Cloud collaboration services: the top 10 for SMBs
29th Oct 2013 | 19:40
From Google Apps and SocialCast to Box, Huddle and Yammer
Collaboration in a business used to involve telephone calls, emails, and possibly an instant message exchanged between employees.
These days, the advent of cloud computing and all the benefits that come with it have paved the way for collaborative cloud-based services that are reshaping how employees work together over the internet, whether its's a trio of founders at a startup or a midsized company with 500 staff.
Many collaborative offerings serve a particular business need, such as storage, social networking, productivity apps, or email. Analyst house Gartner predicts that cloud office systems, which are of an increasingly collaborative nature, will account for 33% of the overall office market by 2017.
To help you decide which collaborative cloud service best fits your needs, here are TRPro's top 10 services, in no particular order.
Price: Starts at $29.95 (around £18.70, or AU$32) per month
Citrix doesn't bill its ShareFile cloud service as a collaboration platform as such, but it does come with features designed to help employees work together and stands out by offering customized solutions for over 30 industries.
As the name suggests, ShareFile is all about exchanging large files with individuals or groups of colleagues.The basic version provides 5GB of storage and bandwidth, along with two employee accounts for accessing and transferring files (this rises to $59.95 per month for the Professional package, which provides 10GB of storage and bandwidth and 10 employee accounts).
ShareFile can be hooked up with Citrix Podio, a social collaboration tool that allows users to set up places in the cloud dubbed Workspaces, where employees can post statuses, make comments, "like" posts and share files. It also features extensive mobile support with apps for iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone for collaborating and sharing files on the go.
Price: US$20 (about AU$21, £13.50) / user / month (Free for 14 days)
Huddle is a cloud-based collaboration platform that pits itself as a rival to Microsoft's SharePoint service (see our Office365 entry below). Used by more than 100,000 businesses globally, it offers features based around file sharing and management, content collaboration, people management and tasks. Accessed through a browser, it can be customised, branded and provides support for mobile devices.
Additionally, Huddle offers version control management, which lets employees roll back files to previous versions to view and make changes. 'Workspaces' can also help businesses work on projects, with the ability to control a dashboard view for each one through a menu at the top of the screen.
Huddle prides itself on its security features. Its primary data centre has ISO 27001 certification, and the service is used by numerous US and UK government agencies.
Google Apps for Business
Price: £3.30 (about US$5, AU$5.40) plus taxes / user / month, or £33 (about US$49, AU$54) plus taxes / user / year (Free for 30 days)
Having first arrived in 2006, Google Apps for Business has been around longer than most other services on our list. Now used by over 5 million businesses, it offers access to Gmail in addition to calendars, documents and Drive (Google's cloud storage service).
All of the services allow users to collaborate in real time, whether it's editing a spreadsheet in Docs, adding dates to a calendar or uploading files to a directory. Google places a premium on simplicity, with features such as sharing documents through a single click, or setting up videoconferencing sessions through its Hangouts feature.
It could also provide employees with a degree of familiarity, as many of the services are near identical to Google's standard consumer Gmail and Calendar products. Head of Google Enterprise Thomas Davies recently told us in an interview that the platform has been allowing businesses to reduce their total cost of ownership (TCO) and is used to drive creativity.
Dropbox for Business
Price: US$795 / 5 users / year (about £526, AU$865) (Free for 14 days)
Dropbox for Business is an extension of the company's Dropbox consumer service, with features designed to help companies with five or more employees work together.
Like Dropbox, its business service syncs files across employees' devices, allowing them to continue working on the move (in the presence of an internet connection). Files, which can be password protected and shared internally or externally via links, are stored online in Dropbox's cloud and can be kept in sync by placing them in a sharing folder on users' PCs.
Extra security features have been added in recent months, including configuration for two-step authentication and mobile pass codes to access accounts. In April Dropbox added a new admin console to the service that gives IT managers a quick view of information on matters such as employees' linked devices, sessions and applications.
In May these were joined by single sign-on (SSO), which lets employees sign into Dropbox using an existing central identity provider, such as Active Directory, removing the need to remember one more password.
Price: Free - Business Class is US$25 per month (about £17, or AU$27) / organisation / year
If you're looking for a solution to manage projects and get things done, Trello is a free and straightforward offering with a simple drag and drop interface.
Trello works using boards that list 'cards', or tasks that can be labelled using short descriptions such as 'In Progress' or 'Completed' to let other project collaborators know their status. Features include email notifications to keep users informed of recent project changes, real time updates when tasks are completed, the abilty to assign cards to particular members and a card voting feature that allows board members to set business priorities.
While these features make the standard version of Trello suitable for small businesses, a Business Class package is also available for $25 (£17) per month. This includes advanced features such as integration with Google Apps, bulk export of tasks, a read-only observer role and extra administrative control.
Price: Free for up to 50 users
SocialCast, as the name suggests, is engineered toward social network-style collaboration. The service, which was created by virtualisation giant VMware, has earned inclusion on our list for two reasons.
First, VMware made SocialCast free for up to 50 users last year. This doesn't mean that it's a restricted service; far from it. Socialcast is a full-featured platform that allows businesses to manage projects, share documents and form groups around projects, departments or specific activities.
Users can also create private groups to help employees interact with each other. They can be opened up to the public, and the service can be customised to incorporate a business's specific look or brand.
Moreover, SocialCast offers its entire feature stack on mobile devices, so businesses can download apps in iPhones, iPads, Android and BlackBerry devices.
Price (Small Business) £3.90 (about US$5.80, or AU$6.40) plus taxes / user / month, or £39.60 (about US$59, or AU$65) plus taxes / user / year (free for one month)
Price (Small Business Premium) £10.10 (about US$15, or AU$16.60) plus taxes / user / month, or £100.80 (about US$152, AU$166) plus taxes / user / year (free for one month)
For businesses that have become accustomed to Microsoft's Office productivity suite, Google Apps rival Office365 would make a natural leap from desktop software into the cloud. Businesses that sign up get access to Office web apps, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Access, Publisher and Lync.
Additionally, users get access to hosted email with up to 25GB of storage space per user and the ability to use their business's domain name and set up a public website with no additional hosting fees. That's alongside a web conference function and spam and malware protection.
Office365 gives users a team site on which they can create, edit and review reports, proposals, calendars, and budgets with others in real time. Users are also able to assign tasks that can be viewed on a timeline.
Businesses also get SharePoint as part of their subscription, which gives users additional ways to manage projects and share documents and insights with colleagues, partners and customers.
Price: Basic network is free - Enterprise network starts at US$3 (about £2, or AU$3.20) / user / month)
Microsoft turned heads in July last year when it officially completed the acquisition of Yammer, a creator of social networks for businesses, for $1.2 billion. Since then, it claims the number of registered users have grown by more than 55% to nearly 8 million, and paid networks have increased more than 200% year-on-year.
Yammer's content collaboration features include file sharing, versioning and the ability to compile notes. The company aims to encourage employee engagement through the use of Trending Files and Popular Content features, in addition to employee profiles and an Online Now live chat feature. Users can also set up polls and events to be shared internally or externally.
Also included are groups, which allow users to filter information based on particular search terms based on shared content. Other features are aimed at making it easier to share content; these include bookmarking and sharing websites and content from within the browser.
Price: £11 (about US$16.50, or AU$18) / user / month (Free for 14 days)
The 'Dropbox of the enterprise', Box touts itself as an file transfer protocol replacement and stores files in the cloud by syncing with users' folders stored on their PCs.
It provides advanced features that include sharing files and folders through the use of links, fine-tuned user permissions, and an integrated file view that works with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Adobe Photoshop and others, without leaving the browser.
Files of up to 2GB can be shared, and any interaction in the way of downloads, uploads or comments added to files can be tracked in real time. Box also features extensive integration with third party services, including Zoho, Google Gmail, Google Analytics, eFax, DocuSign, FedEx, Watchdog and Twitter.
Price: (Business package) US$5 (£3.36, or AU$5.45) / user / month, or US$50 (£33, or AU$54 / user / year) (Free for 30 days)
MangoApps is a free service that wraps up employee social networking, team collaboration tools and an intranet into a single service. Aimed at the mid market, it's best described as a personal LinkedIn-style offering tailored for individual businesses.
It even offers direct integration with LinkedIn, allowing employee profiles to be instantly populated with details like contact information, skill sets and expertise. Other features include instant messaging with automatic availability updates, group chat, videoconferencing, and the ability to create private groups and projects.
MangoApps can also work with other applications via open application programme interfaces, allowing integration with business systems such as customer relationship management, payroll or other HR systems. Accounts can be managed securely using Active Directory, and the service can integrate with enterprise systems such as Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive and Box.