This content is part of the Essential Guide: The ultimate guide to cloud-based file sharing

Where business file sharing and email meet

When files are too big to share via a corporate email account, users turn to personal email. To support big attachments, email and cloud have merged.

Business file sharing was once limited to the exclusive domain of on-premises servers and appliances. But free and low-cost consumer cloud storage options now abound, and they are beginning to integrate with email to make file sharing easier than ever.

Cloud storage makes it very easy for business users to share files with a simple link in an email. Users were long baffled by the arcane set of rules and folder structures imposed and enforced by IT, so many created their own workarounds, emailing files back and forth between the parties to share them. When IT fought back, limiting attachment sizes, prohibiting certain file types, inspecting/quarantining mail content and imposing mailbox quotas, some workers retaliated. Bypassing the corporate email systems, using Gmail and other services with fewer restrictions, larger email boxes and generous attachment allowances put business file sharing back on users' terms.

Recently the worlds of email and cloud storage/file sharing have become intertwined in a curious way. Google, one of the largest email service providers, also offers online storage with Google Drive and has married Drive and Gmail. When a user attaches a file bigger than 25 MB (and as large as 10 GB), Gmail automatically prompts the user to upload the file to Google Drive. Gmail then embeds a URL pointer to the file in the email instead of the file itself.

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Mozilla Thunderbird, the open source email client, has a similar feature called Filelink. Filelink is storage-provider agnostic, and users can choose to send files to YouSendit, Box or UbuntuOne. Citrix Systems' ShareFile has a Microsoft Outlook add-in that converts an email attachment into a URL that points to the file on the ShareFile service. Other cloud storage providers offer similar add-ins for Outlook.

For the end user, email provides an easy, effective way to do business file sharing. It happens without tapping the complexity of the corporate file server share or even using the folder-based clients of Dropbox, Microsoft SkyDrive and others. IT pros have long lamented that their email servers are de facto file servers for the masses -- a function the servers are clearly not designed to excel at -- and are understandably concerned that sensitive information could leak because cloud storage offers little in terms of safeguards.

A reexamination of the use case for the venerable file server is warranted. The file server is now clearly in danger of imminent extinction, and there are several reasons:

  1. File servers can be utterly inflexible in dealing with today's highly mobile worker. If a user wants access to share files with a coworker, he must install a virtual private network client, submit to an intrusive scan of his PC, and even then he can't share files with people not in his domain.
  2. Home PCs, Macs and mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones, often lack the capability to retrieve files from a private network file server. Files on these devices often aren't backed up or secured for the same reason.
  3. Project-based workers often do business file sharing with others -- contractors, vendors and other nonemployees -- ad hoc. Yesterday’s file server technology compels the IT department to referee permissions and access to the files in a painfully slow and costly manner.

Businesses can adapt to their workers' needs by providing the flexibility of a public cloud storage service such as Dropbox while still preserving the security of corporate files. There are cloud services available that get the best qualities of both. These services can store files in the public cloud highly encrypted with centralized administration for IT. They can also provide secure, controlled access to an array of devices and Web browser choices to access the files from anywhere, all without much of the cost and complexity of a traditional file server.

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