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Enterprise File Sync and Share – It’s Not What You Think

When Gartner came out with its Magic Quadrant for Enterprise File Sync and Share (EFSS) back in July 2014 I laughed a little because I find the idea of an EFSS market, well, laughable. Yes, I know they put in a whole bunch of stuff about what could or should be part of the market, but boiled down, it seemed to me that EFSS per Gartner is little more than the old Microsoft Briefcase, i.e., a feature of a larger solution. Let’s face it; EFSS is little more than email and consumer grade cloud storage.


(The Gartner Magic Quadrant for Enterprise File Synchronization and Sharing is available from Gartner as well as from some of the mentioned vendors including Syncplicity, Box, Alfresco, and Citrix.

Note: For what it’s worth, OpenText should have been included in the MQ, based on Tempo Box. As for what’s coming up from OpenText, I look forward to seeing what OpenText Core is all about.)

If I were Box, EMC, Alfresco and most of the other vendors on the MQ I’d be more than a little irked. Most of the vendors have invested heavily– organically or via acquisitions (sometimes both) — to come up with some pretty cool and innovative solutions (not products) that allow people on both sides of the firewall to work together. These solutions allow organizations to impose various levels of automation, governance, and security to critical content. Being categorized as a File Sync and Share provider is frankly insulting. I find it insulting to the vendors as well as the customers.

Some of the vendors have been more successful than others, but I don’t think it’s germane to come up with a list of winners and losers, as the market (whatever its true name ought to be), is still fairly nascent. At most, we’ll be able to make some guesses as to which vendors will survive intact for the next few years and which won’t. Depending on the vendor’s original exit strategy, being acquired is a perfectly valid form of survival. Will success of the wrongly-labelled EFSS players be measured against the same metrics that are currently being used for the incumbent (some would say legacy) Enterprise Content Management (ECM) players? Why would I even bring this up? If you look at the MQ, some of the players are ECM incumbents (Microsoft, IBM, EMC, Alfresco), which is another reason why I find the EFSS market and associated MQ a bit of a giggle. In some cases the ECM incumbents are actually competing not only against the new entrants and upstarts, but they are competing against themselves. Just take a look at EMC and the situation with Syncplicity and Documentum. In other cases (Alfresco) you can’t have the EFSS unless you have the ECM.

For all practical purposes, some of the new players can provide solutions every bit as capable of meeting functional requirements as the incumbents, but with much better experiences. Sure, they’ll have to collaborate and form alliances with other vendors, but how is that any different than what’s going on today? For examples related to the EFFS vendors, look at the recent announcements regarding the Microsoft-Dropbox arrangement and Box’s Box Trust.

ECM currently has an advantage over the new players in ultra-regulated environments for certain business processes, such as new drug approvals and clinical trials. That, however, will change as the tools improve, as legislation changes, and as purchasing organizations recognize the FUD (fear/uncertainty/doubt) for what it really is. Where the new players are going to really shine is in ease of deployment and user experience; and user organizations won’t have to give up much except perhaps internal IT complexity.

I recently completed an ECM assessment for a Canadian university. They asked me to assess why Alfresco, their chosen ECM system, wasn’t as successful as they’d anticipated (it wasn’t Alfresco’s fault – please read You Are the Problem for some of the details). They asked me to recommend they either press on with Alfresco, or dump it and go with SharePoint. When I suggested instead using a cloud solution they were adamant that this was not what they wanted to do. The reason they gave was based entirely on FUD, the lack of understanding current day realities, and the lack of understanding of what their users (internal and external) want and need. So I included an appendix putting forward a solution based on one of the MQ’s upper right EFSS vendors. That vendor is perfectly capable of meeting the university’s requirements on all fronts. I didn’t offer up a cloud based alternative because Alfresco and SharePoint were unsuitable; instead, I brought it up because it was equally as capable of meeting the business and functional requirements, but with a better user experience and less internal IT burden.

As a consultant it’s my job to not only deliver what clients pay me to deliver, it’s also my job to educate them and to present alternatives that they may not necessarily be thinking about. In the case of the university, a cloud-based solution built on a platform provided by one of the vendors in the MQ is perfectly viable, despite my client’s prejudices. The university’s prejudice was based on a lack of understanding of current Canadian legislation and in not understanding how secure the right cloud content management platform could be. The final report with all three alternatives is currently in front of the client and we’ll have some decisions later by early February.

When it comes to Box and others in the (it ought to be renamed) EFSS market, we’re not far from the point where the EFSS vendors can kick the incumbent ECM vendors to the curb. These vendors have got some solid foundations in place and pretty decent roadmaps for the future. How the various players build on their foundations will depend on what they see as core strengths and where they see the most potential. Box is taking a platform approach, Dropbox is pinning its future on Microsoft and Huddle is focused on collaboration. The others have game plans that include features and functions, and deployment options.

I’m fairly certain all the players will find their fit, but it’s not going to be EFSS. That’s because EFSS is purely table stakes, as others have said. We’ll see fragmentation in the EFSS market within the next 12-24 months. I think we’re going to see increasingly more occasions where consultants put one of the (for now) EFSS players up as an alternative to ECM incumbents. What I’m really looking forward to seeing is when/if the ECM incumbents actually change their game, not just add features, to keep up with the times. I’m looking for a re-architecting of core products, not simply hosting big ECM in a data centre or a Syncplicity / Documentum type situation. I suspect we’re at least a couple years away from that happening; it’s going to take time for the legacy ECM vendors to embrace a mobile-first, user experience driven view of the world. That said, I also think the ECM vendors that get there may have a better handle on the reality of a hybrid world.

Closing Thoughts

There are going to be some EFSS vendors (e.g.: – not included in the Gartner MQ) that will be pure play EFSS vendors, and that’s cool for them and customers that want that level of functionality. However, for most of those mentioned in the MQ, the EFSS part of what they do is truly table stakes. If I look at Box, Alfresco, Microsoft, EMC, OpenText, etc. (I include them even though Gartner forgot to), what they really provide is part infrastructure and part platform. Labelling them as EFSS makes about as much sense as calling SAP’s products accounting software and lumping them in with Quicken.

It’s the infrastructure and platform pieces that set Box, Alfresco, Microsoft, EMC, OpenText, et al. apart from the true EFSS players like Accellion, Egnyte, and Citrix’s ShareFile. With the pure EFSS players what you get is what you get — that’s it. With the EFSS+ players (I just made that up) what you get is foundational. Then, what you do with that foundation is up to you, plus the potential will increase as the players mature. As much as organizations have built their information governance and management strategies around legacy ECM platforms, they’ll be able to do the same with EFSS+ platforms (e.g.: Box, Huddle, Microsoft) as “must-have” functionality like metadata management and workflow mature.

One of the names that’s been bandied about to replace EFSS is Enterprise Content Collaboration (ECC), which I don’t like very much. It’s not that ECC isn’t a legitimate thing, it’s that it’s not a standalone or particularly new market. If you look at offerings from legacy ECM vendors such as Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Alfresco, EMC, OpenText, etc., they’ve been doing collaboration for ages; even some ERM, CRM, and BPM vendors offer collaboration capabilities in some of their products (and don’t forget about Novell’s GroupWise). Including the words “enterprise” and “content” doesn’t change the capabilities or requirements one iota.

I don’t think there really is a new market here (EFSS or ECC). What’s new, and innovative, is how the synching, sharing, and collaborating is done. That we can collaborate on virtually any device, at any time, from anywhere is what’s truly new and innovative. As to where the various players fit – they belong in ECM, storage, security, and collaboration. The players named in the MQ aren’t creating a new space, they’re re-imagining and redefining spaces that already exist; it’s about time!

To listen to the podcast on this subject, click here:


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