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The poisoned chalice of #EFSS and cloud shared drives

September 23, 2017 Leave a comment

(Original article on LinkedIn June 29, 2017)

Box can do what network shares do” claims a recent email campaign for Box Drive.

Noooooo!!!!!!” echoes the collective scream of #ECM and #InformationGovernance practitioners, who have been trying to wean users away from the nightmare of network shares, for the last 25 years.

Just to be clear, my warning is not specifically about Box. Take Box Drive, Google Drive, OneDrive, DropBox, or any of the recent offerings that define the EFSS market.

The idea of replicating the functionality of shared network drives in a cloud environment is a really, really bad idea.

It propagates silos, lack of organisation, lack of governance standards, lack of consistency, lack of security and, ultimately, loss of control and accountability.

It’s not a technology issue. I know that Box Drive, for example, can offer much richer security and better document management capabilities than standard network shares.

But the users don’t.

And advertising these capabilities as a “better network share” which “allows them to use the same workflows they use today”, reinforces all the bad behaviours that we have been trying to eradicate all these years.

I get it: It makes sense to move your unstructured content from your expensive on-premises storage disks to a managed, scalable, and significantly cheaper cloud alternative, where you don’t have to think about backups and disaster recovery, and rack space, and air-conditioning, data-centre managers with night shifts, system upgrades, etc. I understand all that.

But taking your existing content mess and moving it wholesale to the cloud, is not the right answer. It may be quick and easy, but that doesn’t make it right. You are just delaying the inevitable. If you do want to move your content to the cloud, think VERY carefully about what you are doing and why you are doing it:

  • How do you assess what content you actually have and what risk it carries?
  • What needs to be preserved and what needs to be thrown away?
  • Who needs access and how will you protect and monitor security and privacy?
  • What do you need to encrypt?
  • How are you going to organise and classify what you are keeping?
  • How will you avoid unnecessary duplication and understand whose version is the right one?
  • How will you teach your users to stop emailing 85MB PowerPoint files to each other for review?
  • How will you teach them to stop downloading GDPR sensitive information into spreadsheets and sharing them out with partners and third parties over email?
  • How will you ensure that when an employee leaves, his cloud drive does not become a black hole for critical business information?
  • How will you apply AI and Analytics across your whole corporate knowledge base, if it’s scattered across thousands of personal silos?
  • Etc., etc., etc.

The list is endless…

You can argue whether “ECM is dead” or if it should be called “Content Services” or “Intelligent Information”, or whatever. It will not make the problem go away. The reason ECM became a multi-billion software market, is because of companies realised the risks that network file-shares had created, and the need to add a layer of governance and control, classification, metadata, and automation, above the standard uncontrolled “file sharing” that the operating system offered.

Caveat Emptor – Buyer Beware!

Please don’t take us back 25 years by re-creating the same nightmare, taking one of the least disciplined Information Management practices, and replicating it to the cloud.

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When, not if, the EFSS market dies

Wrong WayUnless you have spent the last couple of years under a rock, you will have come across EFSS as the latest and greatest fad to hit the ECM and collaboration market. Discussions on EFSS abound, amongst the ECM and Social Collaboration blogs.

Analysts legitimised EFSS as a separate technology marketspace: Forrester published its The Forrester Wave™: File Sync And Share Platforms at the end of 2013, followed by Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Enterprise File Synchronisation and Sharing (EFSS) in July 2014. They define EFSS as products that allow secure file Synchronisation, Access and Sharing across diverse devices, and positions with vendors like Box, Citrix, EMC, IBM and Accellion as leaders, adding Microsoft, Dropbox, Google, Apple and others as challengers.

The EFSS market is already a dying market

Alas! All is not well in the state of Denmark: The EFSS market is not going to be with us for long, as a separate market segment. Don’t get me wrong, EFSS functionality has been around for years and will continue to be around for many more years to come. But its product transition from niche, to mainstream, to commodity will be very fast.

Secure sharing of files, small and large, has been around for ages in the form of the mature MFT (Managed File Transfer) market, which is used extensively by large financial organisations, Engineering firms, etc. On the flip side, on-line/off-line synchronisation of files across devices has also been around for a long time, used in both ECM and Collaboration platforms. What has changed, which brought EFSS to the fore, is that (a) SaaS and cloud have added an additional layer of accessibility and (b) companies like Box and Dropbox stepped in to fill a gap in the market by providing easily consumable, standalone products that consumers can buy without involving IT. Adopting a Freemium licensing model helped too.

Move forward a couple of years to today and numerous major vendors, across multiple technology sectors, offer EFSS products: IBM ECM, OpenText, VMware, Oracle, Microsoft, Salesforce.com, etc.  IBM alone, markets at least four different EFSS products, that I’m aware of:

I wouldn’t be surprised if there are even more, disguised and embedded into other platforms such as Asset Management.

And therein lies the problem. If all of these vendors, from different disciplines, are offering either embedded or explicit EFSS capabilities within their core product licensing, it means that the EFSS market is already commoditised. Enterprises will not invest in dedicated EFSS products or licenses, when they can have comparable functionality for free within their existing investments.

Interestingly Gartner’s own Hype Cycle for Digital Workplace Software, which was published in the same month as their MQ paper, positions EFSS already in the “Trough of Disillusionment” which creates an interesting contradiction. IDC in their Worldwide File Synchronization and Sharing 2014–2018 Forecast and 2013 Vendor Shares report also agree that EFSS is a rapidly commoditising market, although they predict that the market will continue to grow in revenue.

There’s another, perhaps even more important, reason why EFSS is not a sustainable market: As BYOD and platform-agnostic applications develop, the core principle behind EFSS – the need to share and move content transparently and securely – becomes too core and too essential to many different business functions. Companies cannot afford to have multiple and conflicting EFSS tools. EFSS does not lend itself to multiplicity – sooner or later CIOs will need to converge on a single common EFSS platform shared by all employees, otherwise it serves very little purpose, the relative cost of ownership becomes extravagant, and the security risk unmanageable. And that means that unified standards and common protocols for EFSS will prevail. I don’t know yet whose standards – that battle is yet to be fought – but a fearsome battle it will be.

Where next for EFSS?

My prediction is that within 2-3 years, the EFSS market will be completely subsumed into one or more other technology segments. If I was a gambling man (I’m not), my money would be on the Collaboration (aka Digital Workplace) platform becoming the natural “home” for EFSS functionality. At the end of the day, EFSS is primarily a catalyst for exchanging information within the organisation and with third parties. In other words, collaborating.

In an ideal world however, I personally would like to see EFSS become (together with most other collaboration platform features) a native feature of the Operating System’s file system, unified across different O/S platforms. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking!

What does that mean for independent EFSS vendors? They have a very short window of opportunity in which they will have to either transform into a bigger platform (e.g. become ECM or Collaboration vendors), get acquired and assimilated (into a bigger platform vendor, perhaps CRM) or get out (i.e. change technology focus). EFSS vendors without a 3-year exit strategy will just disappear. Today, pure play EFSS vendors enjoy an undeniably large marketshare. That’s because the product marketing teams of established B2B Enterprise Software vendors have been asleep and missed the consumer calling. These vendors are now paying attention, and the time is ticking. Watch this space…

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