The battle for file sharing and storage has been happening for a while, but things started heating up when Microsoft decided to offer OneDrive for Business as a standalone service -- it took a direct hit at Box and Dropbox. The question is, does it really have an advantage?

Microsoft recently announced the storage limit for OneDrive for Business would increase from 25GB to 1TB -- putting it on the same page as Dropbox and Box (both of whom offer “unlimited” storage for enterprise customers). Google doesn’t offer that much (it starts at 30GB per enterprise user), but you have to ask yourself -- who will really use 1TB of storage?

In a blog post that announced the storage increase, Microsoft’s John Case ended with a comment about “breaking down walls between people and information. Not building a new set of islands in the sky.”

Box CEO Aaron Levie responded that this is pretty much what Microsoft is doing -- building an island in the sky for OneDrive, saying:

By keeping Office 365 users on the closed OneDrive 'island,' Microsoft is stranding hundreds of millions of users and customers that have chosen Box, Dropbox, Google Drive and others. And by releasing Office on the iPad without the ability to view or edit documents from any cloud service other than their own, they’re making it harder -- not easier -- for users to get the most out of their software.”

In a sense, Levie is right. Microsoft is limiting tightly integrated file storage and sharing to its own OneDrive for Business solution. But you can argue that there is a very good reason to do exactly this.

'Loosely' Embracing Shadow IT

Shadow IT happens when departments, or even individual employees, use technologies that aren’t sanctioned by IT. This has been very easy to do since cloud-based services arrived. Employees who are avid Internet users try lots of new consumer based apps and have come to expect the same ease of use and accessibility in their work environment that these apps offer in their personal world.

Personal and work have collided in such a big way that employees often expect that one service will support both needs. In a perfect world that would be fine. But this isn’t a perfect world: information gets leaked, gets lost, gets stolen. And it’s this information that is often the differentiator for an organization -- the key to its success. You simply can’t open doors that would let this information get out just to make your employees happy.

So IT shuts off usage of many cloud storage services, unless it is sanctioned by them. Google, Microsoft, Dropbox and Box have all recognized that the personal storage services need to have a business -- or enterprise -- counterpart, hence the creation of all these “enterprise” versions.

It’s these enterprise versions that get sanctioned by IT. But should they sanction all of them? Should each department get to choose its own cloud storage and collaboration solution? Wouldn't it make sense to only support one of these? And wouldn't you want the one you sanction to offer the best security, compliance and governance capabilities?

This is why I say that IT should “loosely” embrace shadow IT. IT needs to recognize that employees require better tools to work, and these tools need to be cloud based because often employees work at home, on the road, in the office and use a variety of devices (desktop, smartphone, tablet, etc.). Give them access to an enterprise version of a cloud storage and sharing tool, but maybe sanction only one.

Which Cloud Storage Service Should IT Sanction?

I’m not foolish enough to say there’s an easy answer here, it really will depend. All four of the services have great collaboration capabilities and most have some level of security and governance capabilities.

How do you choose? You could look at the pricing and storage costs and decide that way. Obviously Google Drive comes in the cheapest because you acquire it within the Google Apps package paying $50 per user per year (that includes email, file storage with Google Drive, and the productivity apps: word processing, presentations, spreadsheets and more). Microsoft OneDrive for Business comes in at $2.50 per user per month with 1TB of storage, and with that you have integration with Office online. Dropbox and Box follow at a cost of $15 per user per month with unlimited storage (which I believe in both cases starts at 1TB and increases if needed).

Once you’ve looked at pricing and storage, look at features and functionality and the usability of the service. One might offer all the features you need, but if you have trouble using it, it’s not worth the effort. I can tell you that all services offer the same basic functionality -- you can upload documents, organize them into folders, share documents with internal people and (if allowed) with external people, you can specify in some cases how the collaborators can view the documents (e.g. read only, comment, edit), but only by trying them will you get a good feel for usability.

In all cases you can download files (if allowed), edit and re-upload them, syncing the newest version across all devices. Except for Dropbox, you can edit in a browser environment directly within the service in all.

All of them have third party apps you can connect to your service. Box has its OneCloud marketplace, Dropbox has Dropbox Apps and Google has its own marketplace. With OneDrive for Business, the integration is with SharePoint and Office 365, both of which have their own stream of third party apps.

You also need to look at security and compliance and governance management. This is where you really start to see the differences between the services. Before you start looking, ask yourself what level of security management you want, and what types of compliance and governance policies you need to have in place. Once you start your comparison on this, make sure you understand how the administration tools for the functionality work -- are they easy to implement and use? Are there third party tools you might need to purchase to help you manage your service better?

The biggest differences lie in the support for information governance. If you want advanced archive and information governance with Google, you have to purchase Google Apps with Vault. This drives the price up a bit, but is worth it if you need to follow stringent policies for how you store and use information.

OneDrive for Business offers auditing and reporting, built-in standards compliance, multi-factor authentication and if connected with Office 365 (which pushes the costs per user up to the level of Dropbox and Box), you get a lot more information governance.

Box offers detailed audit logs, detailed stats on files and users, advanced settings for permissions and user access, single-sign on and data encryption, including support for major compliance standards such as HIPAA and BAA (something Dropbox doesn't do). Dropbox includes a nice auditing feature set and it supports SSO. It also has a nice remote wipe feature that lets an administrator swipe the data on a mobile device if it has been lost or stolen or the owner has left the company.

Finally, you should probably consider if it makes sense to integrate Cloud Storage with your current infrastructure or leave it separate. Are you already invested into Google Apps? Do you already use Microsoft’s Active Directory, SharePoint or Office 365? Or do your users prefer Dropbox or Box ease of use?

The Big Question You Need to Answer

I think the biggest question you need to answer when you select a cloud storage service is -- can you see what employees are storing within it? It’s a great idea to give your employees the ability to work anytime, anywhere, but you need to combine that with the ability to know what information they are carrying around with them.

This is not about trust, it’s about common sense. Your information is your strategic asset -- you have to take control of it, you have to know who has access to it and what they are using it for. If your choice of cloud storage services can’t provide that on some level, or if you can’t find a third party tool that can, then you are putting yourself at risk. That’s not smart business. Pick your service wisely -- the cost of use goes beyond your operational pocketbook.