Dropbox Business review
It's the leader in online storage for a reason
Cloud storage and synchronisation provider Dropbox provides a single online storage space that can be mirrored to as many computers, tablets and phones as you need. Everything you save in the Dropbox folder on one PC is automatically backed up to the cloud and optionally copied to all the other devices you have associated with your Dropbox account.
While it started life as a consumer product, Dropbox was rapidly adopted by businesses that needed to share files quickly, securely and easily between team members and external colleagues, without the inconvenience of sending large attachments via email. Dropbox has been developing its team and business features over time, and the service now includes a wide range of administration features that mean you can control and monitor staff members' use of your business account.
Most importantly, Dropbox Business gives you unlimited storage capacity and version history. So, assuming your internet connection's up to it, everything from text files to video productions can be synced and shared, and there's no risk of accidental changes or deletions rendering a file permanently inaccessible.
It's worth noting that Dropbox's servers are located in the USA and that the company can't provide EU-based storage. Following the collapse of the EU-US Safe Harbor framework for international data protection, this means that any customer data stored on Dropbox is no longer covered under Directive 95/46/EC on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data.
While you can still use US-hosted cloud storage services such as Dropbox for most of your business's documents, all customer data should be kept on local servers or on EU-based hosted servers or storage services. Needless to say, financial data in general is also something that should not be kept on cloud services. It's best practice to keep both customer data and financial data on servers that you have full control of.
Update 23/12/2015 - Dropbox have announced plans 'to deploy infrastructure in Europe in the [sic] 2016 to store data'.
One of the main benefits of using Dropbox Business is that there's a good chance that your staff will already know how it works, thanks to the popularity of the free consumer version. From a user perspective, the Business version is almost identical. Once you've assigned an account to a user, they'll be sent an email that'll direct them to Dropbox where they can set up a password and immediately access their workspace.
A particularly interesting feature of Dropbox Business is that - by default - your users can link their personal accounts to their business login. They're even rewarded with an extra 3GB of storage for as long as they keep their personal and business accounts connected.
Both accounts appear as discrete and clearly labelled tabs in the Dropbox web interface. When users install the desktop version, they're asked if they want to add their personal account there, too, and if so, two entirely separate and again clearly marked Dropbox folders are created and added to the left-hand bar of the Windows File Explorer.
While this might not seem particularly important, having access to both accounts simultaneously means that there's less chance that users will accidentally upload vital business documents to their personal space or keep personal files in their business space. This promotes security as well as helping to prevent your administrators from inadvertently invading their colleagues' privacy.
Using Dropbox on the desktop is just like using any other folder. You can save and copy files to it, and they'll be automatically synchronised with the user's online storage. Dropbox integrates with the File Explorer right-click menu so you can quickly share a link to a Dropbox-stored file, view the file on Dropbox, view previous versions and view comments on the file. All of these options open a web browser and take you to the main Dropbox site.
Desktop to Web
There are no limits to the number of versions that can be stored. Meanwhile, if you select a file such as a DOCX, JPEG or PDF in Dropbox's web interface, you'll be shown a preview of the file, as well as a commenting interface to help collaborate with colleagues - you can even address comments to specific users.
There's a button to open a file using appropriate software installed on your PC, while the Share button lets you generate a URL or send out emails to share the file with selected recipients. Advanced permissions let you set the file to be accessed only by people on the same Dropbox Business account, add a password or give it an expiration date.
The main web interface looks very much like the consumer version of Dropbox, with a couple of extra folders and features. Logged in users can see their top-level file and folder list occupying the main pane in their browser, with icons above that allow them to create folders, see deleted files and upload content directly - something they can also do by dragging a file from their desktop to the web interface. A right-click menu makes it easy to quickly share, delete, rename and move files.
On the left, a list of tabs makes it easy to navigate between your personal and work folders and view recent files. Further down, a Team page shows you a list of your colleagues' accounts and lets you invite others and create groups of users, which make it easy to share a file or folder with lots of people at once.
Links simply lists everything you've created links for and lets you share and revoke them, while Sharing lists all your shared folders. Events shows you a timeline of your account activities, and Deleted files lets you view and restore files you've deleted.
One of Dropbox Business's most interesting features is the File request option, which lets you generate a link or send an email to selected addresses asking for files to be uploaded by a specified date. This is ideal for requesting reports from colleagues and quotes from contractors. The people you request files from don't need a Dropbox account of their own to upload anything and won't be able to see each others' uploads. You can even allow late uploads, which can be stored in a separate subfolder.
File requests let you invite anyone to securely upload requested files and can be configured to handle both deadlines and late submissions
If you're in the beta for Dropbox's Paper collaborative note-taking tool, a link to this also appears in the navigation bar on the left. If you're not in the beta, the paper icon just takes you to a sign-up page. There's also a Pictures shortcut that shows all the images in your personal Dropbox account, but not your business one, which seems a little pointless in a business context.
It's worth bearing in mind that the contents of each user's folder are only visible to them. Admins can create Team Folders that will appear in everyone's Dropbox automatically, while users can create and share folders with colleagues and groups. We'd have liked a clearly marked default folder that's automatically shared between the entire business, as some of our users, who were new to Dropbox, initially thought that all content they'd uploaded would be available to everyone by default. However, this an issue common to many file sharing services.
Mobile apps are available for Android, Blackberry and iOS devices, giving your staff access to their data, no matter where they are. Mobile users can make specific files available offline, so they don't need to be without their files just because they can't get any mobile reception where they are. As with the consumer version, Dropbox can automatically back up photos and screenshots taken on a mobile device, and the apps' interface is excellent.
Administration and Security
The key difference between the Business and consumer versions of Dropbox are the administration and team working features provided by Dropbox Business. As the administrator of a business account, you can add users and control what permissions they have. For example, you can assign support or team management admin status to trusted team members so they can add and remove users, reset missing passwords and carry out other tasks to help their fellow team members.
An admin dashboard lets you view how different members are using their accounts and control general account settings. If security is key, you can enforce two-factor authentication using Google Authenticator, so users will have to generate a code on their phone when they log in, as well as using their password.
Other admin options allow you to enable Single Sign-On via ActiveDirectory or another SSO system, disable the ability of team members to permanently delete files and folders, and prevent them from having more than one Dropbox account configured on a single desktop PC. Sharing settings can be tweaked to prevent people on your team from sharing folders or links outside your business group, or disabling features such as the ability to comment or create file requests.
Admins can create team folders, which can be seen and modified by all of your users. All users can, unless you disable the feature, create Groups of colleagues to make it easier for them to share appropriate documents with others working on the same project.
Dropbox Business is well equipped to deal with departing staff members. When you delete a user's account, you can have their files transferred to another team member and wipe them from the user's devices next time they connect. Once an account has been removed, its licence can be reassigned to someone else. You can also unlink a device from a user's account, preventing their files from being accessed from it unless they log in, which can help prevent corporate data from being accessed from a lost or stolen phone or computer.
Dropbox can be integrated with a wide range of third-party software and services, from Microsoft Office 365 to Vimeo. There's a comprehensive API and development kits for multiple platforms, allowing you to add Dropbox support to your own apps. Large businesses can opt for Dropbox Enterprise, its price quoted per customer, which provides additional development support for integrating Dropbox with your own applications, user training and domain management options.
A number of features are currently in early access (essentially public beta), so you'll have to enable them individually for your account. These include the ability for admins to log in as a user and to suspend a user's account without deleting it, which could help manage departing staff or in worst-case scenarios where a user's account may have been compromised.
You can also give your users the ability annotate preview files, allowing users to comment on a specific section of a document by drawing a box to highlight the section they're talking about. This is far more versatile than the default comment bar, but we'd have liked the ability to highlight specific areas of text where appropriate, rather than just draw a box.
Another option lets users see and request access to user groups within your Dropbox Business team, so rather than waiting to be invited, they can request access to relevant project team folders. There's even a new option that lets you add your corporate logo to shared links.
Dropbox Business costs £11 per user, per month, with a minimum of five users, so you'll be paying £55 per month at entry level, or £110 per user annually for a total of £550. Although it's a little more expensive than many rivals, Dropbox Business does storage very well. We particularly liked the annotation feature that lets users highlight specific areas of an image or document preview, the file request feature and the excellent admin interface.
Unlike SpiderOak Groups, which costs around £60 per month for ten users, Dropbox Business doesn't give you "zero-knowledge encryption" - the promise that only you will ever know the master password for your account. On the other hand, Dropbox's app and cross-platform support are simply outstanding. Its mobile and desktop interfaces couldn't be simpler and, once set up, it requires minimal configuration from either users or administrators.
Dropbox Business's strongest rival is Google's more feature-packed Apps for Work system. At the £6.60 tier, Google Apps for Work Unlimited gives businesses with five or more users unlimited storage (1TB per user if you have four or fewer licences), which comes to a minimum fee of just £33 per month. Google even provides similar - albeit not quite as smoothly implemented - multi-account handling for users' private and business accounts. However, Dropbox's lack of extraneous features could avoid confusion for users if you just want storage, and don't need any of the extra features that Google Apps for Work provides.
Unlimited business cloud storage with excellent user administration.
This review was originally published on 14/12/2015 and since been updated, most recently on 23/12/2015
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