Dropbox: Lessons from the Field
We’ve compared Dropbox for Business to OneDrive for Business and SharePoint in past webinars, reviewing the service’s advertised specifications, coupled with insights into how nonprofit organizations work and what they value in a document sharing service. In this post I’ll cover Community IT Innovators’ lessons from the field – things we’ve learned, or learned are important, about Dropbox for Business – from actual implementations and client use.
We’ve found client satisfaction with Dropbox for Business to be quite strong once the service is operational and users have learned how to use it. The learning curve challenges are real, but our clients largely find the benefits of Dropbox for Business outweigh these challenges.
Plan ahead for folder sharing
One set of limitations we’ve discovered relates to folder sharing. Like most of the nonprofit world, we are used to the Microsoft approach to using and supporting file servers. Dropbox for Business is a little bit different:
- Get your root folders named right the first time. You can’t rename the root of a shared folder without unsharing it, renaming it and resharing it. And this is a big deal because unsharing and resharing means everyone who is sharing the folder has to resync the folder to their local Dropbox for Business folder.
- Permissions granularity is limited (Read/Write, Read-Only and No Access are your only choices). More surprisingly perhaps, permissions can’t be adjusted below the root folder you are sharing. So if you share a folder called Board of Directors with your entire board, its subfolder called Finance Committee also has to be shared to the entire board – you can’t limit access to that subfolder to just the finance committee.
- You can’t do multiple shares at different levels of a folder hierarchy. In the example above, if you’ve already shared the Finance Committee folder, you can’t share its parent folder Board of Directors until you unshare the Finance Committee folder.
These limitations mean advanced planning is required since there is less flexibility to make adjustments later than a Windows Server File Share would offer. But even with good planning, complex sharing situations where different folders are accessed by different sets of users will require lots of (perhaps too many?) shared root folders located in parallel to each other. Most of Community IT’s clients successfully using Dropbox for Business have relatively few “security groups.” If you have more complex needs for sharing and access, Dropbox for Business may not meet them.
Plan ahead for folder ownership
Another catch we’ve discovered related to folder planning concerns folder ownership. In Dropbox for Business, root level shared folder “ownership” is different than “admin permission.” The owner is the person who created the folder and shared it initially, and that might not be the organization’s Dropbox Administrator(s).
This only matters (but then matters a good deal) if you are unsharing and resharing a folder, perhaps to rename it – as described above. Even if you are an administrator, when you unshare a folder, you lose access to it completely since you aren’t the owner and it’s no longer shared (the owner will be the only one able to rename it and reshare it).
Working around browser limitations
Another set of challenges can be categorized as limitations of the Dropbox for Business web portal. Dropbox for Business is first and foremost a cloud document sync service, with the emphasis on sync. Quite a few activities really only work properly when you are acting on the local copy of the Dropbox for Business cloud synced to your computer’s hard drive (C: drive usually). The changes you make to the local copy of the files are then synced to the cloud copy (and those changes are then synced to the local copies of your colleagues who are also sharing the files).
- If there are many files or folders in a subfolder and you try to move it to a new location within your Dropbox for Business folder hierarchy, making the changes in the local synced copy will always work. Try it in the web portal interface (where you are interacting directly with the cloud copy) and Dropbox for Business may throw an error that the folder/file is too large.
- In the Dropbox for Business cloud portal, you have the option to edit a document in the Dropbox for Business Online (browser-based) editor, which has limitations. This sounds good and potentially provides for simultaneous co-editing, a feature Google Docs pioneered and one that is becoming a common nice-to-have option among cloud document sharing services. However, our clients’ experience of the Dropbox for Business Online Editor is that it intermittently chokes on Microsoft Office documents; it is unable to open them and gives an error message. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to when this happens and our clients have mostly given up on the Dropbox for Business Online Editor at this point.
- Note also that Dropbox for Business made a splash last year announcing that users would be able to open documents in the Dropbox for Business cloud portal using Office 365’s Word or Excel Online. This sounds good, but most of our clients who have chosen Dropbox for Business are explicitly not choosing to sign up for the Office 365 E3 service required for access to Office Online. More noteworthy, our clients have been disappointed that there’s no way to open or save files directly from and to the Dropbox for Business Cloud in the Microsoft Office Desktop Suite (the traditional desktop software – not the browser based online version). That is to say desktop Word or Excel can’t save directly to or open directly from a Dropbox for Business web address the way it can to and from a SharePoint web address.
Again, the main point here is that it’s clear that the best way to interact with Dropbox for Business’s cloud is through the local sync copy on your C: drive – the folder that shows up in Windows Explorer as “Dropbox for Business (org name).” You can open the files in that local folder in Desktop Word, Excel, etc. and you can move subfolders around without worrying they are too big or have too many documents within them.
Sync works…for the most part
And since sync works really well in Dropbox for Business, this isn’t too bad. There are a few points to make about the limitations of a file service in which sync is the underlying paradigm.
- First, of course, there’s the already mentioned inability to do real-time co-editing if users are editing a synced local copy of the authoritative cloud.
- In the same vein, there is the risk that two or more users might edit local synced copies at the same time so that when the modifications they make resync, a version conflict results. Dropbox for Business handles this by recognizing that there are two copies and saving one or both with a name referencing the user and a time stamp. But significantly Dropbox provides no email notification to the users involved that the version conflict exists. And obviously when the conflict is discovered, the users have to resolve the conflict manually.
- Sync can be demanding on local disk capacity and local bandwidth. Dropbox for Business provides “Selective Sync” so that if your organization has lots of data in Dropbox for Business, you can/should choose to only sync the folders/files that you interact with regularly, conserving the space requirements of your local hard drive and limiting how much data is constantly passing between your computer and the Dropbox for Business cloud. But then when you need to interact with a folder/file that you don’t use regularly, that you don’t sync, you are likely to notice the less optimal experience.
- Finally, it turns out that the only way to effectively get an organization’s documents into Dropbox for Business is to use this Dropbox Sync approach (there’s no FTP service and the cloud portal’s upload tool works on files but not folders). In practical terms, this has meant the migrations we’ve done for clients have had more user impact than we might like. To minimize risk of sync breakdown, we ask clients to freeze their use of file shares until the initial sync has completed, but that initial sync can take many days and sometimes weeks.
Dropbox for Business works well when users are already familiar with it
All the above said, the clients we’ve moved to Dropbox for Business like it. Lots of users are familiar with the Dropbox paradigm from using the individual consumer solution. The reliance on sync means that users mostly interact with Dropbox through Windows Explorer (or for Mac users – the Finder), which is also familiar. Users appreciate that ease of use. The limitations we’ve described are not insignificant, but once known they can be managed.
It’s important that an organization’s leadership is aware of the limitations and fully supports a move to Dropbox with understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. But with those conditions in place, we are comfortable deploying Dropbox and include it in our list of cloud file sharing services we can recommend.