This is a new series on what security pros need to know about cloud file storage and collaboration (also called file sync and share). If you have feedback please leave a comment, or even track and edit the evolving paper over on GitHub.

The rise of cloud file storage and collaboration

Few technologies have invaded the enterprise as rapidly as cloud file storage and collaboration services. Typically called File Sync and Share, these tools originated as consumer cloud services to help people store, sync, and share files across computers and mobile devices. We hate to dip into hyperbole, but calling these tools groundbreaking is an understatement. Users can now access their files from any computer or device and share files with anyone, anywhere, with ease and simplicity never seen before. To many consumers, this is “the cloud”.

These services so quickly proved their value that they inevitably made their way into the enterprise. Unfortunately few of them were architected to support the needs and security requirements of a business. In response, many organizations simply banned and blocked them, but as always happens when a tool provides demonstrable business benefit, use is inevitable – with or without support.

In response, enterprise-class options emerged. But many security professionals still struggle to understand the implications of cloud storage and collaboration, and the differences between consumer and enterprise-grade services. Even though some of these services can offer superior security to traditional on-premise file storage.

The market is evolving incredibly rapidly, with both new features and new competitors showing up constantly. We see continuous change as everyone scrambles for competitive advantage in this wide-open new market.

The category is most often called file sync and share, but we prefer the term cloud file storage and collaboration because many of the services and tools offer much more than basic syncing and sharing.

Cloud file storage and collaboration services are an unavoidable disruptive innovation.

Security implications, but also significant benefits

The risk is pretty obvious: pick the wrong service, or configure it incorrectly, and it is all too easy to effectively punch a hole in your firewall, allow all denizens of the Internet unfettered access to your files. Without centralized visibility and control, employees make mistakes and expose sensitive information. Choose an insecure service and you suffer the consequences of misplaced trust and exposed files.

Practically speaking, file security is something most organizations have struggled with since long before the Internet. But cloud services enable us to extend our failures across the Internet.

Tools vs. Services

You will notice we tend to focus on cloud storage and collaboration services, rather than tools you implement yourself. While tools are available to create your own private file sync and share services, they don’t offer all the benefits of a true cloud service. Covering both would complicate this paper, and most of the concerns and questions we receive are about cloud-native services, not internal tools which offer similar functionality.

But pick the right service and configure it properly, and you can realize security benefits that are impossible with traditional file storage.

By centralizing all file storage security gains a choke point for complete control and visibility. You can track the full history of access to all files from all users and devices. You can set enterprise-wide policies for how files are managed and shared, both internally and externally. And unlike many other security approaches, you can do so while providing the business something they want and are highly likely to adopt.

The alternative? Our existing troves of dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of file repositories – all managed separately, with different policies, and usually without any real monitoring capabilities.

This paper delves into the security implications of cloud file storage and collaboration services. It covers the security fundamentals (including risks and benefits), core security features, and some more advanced security features such as encryption options. We will separate out what you can expect from an enterprise-class service vs. a consumer offering – to help security professionals evaluate, select, and leverage the right options for their organizations.

The trick is to ensure you understand the strengths and weaknesses of each service, and how best to enable security without disabling the business.