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10/31/2011
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Accellion Pushes SharePoint-Friendly File Sharing

While cloud startups like Box joust with Microsoft, Accellion makes a case for SharePoint compatibility for file sharing and on-premises options.

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Sometimes it's hard to be a grownup in Silicon Valley.

The week of the Box user conference in late September, as co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie strutted the stage making wisecracks about Box's superiority over SharePoint, Accellion founder and CEO Yorgen Edholm and chief marketing officer Paula Skokowski were watching the webcast and groaning.

"Oh, she was in a foul mood," Edholm said. Like Box, Accellion is in the business of secure file sharing and transfer. But having been founded in 1999, it's less of a shiny new thing.

Having previously co-founded the business intelligence software firm Brio and served on the board of Hyperion prior to its acquisition by Oracle, Edholm is positively ancient compared with Levie, who came up with the idea for Box as a business school exercise and dropped out of school to start the company in 2006. "It does seem so much is written about the youth of the founder," Edholm said.

Skokowski loyally notes that her CEO "graduated from college not once, but twice." Edholm earned an MBA from the Stockholm School of Economics and a Masters in engineering physics from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Accellion built its reputation on file transfer appliances that provide an alternative to the Internet's basic file transfer protocol (FTP). Accellion has since built more collaboration products around that base.

[Can third parties like Neudesic and NewsGator drag Microsoft's entrenched collaboration system into the era of Facebook and Twitter? Learn How To Make SharePoint More Social.]

Where Box is a pure-play cloud computing startup, Accellion offers its products as cloud services but also packages them as virtual appliances for VMware, XenServer, and Hyper-V, and physical server appliances. For enterprises, "a public cloud-only solution is a nonstarter--it's got to be at least a hybrid," Skokowski said.

Box's positioning as the cure for SharePoint is also contrary to Accellion's more Microsoft-friendly approach, which includes plug-ins for SharePoint, Outlook, and Microsoft's unified communications suite. Accellion also offers a plug-in for Autonomy iManage WorkSite, an integration aimed primarily at legal applications. Because about 90% of large organizations use SharePoint for collaboration, a file sharing system that doesn't integrate with it isn't a complete solution, Skokowski argued.

At the same time, SharePoint alone is typically configured for internal use only, and Accellion extends it to allow file sharing outside the firewall. In this scenario, the Accellion appliance is deployed on the periphery of the corporate network--still on premises, but able to reach outside of the firewall. Accellion also offers a mobile client for devices such as the iPad. The system is often used for purposes such as sharing large graphics files between advertising agencies and their clients. "All the major advertising firms are on board with us, many of them for over five years," Skokowski said.

Edholm said about 20 to 25% of customers sign up for the company's public cloud service, which he agrees is an important option. Like many cloud application companies, Accellion resells data center capacity from Amazon as part of its cloud service. Box has built its own data center operation, reflecting its more singleminded commitment to the cloud. According to Levie, Box uses Amazon Web Services for some peripheral purposes, but not to store customer files. And whether because of or despite the purity of its cloud vision, Box has won over some major corporate customers, such as Proctor & Gamble. Then again, Accellion also claims P&G as a customer.

Rey Mirabal, a network systems engineer at the oil and gas exploration firm Cimarex Energy, said he values Accellion for providing a "practical, secure way of transferring files over the public network" that is much simpler than working with secure FTP servers. The first instances were set up about five years ago for purposes such as secure sharing of data with investors. More recently, staff geologists began using Accellion collaboration to share scientific data with interns who access it from their universities.

Mirabal said he originally tried supporting the university collaboration application with an instance of SharePoint on which he provided accounts for students, but that proved cumbersome and also expensive, because of Microsoft licensing fees. In this case, Accellion was an alternative to a SharePoint, rather than an extension to it. With the Accellion collaboration solution, Mirabal was able to make the geologists on the project administrators of their own private workspaces, allowing them to create accounts for university collaborators as needed. "I gave them the tools and utilities they needed to make it happen on their own," he said.

In addition to reducing the administrative burden, this solution was 20 to 30% less expensive than paying for additional SharePoint licenses, making it "a no brainer to go with this," Miribal said.

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