Dropbox this week rolled out the latest and most important of a series of enhancements designed to give its cloud file-sharing platform the enterprise appeal it has long sought. The new release brings an organisation-level 'team folder' tier that sits above existing group and individual folders, along with a set of 'AdminX' administration controls.
While Dropbox has always been a popular and convenient means of sharing files across devices and for some time has had the ability to share files within a group, it has lacked the granular control over access and file rights that enterprise compliance regimes demand. This new release fills that gap, and paves the way to Dropbox becoming the file-sharing platform of choice for enterprises such as Newscorp, whose CIO Dominic Shine spoke to me about its beta testing of the new features earlier this year.
Our assessment was, Dropbox Business as it is now was absolutely good enough to start rolling out and give everyone a collaboration tool. [AdminX] gives us the final piece that means that it's realistic to consider totally retiring traditional file servers.
That shift from traditional file servers to cloud-based file sharing could result in savings of "tens of millions over a number of years," he says.
That's from avoiding the cost of future capacity upgrades and hardware refreshes on file server infrastucture, and being able to reduce the cost of the software licenses that run on those current systems.
There may be certain things we choose not to take down that route, but broadly, subject to completing the beta testing we're doing, that will be our strategic approach.
The new AdminX console gives administrators tools to centralize the creation and management of groups as well as an audit log of user activity, including file creation, edits and deletion. Later this year, administrators will be able to limit the number of devices on which users can access files.
The new release builds on the capabilities that Dropbox announced earlier this year in Project Infinite, which gives access to shared files without having to consume local disk space by downloading every shared file. Admins will be able to control what content automatically syncs to company computers, as well as managing membership at the team folder or sub-folder level.
The new capabilities make it possible to strike the right balance between autonomy and control, says Shine.
When we adopt and we look at migrating all of our legacy content, then we will take a reasonably controlled [approach] to it saying, OK, how do we want to divide that up by business unit, by geography, by function, so we have some of those controls where we need them, but then the ethos is still, within that structure and complementary to it, give people a lot of freedom about how they organise themselves, who they give permissions to in their group, who they invite into the group.
It's a question of balance, of not allowing an absolute free-for-all, but also not reverting to the sort of control behavior that caused people to try and find something more flexible they were using outside.
[It gives us] an enterprise file management system to really finish off that journey to manage those permissions, to delegate permissions, to deal with leavers from the organization and how the rights to their documents get transferred, all that good stuff.
For Dropbox, this week's release marks the culmination of two years of effort to knock its cloud service into shape to meet enterprise needs. There's more to come, but Dropbox has now met the key criteria that allow it to move beyond a largely individual service to a truly enterprise-ready offering, says senior product manager Marcio von Muhlen:
I would say that we delivered on the top asks in terms of enterprise wanting to use Dropbox beyond an occasional mainly single-player product to a product that can become the official home for a team's files.
An important aspect of AdminX is a focus on a user-friendly experience that makes it easy to get things done. Ease of use is Dropbox's signature characteristic and the choice of name parallels the term UX, for user experience, in creating an administration experience, or AdminX, that is equally compelling, he says.
Enterprises want to empower their employees, but they need the visibility and control that lets them secure company data and keep it compliant. AdminX is about achieving those dual goals.
For organizations like Newscorp, which rejected Google Drive "after a lot of soul-searching" despite being a big Google Apps house because "users found it too confusing," Dropbox becomes one of a suite of products enabling a cloud strategy. Shine explains:
We believe that we can move the vast majority of our compute resources and storage to the cloud. That could be software as a service applications, like Salesforce or Dropbox. It could be consuming raw infrastucture and storage capacity from an AWS or Google or an Azure. It could be doing platform as a service like Heroku from Salesforce.
There are a category of applications that we can't or won't move. It might be a finance platform, where there isn't really a cloud option, it might be a press production system, [where] the architecture really doesn't work well with a cloud setup. Those we'll run as efficiently as we can using other methods. We think the trend over time is to put the vast majority there. There will be hybrid approaches that we'll use to start to get some of the best advantages of cloud whilst having to run some of the components in a traditional way.
It's not a move to cloud for its own sake. The best new software and applications happen to be in the cloud. We want that great user experience, we want that browser and mobile way of working, it just so happens that they have the additional advantage of, we don't have to worry about installing another separate infrastructure and managing it and security. If there's a financial advantage as well then that's all to the good.
Dropbox's consumer-friendly image has always been its biggest strength in terms of adoption while at the same time presenting barriers to enterprise acceptance. This new set of capabilities marks its maturing as a proposition that's worthy of enterprise consideration.