The Challenge of Scale Part 6 - Cloud File Sharing

  • 14-Jan-2013

In the latest in in our series on scalability for large enterprises, we take a close look at cloud-based file-sharing.

A key characteristic of anything "cloud" is elasticity and scalability. Technically, those two terms mean different things (that's another post), but often they're used interchangeably.  In any case, for many enterprise customers, it gives the impression that with employing cloud-based applications, scaling up no longer becomes a problem.

Wrong.

Specifically in the context of cloud-based file sharing services, customers often tell us that these tools start experiencing problems as use cases evolve from simple, departmental level file-sharing to more diversified, enterprise-level file-sharing.  So in this installment, I'll explore some of the challenges you'll encounter, and how to address them. (For the inside scoop on individual vendors, consult our evaluation research.)

File Handling

The key functionality of these tools is file sharing, yet ironically that's where many problems start cropping up as you scale. The first issue is that of file size. Many tools have limits on the maximum file size you can upload and share. In some cases, there are browser and technology limitations; certain tools mitigate those by providing alternate upload mechanisms. However, in many cases, it is possible that the tool is simply just not architected to handle large file sizes. These days it's not uncommon to share files heavier than a couple of GBs, so make sure that vendor limits do not constrain you in the foreseeable future.

Even if the vendor boasts a generous file size limit, you should  make sure that there are no performance implications when you actually upload files that are closer to the limits they set.

Performance issues can also crop up when working with large numbers of files, as well as when uploading files in bulk. In short, look at these four test cases:

  • large individual file sizes
  • sizable number of files
  • large number of big files
  • uploading bulk files

In particular, consider these challenges when syncing across multiple devices.

Folder Structure and Workspace Configuration

Most file-sharing platforms mimic your desktop folder structure. Unfortunately, while most desktop operating systems are mature and optimized to handle complex folder hierarchies, most cloud tools are not. They can start having performance problems as the number of folders that you sync increases. .

Finally, many tools can only sync a single root folder from your desktop. That essentially means you have to copy over all your files to that specific folder before they can be synced. This leads to duplicate files as well as a duplicate folder hierarchy, besides having usability issues.

Integration Challenges

In many cases, organizations start off with files-sharing tools for really simple use cases, sometimes without involving IT. As usage expands -- or other requirements such as compliance come into picture -- you realize that more and more content requires more sophisticated information management. This means archival, records management, better library services and so forth. And that usually means integration with other cloud or on-premise applications.

While many cloud platforms provide some interfaces, most of them are remain very basic and some larger enterprises have seen some significant integration bottlenecks here.

We recommend that you involve IT while evaluating these tools and don't ignore the need for proper, well documented APIs.

Administration and User Management

All the cloud platforms we evaluate provide a forms-based interface for adding users. However, not all of them let you add multiple users using a batch process or file upload -- obviously useful for larger enterprises.

Similarly, while some platforms allow you to group users, there's not much more granularity in what permissions you can give the. This becomes a big deal if you have to support large number of users and frequently need to give specific permissions to different sets of people.

File-sharing platforms also differ with respect to how seamlessly you can create users, associate them to folders, add them to groups, and change their permissions. Some tools expect you to do all these functions one-by-one, using different screens; others provide a wizard-based interface. Ensure that the tool you select meets your usability requirements.

Tools also vary in the number and type of permissions you can give to your users. For more on this, consult our research.

Remember that as the complexity increases, you are certainly going to need a much more flexible and granular administration mechanism.

Mobile Support

Mobile support is a key feature here, and in fact sometimes drives cloud adoption. However, many file-sharing platforms support only specific device types. (Our research details which vendors truly cover which devices.)  Therefore, a key question becomes whether the vendor should provide mobile applications for only a few devices or for a broad selection of devices so you can target a diverse mobile user base as you scale up.

What You Should Do

Remember that uploading and sharing a picture taken by your mobile phone is very different from sharing a zip archive of all the digital assets for your next enterprise re-branding. Cloud file-sharing services do a good job of supporting simple use cases, but you ignore potential scaling challenges at your peril. Involve your IT teams in solution identification, and carry out a proper evaluation of these tools before you sign up.

Let us know if our research can help.