Collaborators find no shortage of sharing possibilities on the web.

9th October 2010

Lesley Meall, FSN contributing author looks at the trials and tribulations of sharing files on the web.

I had a slightly strange experience the other day: somebody asked me to fax them a rather large document – and I struggled. I’m not a babe in arms or a blithering idiot, so I know what a fax machine is; I’ve even been known to use one. But that was in the dim and distant past. It has been years since I last needed to do this, and ten pages is ten pages, and the mindless bureaucracy that accompanied the fax demand made me want to scream. Still does. Aaarrrgghhhhh!!! 

Although the required document had been sent to me as an email attachment, I could not simply forward it (I had already successfully done this, but the recipient deemed this approach “unsatisfactory”). So I used the same email-to-fax converter I used the last time somebody requested a document by fax (at least five years ago), then I took the dog for a de-stressing wander through the woods, and tried to accept that mine is not to reason why. “Rules are rules for a reason”, apparently. 

So, where am I going with this? The twenty first century, that’s where. It’s a world where 1.4bn people send 247bn email messages each day (well they did in 2009 and the numbers have since risen), and although email isn’t always considered the most effective way to communicate or share information, neither is the fax. Online alternatives now range from the humble ‘data vault’ to the latest version of Microsoft (MS) SharePoint 2010, via a smorgasbord of other internet-based collaboration and social networking tools. 

In some ways, all of these can make the business of creating, modifying, sharing, storing and publishing documents easier; in some ways, they can make it more difficult. After all, keeping on top of the ever-increasing range of options can seem like a full-time job, it can be difficult to get your head around the various technologies and their associated terms of reference, and with so much to consider you can feel spoiled for choice. So FSN is going to take a look at a selection from the (many, many) available possibilities, and attempt to bring some clarification to the party. 

For those of you who do not read and commit to memory every single word of wisdom published on the website, let’s start with a brief recap of some of the internet-based collaboration and ‘document sharing’ tools that FSN has recently covered.

 When more than one person is working on a spreadsheet, word-processed (WP) document, or presentation, the various iterations are, more often than not, circulated as attachments to emails, and managed (or mismanaged) with (or without) the help of specialist tools. The expense of the latter has tended to make them the preserve of the very large and those with very deep pockets, but (free and low cost) online tools from providers including Microsoft (on which more, later) can help to level the playing field. 

Now, as this previous FSN article highlights, if you need to collaborate on, share or publish (MS Excel and other types of) spreadsheet document, as part of an iterative process such as budgeting, you can utilise one of the various cloud based on-demand online spreadsheet systems available to handle these processes, and store the associated data in the cloud. So a little time spent exploring offerings such as BadBlue, Google Docs, MS Office Web Apps, OpenOffice, Securesheet, and Zoho could potentially save you a lot of time and expense in the longer term. 

Some of the providers listed above offer their online spreadsheet systems as part of a wider suite of productivity tools, and there are also a number of more niche specialists. So if you are interested in online tools that can be used to enable the collaborative co-authoring of presentations, as well as Google Docs, MS Office Web Apps, OpenOffice, and Zoho, the options include dedicated systems such as  280Slides, PresentationsPrezi, and SlideRocket.

If you are interested in online tools that can be used to enable collaborative co-authoring of (MS and non-MS) WP documents, as well as Google Docs, MS Office Web Apps, MS for Facebook users, OpenOffice and Zoho, the options include Abiword, Adobe Buzzword, and Shutterborg. Though online versions of ‘traditional’ and easily categorised productivity tools such as the word processor are not the only way to collaboratively author or share documents in the cloud. The wiki can offer another alternative.

 Wiki wonderland

As FSN has covered in recent articles about ways of saving money and managing human resources, wikis can be a simple and cost-effective way for colleagues and other (personal and professional) associates to collaborate, aggregate and share information online, by creating and editing linked web pages – which is easier than those unfamiliar with the process may think it seems, as it requires very little admin or technical knowledge. But actions can speak louder than words, and this video illustration  makes wikis easier to understand (so don’t be out off by the levity of the presenter, watching it could be a very productive way of spending three minutes.) 

Some wikis are public efforts (such as the encyclopedia Wikipedia) that can be updated by anyone, others are private wikis with restricted access; you can start from scratch, using your own server to host your wiki, or run it on a corporate intranet (which is managed in-house or hosted externally), and then build your wiki, or wikis, using your chosen wiki software platform or ‘wiki engine’ – and there are lots of them out there, available in lots of languages. 

They include free offerings such as DokuWikiMediaWiki (used by Wikipedia), and Twiki, systems such as TeamPage from Traction, a fully featured enterprise knowledge management platform that’s a popular choice for corporate intranets (and is free for up to five users), and you can learn more about the possibilities by looking at case studies from all of these plus other wiki providers such as eTouch (with its SamePage system), PBWorks and  SocialText. It is worth noting that as some wikis are much easier to use than others, and vary when it comes to the sort of features an enterprise may prioritise, a little leg work will pay dividends. 

For those of you who are not aware of it, earlier this year Microsoft made its Office apps Excel, OneNote, Word, PowerPoint available free online; all you need to do to use them is sign up for Windows Live (it you have not already done so), and then you can create and work with documents on SkyDrive (on which more, below). Business users may want to deploy them on a server running a licensed copy of MS SharePoint Foundation 2010 or MS SharePoint Server 2010 – and those without access to SharePoint may want to explore the possibilities, as covered in an earlier FSN article.

For some individual users and small businesses one of the many benefits of online access to tools such as Google Docs, MS Office Web Apps, and Zoho, will be the online storage space that comes with it; a certain amount is often available free, but this varies, and lots of business users will find that they quickly reach the point where they need to pay for access to enough storage for their needs, though MS SkyDrive offers 25GB of free storage; all of which brings us neatly on to some of the other options for sharing and storing documents in the cloud – in the shape of the ‘data vault’. 


Keep IT together

Superficially, these two little words seem self-explanatory; the devil is as usual in the detail. This term of reference is used to describe various things including a data modelling technique called Data Vault, a box from HP, systems such as the Ascendo DataVault Password Manager (which encrypts confidential information such as credit card numbers, passwords and PINs for storage on various devices), and  –  as you will discover if you search on the words ‘data’, ‘vault’, ‘backup’ and ‘storage’ – the very many generic ‘cloud-based’ data archival facilities being offered by a variety of providers, such as Backupify, Barracuda, DataProtect UK, and ICM.

 The range and levels of this type of service varies across providers, and there are differences in terms and what you can and cannot do with the data once it is stored on the servers belonging to such third party providers (on which more, below). To heap complexity on top of complexity, as well as having your data ‘backed up’ and stored/hosted in a ‘public cloud’, the emergence of ‘private clouds’ and ‘hybrid clouds’ (as explained in a previous FSN article and here) means that some enterprises are also opting to host their own ‘data vaults’, using servers housed in their own data centres (even if access to them is via a web-based browser).

 Some providers also supplement these services with facilities to store, share and ‘sync’ your files in the cloud: you can create a virtual drive on one or many computer devices, (using the service providers ‘client’ software), put your selected data files in this virtual drive, from where you can upload them to an online server, where they become accessible to you (or anybody else with the necessary username and password) – and the versions are kept in sync with all of the devices that feature the necessary client software. A relatively small amount of online storage space is made available free online (as is the necessary  client software), as part of the free services offered by providers including DriveHQ, Dropbox, and ZumoDrive – and paid upgrades are available too. 

Levels of security vary, but in general encrypted (or unencrypted) data is transferred (over secure connections), stored and made available online only to those with the right access privileges; it is protected via multiple layers of security, which may be determined by the value of the data or needs of individual users; there is an audit trail showing who accessed what and when. Unlike many of the options for document sharing in the cloud listed earlier in this article (many of which were free)  these archival/backup/data synching type services do not always cost less than the more traditional on-premise alternatives.

 But many of them are more affordable and more accessible, they offer a much higher level of flexibility than most affordable or comparable on-premise solutions, they have better backup and data security measures than those that would otherwise be within the reach of most individuals and a great many small organisations, and they support the sort of online collaborative working that so many individuals and enterprises now require, in order to exploit the maximum value from their existing and any future (personal and corporate) investments in information technology. So the days when emails were the most effective means of sharing data online seem numbered; and who knows, maybe one day the same thing will be true of the fax. Surely it’s only a matter of time.