file sharing, sharepoint, dropbox, google drive
A battle is being silently waged between IT personnel and business users over the way important business documents get shared at work. 

On one side, 200 million business users have voted to use Dropbox, a simple but inherently unsecure solution. On the other side, 135 million enterprise user ballots have been cast by corporate IT for Microsoft SharePoint, a hard(er) to use but secure solution.

Truth be told, the battlefield is even bigger, since these are just the biggest companies on each side. In fact, according to a recent Forrester Research report, there are “as many as 30 or 40 vendors offering file sync and share capabilities as part of their application or document collaboration or mobile management solution.” 

So who is right? Workers who opt for convenience and ease of use, or IT who opts for security and governance at the cost of usability?

The answer is depends. In the previously-mentioned Forrester report, analysts Ted Schadler and Rob Koplowitz point out that there is “an astounding breadth of document collaboration scenarios,” and no one solution fits all needs. And there is no shortage of reports that survey this rapidly-changing market landscape and present a dizzying array of recommendations. But at the end of the day, it really comes down to a small number of basic factors.

This article summarizes the main considerations you need to weigh before making an informed decision. For a more detailed investigation, I urge you to read the Forrester report entitled, “Forrester Wave: File Sync and Share Platforms Q3 2013,” as well as the recent Gartner Research report entitled, “IT Market Clock for Enterprise Mobility, 2013” by analysts Monica Basso and Bryan Taylor. Both reports contain comprehensive surveys of the current market landscape and offer concrete recommendations.

What You Need to Consider

The first thing you need to know is that there is no single product or service that fulfills all document sharing and collaboration requirements. Rather, you need to consider a number of factors before deciding what is right for your organization. Here are the main factors you should consider:

Universal Access

Does the service allow you to share documents from all the devices from which you access and share documents, specifically -- the desktop, smartphones, tablets, and the cloud? Dropbox and Google Docs provide universal access via an extremely simple user interface; SharePoint comes up short here -- while ‘accessible’ on all platforms, it is only via a complex web interface, deemed hard to use by business users. Good native interfaces are sorely lacking. Good third-party solutions can fill in the gaps here, but they need to be added on top of SharePoint.


Does the solution provide password protection, encryption, remote wipe, document access control, containerization, tracking and reporting, and centralized provisioning for setting up document storage and access rights? ‘Free’ services like Dropbox and Google Docs typically do not. So these service need to be augmented with a variety of overlays to make them secure. However, asking IT to configure and manage these overlays is anathema to end users who want simple, ‘hands-off’ document storage and sharing. Because once you get IT involved, these solutions lose their luster. SharePoint of course provides much of this out of the box, specifically for the desktop and web. For mobile devices, you will need to add capabilities like MDM and a third-party SharePoint app to get a secure and practical solution for SharePoint, but these are probably already part of your mobile strategy.

On-premise/cloud storage

Does the service store documents in a public cloud, private cloud, or on corporate servers under the control of central IT? This is a complex issue that depends a lot on legal requirements, the particular industry, corporate culture, and plain downright pragmatism. Dropbox and Google Docs are strictly cloud-based, while SharePoint offers the flexibility to be either; cloud or on premises, including mixed ‘hybrid’ models. For many organizations, a hybrid model that provides important flexibility and future-proofing should at least be explored.

With whom are you sharing documents?

Are you sharing documents with people outside your organization, like partners, suppliers, and customers? These folks almost certainly do not reside in enterprise identity registries that are used to control access to corporate documents. So sending them links via Dropbox is a simple and easy way to share documents without having to add them to an identity registry. On the other hand, when you share documents with co-workers, you are probably already set up to do so securely in SharePoint. In this case, storage and sharing sites have already been configured and document access control has already been defined. So sharing documents with these folks via SharePoint can done securely without any extra work…or cost.

Ease of use / Simplicity

How easy is it to use the service? Does it require training? Do you have to configure each one of your devices to be able to share documents? Dropbox, Google Docs, and their clones win this one hands-down. These solutions are drop-dead easy to use; you can easily store, sync and share documents, even large ones with anyone…even with people who don’t subscribe to the service. What can be easier than clicking on a link and gaining access to an important document, without having to consider where it is stored or how it got to me? Of course, the flip side of this is data leakage, so read on.

Data leakage

SharePoint wins this one easily. Dropbox and its consumer-grade cousins are document sieves when it comes to data leakage. Data can leak in many ways; unsecured links shared with the unintended recipients, unsecured storage, unencrypted documents left on devices that are lost or stolen, and documents intercepted in transit; these are some of the most common ways through which documents are compromised. And repercussions from compromised documents can be significant. The previously-mentioned industry survey found that over a quarter (27%) of people who shared documents via unapproved sharing services experienced negative consequences, from lost business to law suits, to costly financial penalties.


Figuring out the total cost of a service is tricky and you will need to dig a bit to calculate this carefully. Consumer services like Dropbox and Google Docs may appear to be free or nearly so, but here are two things to consider. First of all, in order to be minimally-acceptable for enterprise use, you will need to add some sort of encryption and mobile security. Secondly, if you have already invested in a secure enterprise solution, like SharePoint, any investment in an additional service is wasted money…to say nothing about the overhead associated with managing two parallel document repositories.

Integration with Backend systems

Dropbox and Google Docs maintain their own cloud repository, so going down this road means having to somehow reconcile two parallel data repositories, the approved enterprise one (SharePoint) and the public cloud repository. Trying to find documents in one repository is hard enough; spreading documents across multiple repositories creates chaos whose impact affects an organization’s ability to protect itself in the face of audit, litigation, and compliance requirements, to say nothing of everyday productivity.

Collaboration capabilities

While many folks today turn to document storage and sharing services for the convenience of sending documents or files, workers will increasingly expect to use these service to collaborate on documents as well. So make sure the service you select either supports or plans to support document versioning, document tracking, and the ability to reach out to collaboration partners directly from documents via email, IM, unified communication, or telephone.


Make sure the service you choose lets you accurately categorize a document using metadata, before tossing it into the document repository. Otherwise, once it is stored, it will disappear into the document black hole forever. And the more documents you store or share, the more critical it becomes to categorize them carefully. SharePoint supplies a rich and robust set of tools for not only categorizing documents, but for also finding them later on (i.e. search). On the other hand, if you are sharing temporary documents, for example price quotes from potential suppliers, you probably don’t care about finding them later. In this case, ‘free’ cloud services might be the right choice.

What Should You Do?

While there are many factors to consider, there are some simple guidelines you can follow to make the right choice for your organization. Focus on the most important factors for your organization, and evaluate the capabilities provided by each contender. With a few steps you should be able to narrow down the choices to a few top candidates. But before starting that exercise, here are some practical guidelines to make your decision process easier:

Don’t try to stomp out consumer-grade services completely

If you think it can be done, then listen to this. At a recent meeting with a senior executive from one of the world’s largest banks, a subordinate let slip that documents were being shared internally using Dropbox. The executive went ballistic and vowed to ‘fire whoever is doing this,’ but in actuality, it was impossible to track these folks down. The previously-mentioned industry survey found that 41% of workers admitted to using unapproved document storage/sync services even though almost everyone (87%) knew it was against company policies to do so. Turning well-intentioned workers into outlaws clearly isn't the way to go. doesn't work.

Approve cloud services for non-secure, external, and temporary document sharing

Cloud services are particularly-well suited for scenarios where documents do not need to be retained, when documents are being shared with outside parties, and when the sensitivity to document leakage is low. Whatever you do, avoid creating two data stores; when necessary, make sure the cloud service of choice provides robust APIs for SharePoint integration, so that you create only “one version of the truth.”

Provide easy to use tools for SharePoint

For enterprise-grade document sharing, the best way to minimize document sharing meltdowns is by providing easy-to-use SharePoint access. That way, workers won’t feel compelled to go outside the bounds of IT to search for alternative solutions. For many organizations, a consumer-like SharePoint experience will obviate the need for external document-sharing cloud services altogether, thus reducing risk while saving money.

Create simple guidelines for workers

Probably the most constructive advice is to make it easy for workers to do the right thing. Develop, and then present clear instructions to workers so they don’t have to go outside the bounds of IT to get their job done. Be proactive by providing easy to use SharePoint for most applications, and approve specific cloud services for other document sharing needs.

Editor's Note: Looking for more from David? Check out The Changing Role of IT in a Technology World Full of Choice