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Dropbox for Teams: is it fit for business?

Posted on 20 Mar 2013 at 13:59

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

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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User comments

Full SSD

It is possible to only sync selected folders with Dropbox. They recently updated it so that the selective sync applies to all folders rather than just the root folders.

By tirons1 on 20 Mar 2013


how does Dropbox for teams compare to services like Podio or Sharefile?

By big_D on 21 Mar 2013

There's one thing not to like about Skydrive AT ALL

Which I didn't discover until I'd uploaded a lifetime of Office documents to it: It resets the file creation AND modification dates to the date of synchronisation. I suspect I'm not the only person in the world who looked at 365, thought 'yep, that works for me and my PC ridden family household', bought into the Skydrive that came with it gratis and moved all my docs (ie not media) into it.

No other cloud service deos this - and it will kill many people's working practice: There is no way to see how old a file is unless the content can tell you - and some of my office files are > 20 years old. If you don't have another copy - which fortunately I will have, sitting on the NAS somewhere - that key metadata is removed. Forever. Appalling.

See here:

(That's me, at the bottom)

It also doesn't do LAN sync. This is a big deficiency in a typical house with multiple machines and an ADSL connection - a big data addition can kill the internet connection for hours as all the machines catch up with it...

By timfg on 25 Mar 2013

Dropbox is great! it just works!

By iMaciNTech on 27 Mar 2013

Dropbox' local drive

I just yesterday installed dropbox on networked sdxc card:
1.) disconnect your network drive X:
2.) subst a drive or mount some temp local drive as drive X:
3.) install dropbox
4.) Unmount temp drive
5.) reconnect your original network share X:


By stasi47 on 1 Apr 2013

Lack of full text search is fatal

Google Drive has several corporate problems, like files belonging to employees, not the company. If you terminate a temp employee, all their files are gone.

But Google does an excellent search index in all your files, including non searchabe PDFs (the ones without OCR).

Dropbox only does file and directony name search. For this reason we will not use in our corporation.

So far tha best corporate solution is SkyDrive Pro, tha runs under Share
Point and cames with Office 365. It's more complicated to install and use.

By CosmosBR on 14 Apr 2013

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Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball

Jon is one of the UK's most respected IT journalists and a contributing editor to PC Pro since it launched in 1994. He specialises in Microsoft technologies, including client/server and office automation applications.

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