropbox for Business API. For organizations that are already on Dropbox for Business, this translates into usability and flexibility that is not matched by other cloud storage services.

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