On the radar: Dropbox

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Dropbox provides a cloud-based file-sharing platform for individuals and enterprises. The latter (Dropbox for Business) provides customers with enterprise-friendly administration, security and integration capabilities alongside the consumerised IT sensibilities inherent in its individual offerings and mobile apps.

Who?

Dropbox is based in San Francisco, CA (with additional offices in Austin TX, New York NY, Seattle WA, Sydney, Tokyo, London, Dublin, and Herzliya near Tel Aviv).

What does it do?

Although Dropbox is well known for its freemium consumer-orientated file sync-and-share service for individuals, this report focuses specifically on Dropbox for Business – a service aimed squarely at enterprise customers looking to manage team and partner file collaboration.

Launched in April 2013, Dropbox for Business enhances the service offer for individuals with full-text searching and one-click sharing for end-users, together with a range of enterprise-friendly administration and security features, including:

  • Security – Support for Active Directory, single sign-on and two-step authentication with mobile passcodes; the ability for IT to terminate sessions and IT or an end-user to initiate a remote wipe of compromised mobile devices; encryption of files in transit and at rest (256-bit AES encryption, SSL secure tunnel for data transfers).
  • Access – Administrative control over provisioning / de-provisioning of users (including account transfer for when a user leaves the company or takes on a new role); and access permissions to shared files and folders (restricting whether files can be shared outside a particular team or the company as a whole); limits on who’s able to view / edit / share files, and logging such activity for audit; password protection of links to shared files, together with link on/off control and expiration dates; specification of which apps can access Dropbox files through its APIs.
  • Integration – As well as the 300,000 third party apps which currently exploit Dropbox’s APIs (providing functionality for document editing, e-signature, CRM, and communications), integrations are available for Adobe Photoshop and Acrobat, and Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Microsoft Office integration capabilities for customers on Dropbox for Business’ Early Access Program have recently been enhanced by its Project Harmony features: allowing users to see who’s viewing or editing a shared Office file, check if a more recent version is available and update to it, and generate a link to share the file within the application. Dropbox apps are available for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android.
  • Backup and recovery – File versioning and recovery (with an unlimited version history and unlimited deletion recovery) that are designed to be self-service for small-scale operation by end-users. The company does though offer live phone support and a dedicated support team to help customers’ IT teams deal with bulk restorations and roll-backs. Dropbox also promotes the services’ ‘background backup’ credentials of its delta, LAN, and streaming synchronisation features which are designed to optimise use of bandwidth when updating files. Dropbox’s storage is solely cloud-based with data centres across North America provided by a managed service provider.
  • Support – Priority email, chat and phone support.

Pricing starts at $75/month for five users (where Dropbox defines a ‘user’ as “any person or role on a team with a unique email address”), with additional users charged at a further $15/user/month. Users can link their Dropbox accounts to as many of their devices as they like with no additional charge. Volume discounts and discounts for non-profits or educational institutions are available upon request.

Dropbox claims the service provides “as much storage as you need” (though in reality this starts at 1Tb, with customers able to request more for no charge when it becomes needed).

Who is it for?

Dropbox for Business is aimed at any organisation comfortable with a solely public cloud based storage offering for sync-and-share content collaboration, but is particularly targeting those whose staff may already be using Dropbox’s Basic or Pro services. It provides the means by which users can maintain two separate Dropbox accounts on their devices (especially useful in organisations with a mature BYOD policy): a personal one, and a business one – with administrative control only ranging over the latter. This seeks to capitalise on where Dropbox has already secured an adoption toe-hold in an organisation.

Dropbox’s self-service features (such as its unlimited deletion recovery and device unlinking, and creation of collaborative workspaces around content folders) let individuals handle some common administration tasks themselves – making it attractive to those used to the semi-autonomy of BYOD-style workplaces.

Files can be shared by Dropbox for Business users with users of Dropbox’s Pro or Basic services (sharing rights permitting) though the latter’s ability to accept is limited by their own storage quota – Dropbox Basic users, for instance, can only store 2Gb in files.

Why is it interesting?

Despite the recent explosion of cloud-based file sync-and-share offerings now vying for enterprise attention (and hence how well-understood one might think the basic concept is), it’s interesting that Dropbox’s marketing material still dwells on extolling the virtues of the technology and its associated working practices (with rather less attention paid to specific differentiating features of its own offering, compared with others in the market).

Even with its for Business offer, Dropbox is counting a lot on brand recognition and the service’s ease of use to help drive enterprise adoption: features such as the ability to run dual personal and business Dropbox accounts on a single device concurrently, and seamlessly migrating from a personal to a business account all being designed to help pockets of (perhaps unsanctioned) early adoption morph into an IT-supported enterprise service with less time lost for awareness-raising, training, and troubleshooting.

Although Dropbox for Business is relatively late to the game (especially when one considers how long the Dropbox concept has been talked about in enterprise circles), the company has elected not to launch an all-singing, all-dancing business service from day 1. Where it has focused attention, though, is on its partner ecosystem – showcasing how mature, and widely adopted the core Dropbox platform is. The company cites 300,000 apps using the Dropbox engine, and Dropbox for Business does make much about its open APIs and how it sees this as driving the embedding of Dropbox functions within business applications to make more of a platform play for enterprise interest.

How established is it?

Dropbox, Inc. was founded in 2007 by MIT students Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi. The consumer version of the service was launched in 2008. Three years later Dropbox began offering a service designed for teams (rather than the individual users it initially courted), which became the foundation for Dropbox for Business.

Overall, Dropbox boasts 300 million users of its services in over 200 countries (the service is supported in 19 languages) – covering some 4 million businesses (alongside individual users), including 97% of the Fortune 500. Dropbox for Business’ customers number more than 100,000 organisations (mainly across creative, retail, and marketing departments, and to support field sales), including Hyatt, News Corp, MIT, Citizen, National Geographic, Spotify, BCBGMAXAZRIAGROUP, VitaCoco, Centric Projects, Kayak, Foursquare, Asana, Huge, USA Gymnastics, Appen, Valiant Entertainment, RadioLab, Refinery29, Zendesk, OpenTable, Sur la Table, Cleantech Group, Eventbrite, Dictionary.com, Accel Partners, Paul Mitchell, Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, Under Armour.

The company is backed by venture capital and doesn’t publish details of its revenue (though it’s estimated to have raised more than $500 million in funding over four rounds – the last in early 2014). Investors include Benchmark Capital, Goldman Sachs, Greylock Partners, Institutional Venture Partners, RIT Capital Partners, Valiant Capital Partners, Sequoia Capital, Accel Partners, and Hadi and Ali Partovi.

How open is it?

Dropbox, its datacentres, and the service provider its platform is built upon, undergo regular ISO 27001 and SSAE 16 Service Organisation Control (SOC) audits, and the company’s SOC 1, 2 and 3 reports are available upon request. It’s a member of the Cloud Security Alliance’s Security Trust and Assurance Registry, and complies with US-EU and US-Swiss Safe Harbor frameworks.

Applications can read and write files in Dropbox through its Core API, the Datastore API helps keep an application’s structured data in sync, and the Sync API takes care of synchronisation for mobile apps. The company’s integration libraries are MIT-licensed, plus there are also a number of third-party libraries maintained by the developer community.

In December 2014, Dropbox launched the Dropbox for Business API to extend the platform by providing integration (around how users manage their accounts) with key enterprise applications. 20 integrations were made available at launch, covering areas such as eDiscovery and legal hold (enabling secure search and the ability to collect and preserve information – e.g. Guidance, Nulix), data loss prevention (for auditing and compliance – e.g. Netskope, Skyhigh Networks), security information and event management (to oversee users’ activity and manage sensitive data – e.g. Splunk, Domo), Digital Rights Management (to add client-side encryption and decryption – e.g. Dell Data Protection, Sookasa), Identity Management and single sign-on (e.g. Ping Identity, Okta, Microsoft), data migration and on-premise backup (e.g. Mover, SkySync). There’s also support for the definition of custom workflows – where customers can build their own in-house applications that integrate Dropbox into business processes, or even configure Dropbox to connect to storage services offered by third-parties. So far 20 partners, including Microsoft and Salesforce, have signed up.

Who does it partner with?

Dropbox’s ethos that governs whether to look to acquire or develop native functionality for its service, or whether to rely on partnerships and plug-ins from third-parties, is for it to “focus on what Dropbox does best” and then seek to tie into what it sees its customers having in place.

The products and services listed as being compatible with the Dropbox for Business API aren’t necessarily the fruits of formal partnerships, though some are. The company additionally invests in partnerships across a number of productivity and collaboration areas (such as document editing – e.g. Microsoft Office, DocusSign, Scanbot; project management – e.g. Trello, Asana, Wrike; communication – e.g. Altassian HipChat, Rackspace Email, Cisco WebEx; multimedia and development – e.g. Microsoft Azure, Heroku, Autodesk AutoCAD 360, Vimeo; and workflows and utilities – e.g. Salesforce, IFTTT).

Are there areas for improvement?

Dropbox follows a practice of lean feature roll-out, adding capabilities gradually and responding to customer interest. Dropbox for Business itself began life in the company’s team-focused offerings of 2011 before being honed into the more overtly enterprise-friendly service it’s becoming now.

Though a lot of enterprise-expected features are covered, Dropbox has not yet clearly staked out where on the native feature set it sees the battle for ‘next generation’ Enterprise File Sync-and-Share (EFSS). Although the mix of native vs. partner-supplied capabilities may not matter to some customers (as long as the overall solution works), for others, whether or not content leaves Dropbox to be processed by a third party can be an important consideration. To satisfy the latter group, Dropbox will need to bring some more of its fringe capabilities in-house.

What’s next?

Until recently, document editing start-up CloudOn was counted amongst Dropbox’s partners (as well as Box’s and Google’s for their own content sharing and collaboration services), but Dropbox acquired the company in January 2015. The move undoubtedly brings additional talent into the Dropbox development team, but it also underlines the strength of Dropbox’s partnership with Microsoft to provide such features directly within Office (and recognises the shifting market viability for Office-like cloud-based document editing services like CloudOn, now that Microsoft itself is starting to move much more decidedly into supporting such use cases with its own services).

The Microsoft partnership is wide-ranging and has already brought Dropbox users an immersive integration experience (currently marketed under Dropbox for Business’ Project Harmony – see the What does it do? section) and more is planned: the company promises integrations between the Dropbox website and Office Online in 2015, and a Dropbox app for Windows Phone and Windows tablet.

Should I consider it?

For some customers, the core Dropbox for Business offering will suffice, and the service’s ease-of-use and widespread consumer adoption will help drive uptake of a more enterprise-friendly approach to content sharing; and some will be content to plug any gaps with third-party offerings and exploit the Dropbox ecosystem of apps and integrations (especially its close ties with Microsoft Office). If you fall into either of those two camps, Dropbox for Business offers a very well packaged version of the company’s familiar sync and share capability.

However, there will be some, operating in heavily regulated industries, for whom a solution that relies on third-party services or plug-ins (e.g. for full MDM or DRM) may prove more problematic because users’ content will leave the certified confines of the any over-arching environment, or users themselves will required to install additional software locally; and others won’t have the in-house capability to exploit Dropbox’s APIs to integrate with alternative storage providers (or may be in search of a more hybrid cloud / on-premise environment).

To widen its appeal for these latter scenarios, Dropbox will need to show a clear roadmap of which features – some of which are already making their way into the standard offerings of its competitors – it’s prioritising for the next phases of the for Business service.

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