Westmont College: Five Reasons Why We Made the Switch from BoxSeptember 24, 2013 No Comments
There’s been a storm of media coverage about how educational institutions are implementing various cloud-based services for educators and students. To stay competitive and provide top-level services for our constituents, Westmont over 4 years ago began moving to the cloud. To date we have implemented over a dozen cloud projects and have won a few awards along the way. To state it succinctly – cloud services transformed the ability of the Westmont IT staff to serve our college community. In order to maintain and build on our leadership position we implemented our most recent cloud project in order to fill one of the last remaining service gaps to the campus – storage. After quite a bit of research we decided to implement cloud storage with Box but quickly encountered numerous challenges. The technical folks at Box were great and really pulled out the stops to try and make things work. In the end they were unable to resolve our challenges which is why we made the switch to Egnyte. But more on Egnyte later.
Why was it rocky? In my opinion, Box’s service works fine as long as you start with no files – in essence, a blank storage area. For us as an institution that’s been around since 1937, we have plenty of data that needed to remain available. A successful project for Westmont required both the transfer of legacy data as well as the ability to access these files through a robust cloud file-sharing service. We sought to replace our legacy storage environment and not simply enhance it. Box really struggled to handle the nearly 1+ million files we transferred from our SAN. Our experience of the Box service was that it simply wasn’t ready to be the only storage solution for our college.
For a cloud storage service to work effectively it really needs to a few things extremely well. These critical areas for us include; speed, ability to work well with MS Office files, rock solid reliability, versioning of files and to work great with Macs. Let me share briefly our experience with each area.
Fast-paced educational environment depended on file-sharing systems for our professors, students and administrators. These systems must work within performance perimeters that do not impede the ability to get work done in a timely manner. The Box service unfortunately fell short of minimal performance and collaboration expectations with our existing files. Performance challenges grew so acute that within a few weeks after the official launch I had to halt the project and move the campus back to our aging SAN. Definitely not the step forward I was seeking.
Couldn’t handle our files
Workflow at Westmont includes extensive use of Excel. Our experience with Box is that it struggled significantly with high-use spreadsheets. For example, when saving a file after making a change, the entire file has to be uploaded every time. The long-standing work process of frequently saving changes was no longer viable. Users became frustrated and began sharing files via email in order to get their work completed. In addition, our business processes include the creation of both a large numbers of small files and the storage of these files in a single folder. This single folder is then nestled within other folders. The team works extremely hard to keep files organized using a specific naming convention and folder structures. What the college needed was a cloud-based system that maintained the file and folder integrity of our older SAN. In using Box we discovered a hard limit on the number of files in each folder that had a dramatic impact on the performance and collaboration within work teams.
In spite of increasing overall Internet bandwidth at the college about 9x we had several days where the DAV (Distributed Authoring and Versioning) connections struggled to work reliably and systems froze when high access rates were attempted. We would regularly have “too much activity” that would result in a “come back in 60 seconds” message. The point of any enterprise service including cloud-based systems is to make it easier and faster for teams to access and collaborate on files. Box struggled with the day in and day out reliability so essential for productive work teams.
Minimal version control
We all use file storage systems and we know how critical version control is in keeping track of changes to documents. The 1+ million files we uploaded into Box had their file modification and creation dates reset to the day when the files were uploaded into the Box environment. This made the collaboration and finding specific files nearly impossible.
Not Mac friendly
Over seventy percent of our teams use Apple products for getting their work done. The reader is Flash-based instead of HTML 5. This posed a real challenge for our Mac users since we had spent the last several years systematically removing Flash and committing to HTML 5. In a world where Mac and PC parity is a given, both in the enterprise and in higher education – it was difficult to go back in time when Macs were considered a second-class client.
The Bottom Line
So why did we stay committed to cloud storage even with all of these challenges? In the end I recognized that I was still committed to the model (baseline IT services delivered and managed in the cloud) but that I needed to rethink how best to accomplish our goal. Our teams at the college are made up of people who never travel and others who travel nearly all the time. The Egnyte solution with its ability to integrate with our on premise managed SAN and its tightly coupled cloud solution gave me the best of both worlds. Speed and familiar drive mapping when in my office and access via WebDAV or my iOS client when I was traveling. And no matter where I accessed my files – Egnyte keeps everything synchronized. Like the other cloud services we have at the college our experience with Egnyte has been rock solid. It works, it’s fast and it extended the value of cloud services at our college. With great partners like Egnyte we spend less time keeping baseline services functioning at enterprise levels and more time working on the next strategic initiative that can move our college forward.
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