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Tips for buying cloud-based services

Not all cloud-based services are created equal. If you're shopping around for file sharing and storage tools, prioritize the features you need.

Increasingly, people use cloud-based services to store and share files. They create documents on their desktops, sync them to laptops, view them on smartphones and open them on tablets. They share documents with other users. They retrieve previous versions that have been automatically archived. They can access files from nearly any device at any time. They need only an Internet connection, and the service does the rest.

According to a 2012 study conducted by Gartner Inc., by 2016, consumers will store more than a third of their digital content in the cloud, up 36% from 2011. Companies will continue to see these services seep into the workplace, along with consumer expectations that these services should be available.

Yet cloud-based services can leave IT scrambling to protect sensitive corporate data. Most services entering the workplace were designed with consumers, not IT, in mind. But rather than reject cloud services outright, many organizations need to control employees' use of the cloud. But before an organization signs on the dotted line, it should consider features such as services support and which features meet its needs.

Features and functionality of cloud-based services

Dropbox has set the standard for cloud services. It's quick to set up and easy to use. Other services have taken this cue and done the same with their products, which can make it difficult to distinguish the best product for your company. But there are other factors to consider, including compliance and storage capacity, as well as management security and collaboration and cost.

Storage capacity. A file-storage and sharing service is first and foremost about providing an environment to host files. A service provider offers space in its data centers to store documents, spreadsheets, images, videos and other file types, along with the tools necessary to manage those files. The amount of space, however, can vary widely from one service to the next and is tied to the plans each service offers.

Egnyte Inc., for example, supports three service plans: Office, Business and Enterprise. The Office plan provides each user with 1 terabyte of storage, the Business plan with 2 TB and the Enterprise plan with 3 TB. Compare this with Citrix Systems Inc.'s Citrix ShareFile Professional plan, which provides only 10 gigabytes of storage per user, or its Corporate plan, which bumps the storage capacity up to only 20 GB. On the other hand, SugarSync Inc.'s Pro plan offers 1 TB of storage, and Box's Business plan supports nearly that amount.

Collaboration capabilities. One reason that organizations turn to cloud-based services for document management needs is to let users easily share files for collaboration. With Dropbox for Teams, for example, your team can set up a shared folder to keep everyone's work in sync. Users can also easily create links to any document or folder they want to share outside the team.

In contrast to Dropbox, Egnyte lets users create shared, permission-based folders that correspond to clients, projects or departments, permitting internal and external users to securely access folders from anywhere.

In fact, most service providers offer some file-sharing capability. Some cloud-based services, however, take these capabilities further. Google Drive, for instance, comes with Google apps, which let users create and edit documents, spreadsheets and slides in an integrated online environment so that the entire team can work on documents together.

Microsoft SkyDrive comes free with Office Web Apps. Not only do you have access to the online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, but the documents you create in SkyDrive are also compatible with your local copy of Office. This allows workers to do more than just share files.

Cost. In terms of cost, no two cloud-based services are the same. Each one offers several plans with prices that vary depending on the features that are included in those plans. For instance, Egnyte's Office plan supports five to 24 users at a cost of $8 per user per month. Its Business plan, however, supports 25 to 100 users at a cost of $15 per user per month, and the Enterprise plan supports an unlimited number of employees, although Egnyte doesn't publish this plan's price.

In addition, with the Business plan, your maximum file size increases from 2.5 GB to 5 GB and includes Outlook integration. The Enterprise plan pushes the file size limit to 10 GB and supports numerous other tools, such as Active Directory integration, audit reporting and customer branding.

For most service plans, you'll find that as the costs increase, so does the number of features. Citrix's ShareFile, for example, offers a Professional plan for $59.95 a month for 10 user accounts, but it also has a Corporate plan for $99.95 per month, which supports 20 user accounts.

In addition, the Corporate plan has Enterprise Sync, which lets you sync multiple ShareFile accounts and specify a syncing schedule. In contrast, Dropbox for Business is the only plan offered by the company that targets business. The plan starts at $750 per year for one user and increases for each additional user.

Compared with the basic plan, the Dropbox for Business plan also includes additional security settings, live support by phone or email, and tools to manage team members, integrate with Active Directory and generate team activity reports.

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