Dropbox for Teams: is it fit for business?

Jon Honeyball has grave doubts about deploying Dropbox for Teams in a business environment

Jon Honeyball
20 Mar 2013

Dropbox is one of those products that can get under your skin. Once you start using it in anger you’ll find its combination of "just enough power" coupled with an "invisible in daily use" UI is entirely compelling. It’s one of those rare products that just works.

But, of course, it isn’t the only game in town: after all the recent work and improvements, there’s much to like about Microsoft’s SkyDrive too. Not only does it give you cross-platform clients and a decent amount of free storage, but the online web application story is very strong too. The same can be said, plus or minus a few bits, about Google Drive, depending on how much of your life is spent inside Google’s world as opposed to Microsoft’s.

I’d seriously question the wisdom of deploying Dropbox for Teams in any less managed or less trusting team environment

Dropbox doesn’t try to offer any of these added gewgaws, concentrating instead on what it does well. It’s had hiccups, and no-one can deny the punishing times it went through following a nasty security breach and several licensing snafus in the past. Some maintain that its lack of user-created encryption means it shouldn’t be used for anything remotely confidential. I’d certainly prefer to be able to generate my own encryption keys and feed them into Dropbox’s client to ensure end-to-end encryption. I’d be happier still if I could use the excellent 1Password to help me do this. Maybe one day.

Having said all this positive stuff, I’ve just had a bump with Dropbox. First, I ran out of disk space, not in the cloud but on the local SSD in my iMac. For reasons that must have made sense at the time, I purchased this iMac with only 256GB of SSD storage – after all, it has two 12TB external drive arrays connected via Thunderbolt, so there was no need to buy any more internal storage, I thought. How wrong I was.

Getting Dropbox to act as the replication tool for 1Password is incredibly powerful, but it works on current versions of OS X only if your 1Password is held in a folder on the local OS drive – and that means Dropbox’s own storage has to be on the local OS drive too. Once you have 100GB or more of data in your Dropbox folder, this can become a real problem.

I’ve managed to clean up some space on the boot SSD by moving my music, film and TV library onto one of those RAID arrays and turning off the feature in iTunes that says "Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library". That keeps all iTunes files away from my boot SSD, but even that wasn’t enough. In desperation, I’ve had to give up using 1Password integration with Dropbox.

Fortunately, I’ve already set up a raft of 1Password secure logins for the sites I regularly use, so the rate of change in its store is now very low. This means it isn’t too much of a chore to manually copy the file around the place – or rather to manually drop it into a Dropbox folder occasionally and let it do the machine-to-machine replication. I have asked the vendors involved whether this feature will be sorted out soon, but all I see is finger-pointing between Dropbox, 1Password and Apple (which doesn’t even seem to want to reply).

Dropbox for Teams

That’s one glitch. Now for my other problem. Dropbox for Teams is the business version of the product. Instead of providing the 200GB of storage I had in my original account, the Teams version comes with 1TB of storage and up to five accounts. You can migrate your existing users and they magically join the team, bringing all their data with them. Obviously, their data stays private unless they want to share it.

Teams are controlled and managed via the Team button on the website. Here I can see the list of accounts, monitor how much storage each is consuming, and set up two-stage verification if necessary.

A critical part of sharing in a business environment is controlling who shares what with whom. When I saw what had been implemented, my jaw dropped and bounced three times off the floor. Basically, there’s very little difference between ordinary Dropbox and Dropbox for Teams as far as sharing goes. I’d hoped the Teams version would make it possible to lock down Dropbox to the whole team so that only team members could be added to a share, but no – you can share with anyone, regardless of whether they’re in your team or not.

I’d also hoped it would be possible to set different levels of permission on a share so that I could set up, say, a management group that is read/write and then have a sales force group that’s read-only. But no. You can’t create any such groups and you can’t even set different levels of access for different members. The only options are to "Kick out" an existing member or to "Make owner", which transfers your admin role to that user. That’s the lot. I’ve looked high and low for anything resembling a grown-up set of team management controls and they simply aren’t there. I’ve even waded through Dropbox’s webinars about the Teams version.

Worse still, I can’t enforce a no-onward-sharing ban across my team. There is, however, a checkbox for "Allow members to invite others", which could be catastrophic if I don’t actively manage each team. I might one day find a bunch of people in there who I hadn’t authorised but who had been invited by a team member. A team-wide administrative ban on onward sharing is surely a must-have requirement.

Finally, the "Invite more people" box lets me type in anyone’s name – even someone who isn’t in the team or isn’t on Dropbox. For example, I just invited one of my own email accounts to view a folder. I fired up a Windows 7 virtual machine that had no knowledge of me or Dropbox, went to a browser window and pasted in the URL from the received email invitation and, bingo, I had a view of the files.

I just can’t understand how Dropbox can be so naive about the security of its implementation for business teams. Perhaps it believes that all its users are going to be sharing is pictures of fluffy kittens and gurgling babies, but Dropbox for Teams isn’t a free-with-the-breakfast-cereal product – it costs $722 for five users with 1TB of space (call it £500). This isn’t a home-user product, this is software at a serious SoHo and small-business price point. The lack of businesslike controls, ones thought through from a proper business user perspective, is more than a little worrying.

A recent update did add some extra management features. These are an improvement, but still fall a long way short of what is necessary.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep using the product here because it fits our way of working so well and because I trust all of my team members: after all, each of them already has 24/7 access to the office and all its security doors. But I’d seriously question the wisdom of deploying Dropbox for Teams in any less managed or less trusting team environment. I’m sure there’s much that Dropbox can do to improve the product over time, but it has to show us a roadmap for such improvements and show it now.

At least Dropbox gave me a good giggle, though. I’ve just started uploading a lot of data, and its status box currently says "Uploading 414,319 files (724.4KB/sec, a long time left. Grab a Snickers)".

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