How to take advantage of Dropbox for Business APIs

Users love Dropbox, but until recently, it wasn't a great tool for business use. The new APIs added to Dropbox for Business last month changed all that

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Cloud services have become an increasingly important part of modern IT. Yet a broad mix of services can be hard to manage and control, with consumer-grade services existing alongside enterprise tools on user devices. That has led to confusion, with users bringing their favorite consumer services into business workflows -- but not considering how they affect risk.

One tool that has made the leap from consumer utility to business essential is Dropbox, one of the easiest-to-use cloud storage and file-sharing platforms. Until recently, it has been hard to manage for businesses. That all changed in December with the launch of a set of Dropbox for Business APIs. Focusing on user management, the new APIs opened up the platform to anyone who wants to build tools to control and manage users of the service.

Dropbox for Business apps are at heart relatively simple, with Dropbox providing four different sets of permissions that control how you (and your users) can work with its service.

  1. Team information apps are designed to monitor how a team is using the service.
  2. Team auditing apps let you drill down further into the activity log.
  3. Team member file access extends this further to allow your app to work directly with files stored in a team Dropbox, managing access.
  4. Team member management lets you programmatically control who has access to the service -- and what permissions they have.

It’s perhaps best to think of Dropbox apps as a new class of administrative users, able to interact with files and folders like any other user. The four app types are four different categories of enterprise user, controlling and managing the service while working with users and with files. Folders can be monitored for changes, and files downloaded and processed automatically, turning an upload into one more step in a workflow.

Working with the Dropbox APIs is much like working with any recent Web API. Authentication is handled by the familiar OAuth protocol (and like any OAuth implementation, it’s important not to hard-code authentication tokens into your apps or cache them for too long), with data transferred to and from the service using JSON. There’s also support for using webhooks to handle callbacks from files and folders that have been updated. It’s not all clear sailing, though, and you’ll need to write code to handle rapid updates to files, especially if your users opt for the automatic save features of modern productivity software.

The Dropbox for Business tools wrap user and account management around the core Dropbox APIs, so you can use the same tools and techniques used for existing consumer Dropbox apps as the basis for managed business apps. With SDKs available for common languages and platforms, it’s easy to get started, especially if you’re working with Android or iOS. While Dropbox doesn’t directly support Windows developers, there are third-party libraries for C# and C++ that are kept up to date. There’s plenty of documentation to get you started, with worked examples for common operations. Dropbox provides other APIs for handling file synchronization (including support for unreliable networks) and for storing semi-structured data on its cloud platform.

Users don’t even need to know they’re accessing Dropbox in an app. It’s easy to imagine a field engineer with a smartphone camera recording a site survey via a custom app, with the results automatically uploaded to a shared Dropbox team folder as a formatted document ready for another member of the team. With Dropbox’s new collaboration tools, the onsite engineer’s images could even be part of a shared report that a team member is editing in Office as the images upload to Dropbox and populate the file.

While user and team management is important, perhaps the most useful element of the Dropbox for Business APIs is its support for delivering detailed audit logs for teams and users. One of the drawbacks of working with a cloud service -- especially cloud services with a consumer heritage -- is the lack of integration with e-discovery and compliance tools. By adding tools for generating audit logs, Dropbox is bringing its Business service under control, allowing you to understand what files your users are storing and who they’re sharing them with.

Audit logs like these can be generated regularly and passed to existing compliance systems or used as the basis for a custom compliance system for all your cloud services. You can extract information about the members of a team, the devices they’re using, the files they’re sharing, and the settings associated with a team. They’re also the heart of a data loss prevention policy, letting you understand who has access to what file and how they’re able to use it.

Building custom management tools around Dropbox’s enterprise tools solves a lot of problems. It’s an approach that lets you integrate Dropbox into an existing security model and existing management tooling. You can automate creating users and handle their access permissions as well as those associated with their files, and you can ensure that licenses are appropriately used and deployed.

Combined with its existing Core APIs, Dropbox’s approach to application development makes a lot of sense. By providing simple tooling that wraps a familiar service, Dropbox access can be built into new apps, while users can continue using the familiar consumer experience -- on PCs, Macs, and smart devices. That way, consumer behavior brings the service into businesses, while CIOs get access to the management information they need to ensure security and privacy. It’s a win for everyone.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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