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Weighing cloud-based ECM technologies: SharePoint Online vs. Box

As you consider possible cloud-based enterprise content management systems, it's important to match up certain systems against one another. In doing so, you can examine capabilities feature by feature. Feature-by-feature comparisons are really the best way to make a decision about which cloud-based ECM makes sense to purchase -- if any.

Here, we'll go through that process with two sets of collaboration software:

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SharePoint Online and Box. In part one of this series on cloud-based enterprise content management technologies, we reviewed five important considerations when moving to cloud-based ECM technologies.

The basics

In part one, we discussed being clear about your needs. When comparing SharePoint and Box, this is particularly important. While the technologies are similar, each differs in important ways.

Once of the challenges with cloud-based solutions is ensuring good performance throughout your enterprise.

Both technologies have all the standard features you'd expect from an ECM system, including versioning, granular file permissions, search, file locking and integration with company network identities (e.g., Active Directory). These systems really differ only in their details.

At a basic level, Microsoft has advantages over Box; Microsoft also produces the most popular productivity suite: Microsoft Office. As a result, Office natively understands how to "talk" to SharePoint, while Box requires you to install additional software.

But the biggest difference is how each tool approaches the concept of the enterprise. Box's point of reference is the user. Each user has his own set of files. While the user can share content with other users, there's no obvious "enterprise repository" concept.

SharePoint, by contrast, starts at the enterprise level and provides what SharePoint calls My Sites for the personal dimension. Almost by default, files are stored in the context of the central repository, though a user's personal site is also available.

Storage

Both technologies base pricing, in part, on how much storage you consume. In the enterprise space, this means a measure of how much space is allocated to your enterprise account, divided by the number of users consuming that space allocation.

Box bases its pricing exclusively on a combination of users and total storage. The initial paid starter subscription allows for a minimum of one user and up to 100 GB of storage. Box has a Business subscription as well that increases the total storage of 1 TB and a minimum of three users. There are additional subscription options that allow for unlimited users and storage, though you have to work with Box to configure them.

Microsoft's approach is more complex. Since SharePoint has a shared and a personal storage concept, Microsoft allocates pooled storage (10 GB to start) and allows firms to buy additional storage up to 25 TB (there are differences between subscriptions, though). Pooled storage is shared across the various centralized repositories. In addition, each user receives an initial storage allocate of 500 MB per user. This per-user storage is accretive to the pooled storage.

Pricing

Pricing for both Box and SharePoint is based on a per-user charge. Each vendor varies the functionality available to users based on the subscription model they choose, and both allow users to upgrade at a later date.

A key consideration in moving to cloud-based ECM technology is what happens when you terminate your subscription.

Microsoft's pricing for SharePoint is confusing, given the array of subscription options and its inclusion in the Office 365 suite. However, the basic plans (Plan 1 and Plan 2) are priced at $3 per user and $7 per user, respectively. SharePoint Online can also be purchased as a part of the Office365 suite, which includes other products, such as Exchange (email), Lync (instant messaging and computer-to-computer Voice over Internet Protocol), SkyDrive (online storage) and Office (both cloud-based and on-premises). The suite pricing ranges from $10 to $23 per user, but includes much more functionality than just the ECM capabilities of SharePoint. Note that Microsoft distinguishes among organization sizes, and subscription options may differ if you're a larger enterprise with 1,000 users vs. a smaller one with just 100 users.

By contrast, Box offers one free and four paid-subscription options. The free option severely limits functionality and storage. Fees for subscribing to the paid options are based on the number of users. The "starter" option is for one to 10 users, starting at $5 per user. The "business" subscription is for a minimum of three users at $15 per user. The last two paid options are for larger enterprises, and require them to work with Box on specific pricing. As with SharePoint, each successive paid-subscription option provides increasingly more robust feature sets. Unlike Microsoft's options, however, all options focus on ECM functionality (i.e., there's no Box equivalent to Office 365).

Location affinity

Once of the challenges with cloud-based technologies is how to ensure good performance throughout your enterprise. If all your employees are geographically close, it should be relatively easy: Just ensure that the files are stored as close to your end users as possible. If your users are geographically dispersed, it's far harder to ensure appropriate performance.

In this respect, Microsoft has an advantage. The company has spent lots of money on building a truly global data center network. In fact, depending on where your firm is located, Microsoft will provision your SharePoint Online within the nearest data center. In addition, the entire infrastructure runs on Microsoft's Azure cloud platform, which includes a great deal of redundancy and caching to ensure good performance.

Box, by contrast, does not have the same footprint. Its data centers, based on information posted on its public website, are largely based in the U.S. As a result, performance should be fairly good within North America but may be sluggish in other parts of the world. This is not to suggest that Box would be unusable outside the U.S. In fact, performance may be acceptable to quite good, depending on your firm's connection to the Internet. But it's likely Box will not have the same performance profiles as SharePoint depending on the region.

When the party's over

For more on cloud-based ECM:

Content management and the cloud

ECM security considerations

SharePoint online vs. SharePoint on-premises

Best practices for ECM in the cloud

As mentioned in part one, a key consideration in moving to cloud-based ECM technology is what happens when you terminate your subscription. For the average consumer with relatively little data stored in the technology, migration is trivial. For firms with potentially hundreds of gigabytes or even several terabytes, however, migration can mean significant effort and cost.

The reality is that neither vendor has a good solution. Box will direct you to its professional services group. If you want to migrate from its cloud services, you pay its support organization to help you; there's no self-help option.

With SharePoint, the situation is essentially the same. A few tools may make the process easier and allow you, as a customer, the option of self-support. Still, if you can't do it yourself, Microsoft will point you to a partner to help.

The devil is in the details

While Box and Microsoft offer similar cloud-based ECM solutions, the "little" differences dictate whether one or the other is right for your organization. Microsoft has certain advantages concerning content creation, especially given the integration with Office. Box, by contrast, may be easier to adopt for medium-sized organizations based on the way it organizes content and how it expects people to work.

Philosophically, Box and Microsoft have approached ECM from two different perspectives. Launched in 2001, Microsoft's SharePoint is a more mature product (SharePoint's first release was in 2001), approaches ECM from the bottom up and the top down (an overall firm with lots of content). Given that Box is newer to the market, it follows more of a Web 2.0 model, where individuals are the focal point. Your requirements and the approach your firm takes for ECM will dictate which solution is better.

This was first published in November 2013

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