Box.net moves cloud storage further into business collaboration

New version of the company's offering begins rollout today, allows IT management as well as collaboration with outsiders

The beauty of the cloud is that it makes it easy for people to get technology in place when they need it. The ugliness of the cloud is that it lets employees bring in technology that the business is unaware of, potentially exposing confidential information or worse. Cloud storage provider Box.net is trying to square that circle with a new version of its Box.net service, which begins rolling out today. The rollout to the company's 5 million customers should be complete in 30 days.

The updated version of the storage service has a new back-end architecture that should let it scale as more users join and yet be more responsive in updating files across collaborators, says CEO Aaron Levie. The service also has a new user interface that previews the documents in a folder or project and shows a list of other related documents (initially meaning they are in the same folder, but later will be based on comparing terms used in documents), Levie says. You can preview PDF and Microsoft Office files.

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The updated Box.net service also adds a comment capability to allow discussions within the Box.net browser window so people can collaborate on projects, not just share documents. In the future, such comments may be integrated with other messaging technologies like Twitter and instant messaging; initially, the only messaging that takes place outside the Box.net environment is email notification of document status changes.

The changes will first be available in the desktop browser environment used to access Box.net, and then work their way into the service's iOS client and into its Android client. The schedule for their integration into iOS and Android is based on the capabilities those devices already have and what Box.net must develop itself. For example, because iOS includes a document preview capability, iOS users will have the new preview capability at launch, Levie notes.

The Box.net service lets IT set up policies around access, both which people have access and to which documents and folders they have access. Thus, IT can control who has access to which corporate documents, as well as delegate permission to specific employees so they can invite participants to a project, such as for bringing in contractors or business partners. In their own accounts, such invited users see their own documents plus corprorate ones they've been invited to. However, the corporate documents are stored separately from their own documents, despite the unified view of all the available documents, Levie says. (The corporate documents they've been invited to work on aren't actually stored in their Box.net storage space, but instead are stored in the account of the company that invited them. Thus, IT can remove access to those corporate documents at any time.)

Levie says that this open, non-heavy-handed approach to permissions makes it less likely that employees will set up surreptitious cloud storage accounts and instead use the sanctioned Box.net environment. Thus, IT has more visibility and control into corporate information than it would if employees used shadow services, he says -- a claim that he says is based on the experience of existing customers.

Beyond the impending changes, Levie says that Box.net is working on giving the service some management options that would reach into mobile devices to delete documents transferred to their local storage so that documents can be automatically pulled from user's smartphones and tablets when a project is done or they are no longer associated to the project. Such a feature would work similarly to how mobile management tools can remotely wipe accounts and documents, but in this case would be limited to Box.net-provisioned documents.

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