Mar 23 2016

File-Sharing in the Cloud: What’s Available and What Works for Higher Ed

Some IT managers select flexible systems that let them store documents in the public or private cloud, while others prefer Software as a Service options.

Danny Miller, system chief information security officer at Texas A&M University, had a potential logistical nightmare on his hands with the increase in free file-sharing programs, such as Dropbox, used by students, faculty and staff. Instead, he and his staff turned a challenge into an opportunity to more effectively manage files and improve collaboration for the university’s 170,000 users.

Organizations are turning to enterprise file management tools to better secure sensitive documents and reduce the administrative burden of relying on email to transmit large documents. Enterprise products such as Box, Citrix ShareFile and Syncplicity provide organizations with an easier way to share graphics-intensive files and video. While Box runs only in the cloud, many of these products offer both public cloud and private cloud options

Texas A&M chose Syncplicity, mainly for its flexibility. Miller says Texas A&M conducts nearly $1 billion worth of research annually, much of it medical- or Defense Department–related, and those documents must remain highly secure. The university stores all that sensitive data plus student Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) data on servers inside its firewall. Miller notes that Syncplicity offers unlimited storage, so other non-sensitive data resides on Syncplicity servers in the public cloud.

“The ease of use of the interface was also important,” Miller says. “For most users, it really doesn’t look any different than the consumer file-sharing programs they used in the past.” And because he now sits on Syncplicity’s board, he can help influence the future direction of the product.

Syncplicity also makes collaboration more effective. Professors and students can now share course-related documents and video easily without choking the email servers. And in an early example of how Syncplicity can be used, administrators who represent the 22 entities in the university system are using Syncplicity to share project management documentation for a major financial system upgrade.

“We expect that the overhaul of the financial system will be ongoing for at least three years, but that’s only one example,” Miller says. “Students and professors are finding new ways every day to collaborate with Syncplicity.”

Terri McClure, a senior analyst for the Enterprise Strategy Group, says IT departments were put in a bind when people started using consumer-oriented Software as a Service products such as Dropbox and the free version of Box.

“All of a sudden, organizations had corporate data on people’s personal smartphones and tablets, and it created security issues,” McClure says. “The industry responded by building products that had a central dashboard. They offered rudimentary control at first, and now the products have matured to offer more advanced security and rulemaking controls.”

Tech to Get Creative Juices Flowing

In South Carolina, Clemson University has embarked on an aggressive program to offer every student and professor access to the Adobe Creative Cloud.

Jan Holmevik, co-director of the university’s Center of Excellence in Next-Generation Computing and Creativity, says Adobe’s cloud licensing approach made it possible for Clemson to offer the Adobe Creative Suite to all 30,000 users. This includes everything from InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop to Dreamweaver for web development.

To support this effort, Clemson users receive access to 50 gigabytes of storage in Box’s cloud-based system.

“It’s not cost-effective for us to do storage anymore,” Holmevik says. “All our users get the 50GB of storage as a default.”

On the security front, CISO Kevin McKenzie adds the university still stores human resources data and healthcare data in-house. For FERPA data, for example, Clemson’s contract with Box includes language that ensures security controls.

“All of the security controls get vetted by the procurement department, our general counsel and the IT security staff,” McKenzie says. “While we still have internal storage, our goal is to do as much in the cloud as possible.” 

Holmevik says the university aims to reshape education by offering software such as Adobe Creative Cloud. Students and professors can access materials and collaborate from anywhere while tapping the file-sharing and storage systems that support those efforts.

“We are giving students access to the tools that professionals use in the field, be they advertising and media pros or computer programmers or people who work in the sciences,” Holmevik says. “It’s attracting people to the university because students recognize that working with these tools offers them a competitive advantage.”

How Box Performs for Coursework

Bob Flynn, manager of cloud technology support for Indiana University, never ceases to be amazed by all the great applications professors and students find for Box. Indiana University, which has more than 100,000 users running Box, was a pioneer in developing an enterprise version of Box, along with Carnegie Mellon; Cornell; Notre Dame; Stanford; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Michigan.

For example, Flynn says a Spanish phonetics professor records dialects of Spanish from all around the world and posts them in Box so students can learn the different subtleties of regional dialects. He embeds them in their online exam at the end of the semester to test the students’ mastery of the material. 

On the security front, Flynn says Indiana University still stores data for student transcripts and passports for foreign students in-house. But the university can store most everything else in the cloud with Box.

“As an example, the pathology department will have a folder marked pathology that will have two subfolders, one internal, the other external,” Flynn explains. “Sensitive information like HIPAA data will be stored on the internal folder, but professors can share non-sensitive health information externally with researchers around the world, and their colleagues really have no idea that there’s such a thing as an internal or external subfolder.”

Flynn says that over time, he hopes to allow storage of all classifications of data in the cloud with Box. He says Indiana sits on the Internet2 NET+ Box advisory board, which works with Box to guide the direction of the company to help meet the needs of higher education.

“I want to be clear that this is a solution we are crafting here at Indiana University,” Flynn says. “But our goal is to slowly move people off consumer tools like Dropbox and onto the enterprise version of Box that has enhanced security controls.” 

Enterprise File-Sharing Advantages

Terri McClure, a senior analyst for the Enterprise Strategy Group, identifies three main benefits of cloud-based enterprise file sharing systems:

  1. Improved employee productivity: These tools enable employees to share and access files more easily from wherever they are, increasing productivity. Overall, employees are happier when they can work the way they want.
  2. More efficient collaboration: Employees have access to version control, file logging, editing and messaging, which all help them complete projects quickly and thoroughly.
  3. Enhanced IT management: Security drives most organizations to use enterprise file-sharing tools. Administrators can set security rules, set storage levels and generate reports that offer a level of visibility into document usage that they’ve never had before.

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