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It's time to redefine the enterprise file sync-and-share market

Today's enterprise file sync-and-share products do so much more than synchronizing data that it might be time to re-think the moniker.

I've been covering the market that has come to be known as enterprise file sync and share for almost five years, and it's been a wild and crazy ride. In 2011, Enterprise Strategy Group published its first market landscape report on this space. We looked only at those vendors with products aimed at businesses -- paid offerings that included a dashboard for centralized management and control of corporate data. We uncovered eight companies that fit the criteria. Dropbox barely squeaked in because it had just announced Dropbox for Business. YouSendIt (now Hightail) had just released file sync and share. Other vendors in the report were Box, Egnyte, Nomadesk, ShareFile (which wasn't on our radar but came out of nowhere when Citrix acquired them), SugarSync and Syncplicity. In under a year, the market took off and we were tracking more than 60 vendors.

Fast forward to 2015, and there's been some market consolidation, albeit less than expected for such a crowded market; solutions have evolved significantly and use has completely exploded. Dropbox, the 800-pound gorilla in this space, has gone from 50 million users in late 2011 to more than 300 million in early-mid 2014 (more than 95% are consumers), dwarfing Box's 27 million users (92% are consumers as of this writing). The latest Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) research (published in February 2014) found that 48% of companies have adopted enterprise file sync and share (EFSS) somewhere in their organization. Considering the market for business solutions was only just beginning to emerge in 2011, this is an exceptionally fast adoption of a new technology.

Despite the broad adoption, the market for business solutions is still ill-defined and many IT organizations are struggling to get their arms around the use cases. Most organizations have only deployed solutions for individuals and departments, and are still trying to sort out where and how solutions fit. In fact, vendor marketing for EFSS products frequently claims to be "as easy as Dropbox, but secure" or says to "use us to solve the Dropbox problem," referring to the challenge IT organizations have with employees putting corporate data in their personal Dropbox accounts. However, EFSS products and business use cases have evolved far beyond basic file sync-and-share functionality.

The market has outgrown the EFSS moniker

At the most basic end of the spectrum, these solutions sync data and allow for easy sharing. Syncing to devices was all well and good when everyone used desktops and laptops, but the device mix is changing. Laptops are getting smaller and lighter, with less storage capacity. And as greater functionality is rolled out in mobile solutions, more people are using tablets as lightweight productivity devices with small storage footprints. Users want to access files anytime, anywhere and from any device. But syncing doesn't necessarily make sense for these lightweight endpoint devices. At the end of the day, what we want is access to our files, anywhere and from any device; if we can get to them, who cares if they're all synced? Sync some files for off-line access (known as selective sync)? Yes, but all? It just doesn't make sense.

And it's not just about access. It's about managing content (from both the knowledge worker and IT enterprise data governance standpoint), streamlining collaboration and boosting productivity -- not just for the data stored in these solutions, but for enterprise data -- by tying into and mobilizing existing data stores, such as file-server-based home directories or SharePoint repositories. That's the true business value of these solutions.

EFSS is NOT backup

As much as we need to understand what the market is, we need to understand what it is not. I'm constantly surprised by the sheer volume of organizations using sync-and-share applications as a replacement for backup. Approximately one-third of the current users we surveyed in our last round of research and 42% of planned users want these solutions for backup and disaster recovery. Sure, you can use these solutions to restore previous versions of files. And most solutions allow end users to restore accidentally deleted files themselves, though some do require IT intervention. So that sounds like backup. However, one rogue collaborator could delete an entire group's work, and his fellow collaborators may not notice until after the retention period has expired. But as we continue down the path of the EFSS solution being the primary data store, with selective sync of documents to endpoint devices, is data truly protected?

There is some level of business continuance, since users can continue working even if their endpoint device crashes. It's as simple as logging back into the cloud to get full access to data. And most devices have some sort of customizable retention period that could help users circumvent the problem of an unnoticed deletion. However, the cost of storage capacity goes up with longer retention periods. The purpose of these solutions is collaboration and sharing, while backup protects and retains corporate data regardless of what device it is on. These are very different goals that require diverse governance and oversight. Backup requires set frequencies and policies to ensure compliance with corporate governance guidelines, while sync and share puts much of the retention and version control in the hands of employees who may not know governance policies.

Summing it up

The influx of mobile devices and new mobile applications into the enterprise is revolutionizing how we work and driving the adoption of sync-and-share solutions. But we're just scratching the surface of how these solutions can truly help increase productivity and enable the mobile workforce. These solutions allow users to work on their preferred devices, collaborating in near real-time, which is much faster than collaborating by sharing documents via email. They also increase security by putting data governance in the hands of those trained in the practice. In other words, they do a heck of a lot more than sync and share. The name EFSS does a disservice to the market. I'm not sure what these products should be called instead, but for now I'm calling them next-generation productivity applications.

About the author:
Terri McClure is a senior storage analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, Milford, Mass.

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