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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Hosted File Transfer Solutions - the four hurdles for enterprise users

Summary: How important is secure file transfer for you business needs? When considering a hosted solution vs a solution installed inside the IT infrastructure, factors such as convenience, security, performance and cost are the key concerns for adopting hosted solutions.
To rent, or not to rent, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged users, or to take arms against a sea of large file attachments.

(With profuse apologies to The Bard of Avon, the saddest part of it is that ACA Guy isn't the first nor the last to have the urge to get his own bastardized rendition of the famous soliloquy out of his system.)

But it is a serious question for users who are looking for an enterprise secure file transfer solution. There are three categories of solutions. One is to install a dedicated solution such as Accellion Courier Secure File Transfer Appliance SFTA as part of the IT infrastructure. The second one is to build an in-house solution based on a variant of the FTP platform which, as noted in FTP, Email, HTTPS, and BitTorrent? A historic perspective on sending large files/attachments securely for enterprise users, is going out of favor for user-unfriendliness and security reasons. And, the third is to "rent" the service from a hosted file transfer solution provider.

Generally, if secure file transfer is a low business priority because you rarely need to send a large file through the network or security is not a concern, then a hosted solution is more than adequate.

However, if sending large data set and design files is a regular part of the business process, or if securing the information is important, enterprise users that I have talked with have a lot of reservations about hosted file transfer solutions for the following four criteria: convenience, security, performance and cost.


Because this is to address a business process need where end users are involved, the solution needs to be non-techie friendly for both the sender and recipient.

Can a hosted file transfer solution do that? Well, with difficulty. Most would force users to go through a web site to upload and download files. Some require client software to be installed on the desktop, which the end user can find confusing and IT people are loathe to support. Worse yet, some hosted solution vendors require the recipients to also install software so that the IT team needs to ensure that not just the internal user has the right software installed and configured but the external recipient also has done the same.

Not exactly a shining example of user convenience in these days of Web 2.0!


Security/privacy requirements come from two needs. One is to protect your digital assets because those vital data have taken years to accumulate, and protecting them makes your boss and clients happy. The other is that there are specific regulations such as HIPAA or Sarbanes-Oxley that may require compliance on your part. The key thing about security/privacy is that, as a process, it is only as good as its weakest link.

And speaking of the weakest link, asking a hosted file transfer vendor to safeguard your data and ensure compliance to your precise and granular business process requirements seems almost unreasonable. After all, they also have to support the needs of other users on the same platform, and, like it or not, your needs might conflict with what others want.

It's important to understand that not all files and secure file transfer processes are created equal. Many enterprises have needs like:

  • The ability to control the lifecycle of a file -- some files need to be removed within 48 hours and others should be accessible for years.

  • The ability to control the level of file access -- sometimes by person, sometimes by organizations, and at other times it does not matter.

  • Easy access to a detailed audit management report -- it is important to know who is using the file transfer system, what files are being sent and to whom, and when they are retrieved and by whom.
In the world of "one size fits all" with hosted solutions, these business process level requirements can make it very painful to adopt a third party hosted file transfer solution.


Then there is the issue of performance. When you rent a service, you have absolutely no control over performance; you are at the mercy of the infrastructure that someone else provides. It is bad enough that you cannot "tune" performance to take advantage of your infrastructure investment or to eliminate bottlenecks that can occur during peak usage. But, what happens when the hosted solution goes AWOL on you?

Let me share a personal story with you. Back at the Accellion ranch, we use a hosted CRM solution. A few months back, there were some intermittent connection outage issues. During those few days, I saw way too many sales people puttering around in misery as a result of the disruption. The hosted solution provider has since fixed the problem, but my own company has had to come up with contingency plans should it happen again. Suffice it to say that it was an unpleasant experience all around.

Trust me -- you don't want to be left so vulnerable when a key business service is down, and it's out of your hands to get it up and running again. Imagine telling the CEO that a large key document cannot be sent to a client because the hosted file transfer solution is not available!


This is usually the main reason most IT teams would even consider a hosted solution; the acquisition cost is usually the lowest. But, if you consider the total lifetime costs, hosted file transfer solution expenses can sneak up on you.

Because secure file transfer is a common need for most business users, what often happens is that more users end up requesting this service than originally projected. In the context of hosted solution, this also means that instead of achieving the cost benefit of scale with a solution inside the IT infrastructure as more users come online, the cost will grow proportionally or even spike as the demand grows. On top of that, there may be unanticipated seasonality in usage pattern which can easily blow out the bandwidth threshold for surcharges in a busy day.

When this happens, there are basically two unpleasant choices. One is to go hat-in-hand to the finance people for more money and explain why the initial usage projection was inaccurate. The other is to start restricting access to this tool and incur user sneers.

So, the ironic verdict is that, for most secure file transfer processes that enterprise users engage in, a hosted file transfer solution is a good standby if you don't really need it.

As for what was once (almost) said, "To rent, or not to rent." I think we’ve answered that question, dear Hamlet!


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