If Bono Loves Dropbox, Shouldn't You?

'Bring your own cloud' is coming to an enterprise near you. It's time for CIOs to study their options.
If you're looking for one of those oh-so-subtle signs that a tech trend has gone from hot to hysterical, the arrival of Bono and the Edge on the scene is a pretty strong indicator.

That's where we're at with personal cloud storage, as the U2 rock stars this week invested in startup vendor Dropbox, which says it has more than 50 million users. Apple's pouring its ad money into promoting iCloud. Microsoft has Skydrive, and rumors of Google launching an online storage system have been circulating since about the time U2 played at Red Rocks.

IT needs to get excited about this trend. You're probably only a year into coming to grips with the "bring your own device" movement, addressing the serious security and compliance problems, but constant change is the new reality of business IT. Sometime in the not-so-distant-future, if not now, your employees will expect a "bring your own cloud" policy that mimics their consumer experience with such services. BYOC.

[ Want to know the "15 New Rules For IT To Live By"? Read about BYOC and more. ]

Personal cloud storage is as simple as it sounds: free online storage in the 2-GB to 5-GB range. While big tech vendors such as Apple and Microsoft are all over this trend, get to know Dropbox and its enterprise-focused (and unaffiliated) equivalent, Box.

Dropbox is the embodiment of the consumerization of IT. It makes saving files online mindlessly simple. Want to give a bunch of people access to your 12-MB PowerPoint presentation without crushing their inboxes? Save it to Dropbox and give them access. The only problem I've faced was I bumping up against transfer limits when I tried to upload an enormous file from my iPad containing video of an entire half of my daughter's soccer game.

Dropbox is a consumer-first service, but it has been working to make it more business friendly, adding a Dropbox Teams option that provides administrative controls and 1 TB of data priced at $795 for the first five users. It's mostly a small business service, but departments of large companies are using it for tasks like sharing large graphics with outside partners, says ChenLi Wang, the company's head of business development. If you're in a highly sensitive or regulated world like defense, banking, or healthcare, "our service as it stands today isn't a good fit," Wang acknowledges.

Box is the opposite of Dropbox. Box started with an enterprise vision for online personal storage. Yes, we're talking about young, venture-backed entrepreneurs creating a Web startup with enterprise IT in mind. It has raised $125 million in venture funding and has 400 employees, and "we focus most of our improvements on security and administrative controls," said Box CFO Dylan Smith at this week's Wells Fargo Tech Summit in San Francisco. The typical enterprise sale strategy is "land and expand," Smith said--start with something like a 200-seat pilot and hope it goes viral.

Smith said companies are using Box alongside collaboration tools such as Jive, Chatter, and Yammer, so that in addition to talking about what they're going to do they can share the PowerPoints or PDFs or other files they're discussing. Some have used it as a front end to existing content management systems, such as Microsoft Sharepoint. Smith said Box's next big investment will be in getting to true enterprise scale; Box has focused on supporting thousands of workers at a company, and now it will focus on supporting tens of thousands. Procter & Gamble has 18,000 users on Box, he said.

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Here's one rub for CIOs: From what I can tell, Box isn't going to replace something for you, at least not for awhile. It has a lot of potential to be a nifty productivity gainer, and one that makes IT hugely popular, but you know how hard it is to put ROI on productivity. It's looking like a net additional cost, at least near term.

But IT won't have much choice. Jerry Johnson, CIO of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, predicts that IT leaders who don't think public services such as Box meet their security or functional needs will have to replicate this kind of service, as people will insist on bringing their clouds--storage, apps--to work in exactly the same way they insisted on bringing their iPhones. "I envision we'll end up with a private Dropbox or iDrive or something that can also integrate with a public cloud in some way," Johnson says.

Jason Maynard, the Wells Fargo software industry analyst who hosted the firm's Tech Summit, made this point while talking on stage with Box's CFO: Just like photos are the fuel to personal social networks, big files are the fuel for modern collaboration systems. The output of knowledge workers is a PowerPoint, a PDF, a project management plan. Those are of no use until they're shared, so companies need to make that easy to do.

Mobile devices will increase that pressure: I want an easy way to move things I create on my PC to my smartphone or tablet, and to share huge files without exceeding corporate inbox limits (or resorting to using my Gmail account).

Delivering consumer IT services in a business environment isn't easy. IT teams have tried to replicate Facebook inside the enterprise, and the results have been disappointing. BYOD, on the other hand, has been an IT success--once IT embraced the challenge. The pressure to deliver on BYOC is coming fast.

To find out more about Chris Murphy, please visit his page.

Take part in an Interop Webcast, Prepare Your Infrastructure For The Cloud Using Open Standards, which will look at the new drivers influencing cloud infrastructure. It happens April 18.

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