Egnyte in the News

"A File Server in the Cloud"

By David Carr

December 8, 2010

There are lots of ways of sharing files online, through a web portal or a file replication service that keeps your files synchronized with those you want to share with clients or collaborators. Egnyte instead takes the approach of offering a cloud service that acts a lot like a traditional file server.

The difference is that instead of storing files on a computer server on your own network you are actually parking them in an account on an Internet service. Users can access the file system through a web interface that displays the hierarchy of files and folders. More typically, they will "mount" or "map" the service so it looks like just an extension of the folder structure on their own computer.

Because the files are hosted on the Internet, they can be accessed just as easily from home or on the road as from in the office. This turns out to be a good approach for a couple of small organizations I spoke with employees who are spread out and travel a lot. You can assign passwords to the Internet file server for regular users, or email a coded link that provides temporary access to a specific file to a customer or business partner.

Now, there is nothing very sexy about a file server, or at least there hasn't been since the early days of Novell NetWare. On a local area network, a file server is just a computer server where you stash the files everyone (or everyone in a certain workgroup) needs to have access to. Users are also typically assigned a home directory, where they can store working or backup copies of files that they don't necessarily want to share. A small company might use a single file server, where a large company would have many for different departments or locations.

Egnyte lets you substitute a cloud service for the physical server box. If you don't 100% trust your Internet connection, or just want to have a little more control over your data, you can still keep a local copy. This "local cloud" runs either on your PC or on a local server or appliance, giving you hybrid storage system that combines fast, convenient local access to data with the global reach of a cloud solution.

Rajesh Ram, company co-founder and head of product management, says the design philosophy is to "achieve parity, and then add features a physical file server could not provide." For example, Egnyte also provides version control, something you normally get with a more sophisticated content management system, not a mere file server. So you can retrieve an older version of a file that has been updated, if necessary. The service can be accessed from smart phones and tablet computers as well as PCs.

Where some of the other popular file sharing systems such as Dropbox are designed primarily as tools for personal productivity, Egnyte sticks closer to the file server metaphor of centralized, top-down administrative control, Ram says. The service can be configures to synchronize file access rights with Microsoft Active Directory.

Ram says he understands that many customers are looking for reassurance that the information they store in a cloud service will be safe, and he is trying to provide many options to give them peace mind. When you store your files in Egnyte, they are copied to two different data centers so that if something were to happen to one location, you could still get access through the other.

"In general, one of the biggest concerns with cloud services is, 'What if?' What if the service goes down, the service goes out of business, or someone deletes a file?" Ram says. Many customers also want to have a third copy on a server at their own facility, or even on another cloud service. The Egnyte replication software can be configured to make copies to the Amazon S3 cloud service, for example.

Yet many Egnyte customers treat its service as their primary storage for work documents.

"It gives us completely smooth and seamless use of a shared drive across a team of people," even when many of those people work from their homes and are often on the road, says Isabelle Englund-Geiger, Creative Director of Benz Communications. The company headquarters is in San Francisco, but she herself is based in the Sierra Nevadas. The firm specializes in assisting large corporations with the communications issues around benefits administration, so they always have copy, images, layouts, and mockups to share. She likes that she can always check the latest version of a document on her iPad, without having to carry her laptop with her everywhere.

Benz also uses the file sharing service "in a limited way" for sharing documents with clients, but may also move some of those functions to Egnyte. Other file sharing services she has evaluated "have half the features of Egnyte, but not the other half," Englund-Geiger says. Her team does use the local cloud option to keep a replica of the shared drive on each team member's computers, and she also makes a weekly backup to an external hard drive.

The National Business Travel Association has been phasing in the use of Egnyte to support traveling executives. But this trade association for travel managers will soon move to full replication between its internal file server and the Egnyte service, says Ed Silver, the vice president of operations.

"A lot of our staff travels significantly, and rather than going through a [virtual private network] to access an internal file server, this is a lot easier," Silver says. "We put on several events throughout the year, with a large event in August particularly where we're working with 50 or 60 show flow documents and floor diagrams. For our show manager to be able to share those documents with a dozen vendors, and pull them up no matter where she is, is really important."

Benz Communications has a staff of about 10 people, while NBTA has about 50 employees, so both are short on internal technical resources and keen on maximizing their use of cloud services.

"We're going through a process of moving several of our primary systems from internally hosted to cloud solutions," Silver says. For example, NBTA also got rid of its internal Exchange server and reassigned the staff that had been supporting it in favor of a cloud email service.

Benz also uses the Google calendar and email service,, and a cloud-based product management system, Englund-Geiger says. "I've done that many years, since before there was a word for it. It's not like it's anything revolutionary, it's just that there are more options out there, and it works better."

Both customers reported being very happy with the reliability of the service and the quality of the support they got from Egnyte. I must report that in my own tests with a demo account, I was never able to get the search function to work the way the documentation said it should - it couldn't seem to find the files I had uploaded by either keyword or file name. The response I got from technical support just pointed me back to the documentation. Other than that it worked fine. Englund-Geiger says she isn't sure she has ever tried the search function in the web interface, since she normally uses the drive mapping function that makes the shared drive look like just another folder on her machine.

Since I only used the service for casual test, I will defer to the customers who say Egnyte is useful for getting actual work done.

UPDATE 12/10/2010: The search glitch I reported is fixed now. Some sort of configuration error with the way they set up my demo account. So it's not a true flaw with the product; I can only fault their tech support group for not catching the config problem when I reported it through the normal channels. To be fair, I only gave them one shot at it and didn't follow up further when their initial instructions didn't work for me.

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Emily Ganz

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