Moving your shared business files from a local server to the cloud does much more than simply eliminate the headache of managing local hardware. It also enables scenarios that are difficult or impossible to realize using your own private servers.
A well-managed cloud storage service ties directly into the apps you use to create and edit business documents, unlocking a host of collaboration scenarios for employees in your organization and giving you robust version tracking as a side benefit. Any member of your organization can, for example, create a document (or a spreadsheet or presentation) using their office PC, and then review comments and changes from co-workers using a phone or tablet.
A cloud-based file storage service also allows you to share files securely, using custom links or email, and it gives you as administrator the power to prevent people in your organization from sharing your company's secrets without permission. With the assistance of sync clients for every major desktop and mobile platform, employees have access to key work files anytime, anywhere, on any device.
You might already have access to full-strength cloud collaboration features without even knowing it. If you use Microsoft 365 (formerly known as Office 365) or Google's G Suite, cloud storage isn't a separate product, it's a feature. This guide helps you understand and unlock the full collaboration and sharing capabilities of those cloud-based services.
Is a free cloud storage service good enough for your business?
This comparison deals mostly with the business editions of the flagship cloud storage services from Microsoft and Google: OneDrive for Business (part of the Microsoft 365/Office 365 family) and Google Drive for business (part of G Suite). Both companies offer consumer versions of their flagship cloud storage services. The personal versions of OneDrive and Google Drive include a free tier, with options to upgrade the amount of available storage space for an annual fee.
So what's the difference between these consumer-focused cloud services and those intended for business? In a word, management. An organization owns a business subscription, and administrators working on behalf of the organization assign licenses and set file-sharing and retention policies; the organization has ultimate control over stored files, which is important when a company is subject to litigation that requires document preservation.
In a sole proprietorship or a small home-based business (especially a part-time family operation), you can save a significant amount of money with a Microsoft 365 Family (previously Office 365 Home) subscription. For $100 per year, that plan includes the right to share the subscription with up to five other people, each of whom gets 1 TB of cloud storage and the ability to collaborate on Office documents, using a free Outlook.com address instead of an email address in a custom domain. A Microsoft 365 Business Standard plan with those same six users would cost up to $900 a year. For a very small business that doesn't have or need an IT shop, that's a lot of money to pay for not much obvious benefit.
It's worth noting that the most recent terms and services agreement for Office 365 consumer plans (the document has not yet been updated to reflect the Microsoft 365 name) includes the stipulation that these subscriptions are for "personal, noncommercial use." For very small businesses, that restriction is impossible to enforce. But for larger organizations it's a significant legal red flag.
The economics are a bit different with Google's plans, because there's no equivalent to the Microsoft 365 Family package. The closest alternative is a Google One subscription, which allows a small business to pay for a fixed amount of storage and then share it with up to five people, using free Google accounts and Gmail addresses. The cost is the same as storage add-ons for G Suite Basic, ranging from $2 a month (or $20 per year) for 100 GB of shared storage to $10 a month ($100 per year) for 2 TB. Google One tiers offering up to 30 TB of shareable storage are available, with steep monthly costs.
But as soon as your business requires a custom domain or has to deal with regulatory compliance, the limitations of a consumer service become painfully obvious. The most sobering shortcoming of all is that Microsoft or Google can shut down that free email account and its associated services anytime, with limited rights of appeal for the affected user. If you own your own domain, you have a higher level of support and the freedom to move your data at any time.
What other competitors are available?
There's certainly no shortage of providers in the cloud storage and collaboration space. This guide focuses on the two undisputed leaders in the space, but you definitely have alternatives.
Apple's iCloud and Amazon Drive are consumer-focused services that target each company's core customers but fall short on business features. They're best suited for amateur photographers who want to consolidate their creative work.
Dropbox is the best known independent cloud storage service, with consumer and business tiers and solid ties to Microsoft Office. Box (formerly Box.net) is more mature, by two years or so, and has an equally solid set of professional-strength add-ins for connecting to Office apps.
Less well known but certainly worth considering is Intermedia's SecuriSync, which is available as a standalone product or as part of a subscription package that includes Microsoft Office 365. (Intermedia is a Microsoft partner.)
You can also choose from a variety of specialized enterprise services, including Egnyte, which offers data governance features and the capability to deploy a hybrid cloud environment using any combination of public cloud services (Microsoft, Google, or Amazon, for example) and on-premises storage.
What does Google Drive for business cost and how much storage space do you get per user?
Most business customers will get a Drive storage allotment as part of a G Suite subscription, but it's also available as a standalone product.
- G Suite Basic edition includes 30 GB of online storage per user, at a cost of $6 per user per month. This package also includes the Google online apps (Docs, Sheets, and Slides) as well as Gmail, Calendar, and conferencing features.
- Business and Enterprise editions of G Suite increase the amount of storage dramatically. For an organization with five or fewer users, the storage allotment is 1 TB per user; with more than five users, each user gets unlimited storage and archiving. The monthly cost per user is $12 for Business edition and $25 for Enterprise edition.
- The two G Suite for Education editions include unlimited storage; the basic edition is free, while G Suite Enterprise for Education costs up to $4 per user per month.
- Google's standalone cloud storage service, Drive Enterprise, includes Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides but not Gmail or Calendar. It costs $8 per active user per month, plus $.04 per gigabyte of storage used, with no limit on the total amount of storage allowed.
Business and Enterprise G Suite plans also include shared drives (formerly known as Team Drives) which allow individual subscribers to collaborate in a shared workspace.
File size limits exist for Google Documents, Spreadsheets, Presentations, and Sites. There are no limits on the types of files that can be uploaded to Google Drive, and individual files can be up to 5 TB in size.
What does OneDrive for Business cost and how much storage space do you get per user?
As we've noted elsewhere, Microsoft offers a dizzying array of Microsoft 365 and Office 365 plans, in sharp contrast to the relative simplicity of G Suite plans. (For details, see "Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365) vs G Suite: Which productivity suite is best for your business?")
OneDrive for Business is included with all Microsoft 365 and Office 365 plans and in SharePoint Online plans; it can also be purchased as a standalone plan.
The default storage allowance for each user is 1 TB, except for users on the "frontline worker" plans, who are allowed a measly 2 GB each. For Office 365 Enterprise subscriptions with 5 or more users, OneDrive for Business storage is unlimited, although enabling the extra allotment requires some extra steps. An administrator can increase the allowance to 5 TB; increasing the allowance to 25 TB requires opening a support ticket with Microsoft. Storage allowances over 25 TB are handled by adding 25 TB SharePoint team sites to individual users and providing a credit for the added storage to the organization.
Office 365 Business and Enterprise plans include shared storage (in the form of SharePoint Online team sites); the default allotment is 1 TB plus 10 GB for each licensed user.
There are no restrictions on types of files that can be uploaded to OneDrive. In a major upgrade that took effect in July 2020, the maximum size for any single file was increased to 100 GB from the previous limit of 15 GB.
What are the pros and cons of Google Drive for business?
Most of the benefits of using a cloud service like Google Drive come as a direct by-product of moving to Google's cloud-based environment, with advantages that come from Google's scale and its ability to integrate cloud-based files with its own online services.
That includes the capability to share files, either via email or using shared links, with options to allow or restrict editing and to disable forwarding, copying, downloading, and printing. In G Suite Business and Enterprise plans, administrators can restrict sharing of files outside the organization, with the option to whitelist domains.
For documents in Google Docs, Slides, or Sheets format, users can collaborate on documents in real time and sync changes to the cloud. You can also manage versions of files, with the ability to roll back changes to a previous version, and set up team workflows that allow users to assign tasks and request approvals on shared projects.
Users can download apps that allow access to online files and offer the capability to sync files for offline use. For Macs and Windows PCs, Google offers two apps: Backup & Sync for use with a personal Google Drive account and Drive File Stream for G Suite accounts. Drive File Stream opens and saves all files and folders directly from the cloud; you can make selected files or folders available offline to sync them to your computer. The service appears in Windows Explorer and the Mac Finder as a mapped drive.
You'll notice the biggest disadvantage of Google Drive in environments where users have standardized on Microsoft Office desktop apps. A Drive File Stream alert panel in Word and other Office apps lets you know when it's safe to edit files and when files have changes that need to be synced, but the experience is nowhere near as elegant as you get with the native Google apps or with Office apps connected to OneDrive.
What are the pros and cons of OneDrive for Business?
OneDrive for Business is at its best in organizations that have standardized on other Microsoft products, especially those that use SharePoint Online, Microsoft Teams, and the desktop apps in the Office family.
On Windows 10 PCs, the same sync client works with personal OneDrive accounts and OneDrive for Business, with each location represented by its own top-level node in Windows File Explorer and on the Open page for desktop apps. Versioning controls allow administrators to restore files for a specific user from a specific date and time, offering effective protection against ransomware attacks.
The desktop sync client supports a disk-space-saving feature called Files On-Demand, which allows users to browse their entire cloud data store in File Explorer while syncing only those files that need to be saved locally. A 2018 Microsoft OneDrive update helps save battery life by improving sync management when the Battery Saver feature is turned on.
Users can share files from a web browser, from File Explorer, from within an Office desktop app, or from Microsoft Outlook. Shared links can allow or restrict editing and can be set to expire at a specific date and time. Administrators can further restrict file sharing, by preventing users from sharing files and folders outside of the organization. They can also create data loss prevention policies, starting with templates for common types of financial, medical, and personal information, to automatically identify and restrict documents that contain that type of data.
The 100 GB maximum size for files stored in OneDrive is a dramatic improvement over the previous 15 GB limit, but it still might be a dealbreaker for some organizations whose workflows contain very large files, such as raw video footage. The complexity of the Office 365 administrative interface, which is a strength for large organizations with trained IT staff, can also be daunting to smaller organizations.
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