Box.com Review - 2021 Content Service Provider Roundup

Updated
October 25, 2021

Box is a cloud storage provider that focuses on security and collaboration over just pure file storage. While Box can function as a single user backup and synchronization solution, there is little benefit for using Box for this purpose as there are lower cost solutions that provide similar functionality such as directly uploading files to Amazon AWS S3. For example 100GB of storage on Box costs $10/month, whereas putting 100GB of data in deep storage in S3 for backup would run you $0.099 (less than 10 cents) per month. If you’re looking for cross device synchronization out of the box but still not looking for advanced collaboration tools you can get 1,000 GB, 10 times as much storage, for $9.99/month from DropBox. The real value of Box is as a collaboration tool for organizations (and their clients) and this review itself will be focused on using Box for these purposes. Box is one of the most advanced offerings on the market for this purpose.

User Experience

Tracking File Changes

When collaborating on a file, it can be super helpful to have insight into how a file progresses over time. With Box as with many cloud service providers, you can have multiple versions of a file. As you update a file a whole number “version number” gets incremented. The version you had before you updated is still there as the previous version number and is still accessible. This is very helpful for rolling back the file in case of accidental or unwanted changes, and for seeing how the file has changed over time for example to determine who added what and when. How many versions you can have in history is determined by what plan you’re on for Box, ranging from a single version in the free plan to 100 for the enterprise plan, to unlimited when using Box Governance. Versions are differentiated by a whole number that constantly increases on each subsequent file update. You can rollback to a previous version of the file in the Box website. While you can’t add notes about what changed in each version, the version updates show up in the activity stream alongside the file preview so comments can be added there. Box does not offer capabilities to show the differences between files unless built into the underlying platform for example in Google Workspace. Instead you may only view the entirety of the file and must compare the files manually. This can be difficult for files which are not easy to preview within the browser.

Documentation and Ownership

When it comes to running an organization, being able to document and share knowledge around a file is super important. Knowledge that is trapped in an individual does collaborators no good. Therefore it is super important to have tools to both draw out and store that information so that it is no longer trapped within an individual. Box provides two mechanisms that I can see to do this. The primary one is the comment stream associated with the file. This is not viewable on the desktop but can be viewed on the web when previewing the file. The comment stream allows you to tag other people, and because all file activity is present and auditable you can determine who would be most knowledgeable for a given file. The other mechanism would be storing documentation in an external document like Box Notes which is Box’s version of collaborative (up to 20 people) text editing. Documentation could be stored here and then associated in the comment stream to the file. Overall the ability to add documentation and operating procedures on top of files is mixed, as the comment stream has a limited suitability for structured documentation, though is well suited for question answering. The idea of “associated documents” is not present, everything is loosely associated in the comments or dumped into the same folder as peers. That being said, the necessity of strong documentation depends highly on what kind of files you are dealing with, the file and applications inbuilt ability to document and store metadata, and the processes you have within the company to contribute to shared documentation. As far as organization goes Box fares well by providing beyond the traditional folder structure personalized collections as well as file metadata and document categorization. This comes in handy in combination with Box’s extensive security configurability.

Internal Collaboration

Your best bet for interactive collaboration is using one of the built in platforms that are designed for online collaboration when dealing with standard types of files (documents, presentations, spreadsheets). Options include using Office 365 (which will cost you an additional $5/user/month at least) or Google Workspace (which will cost the same). The other option is to lock files while they are being edited, which means other users are prevented from making changes until you release the lock, indicating you are done or some set period of time expires depending on how you configured the lock when you took it via the box website. This helps avoid overwriting other users’ changes or vice versa when saving the file. Microsoft Sharepoint offers similar functionality with its check in and out capabilities. Being able to lock a file is helpful but at its root not truly collaborative. For files that are not in the typical office suite your options for collaborating in Box is through file locking during edits or maintaining separate files for each contributor and manually combining them. Your best bet for truly collaborative interactions is to use software solutions designed for collaboration (for example Office 365 or Google Docs for General Documents, Figma for Design, etc.) adding on Box acts more as a coordination layer, which is still very helpful, though you should be aware of the distinction.

Client Collaboration

One of the strongest points of Box is its ability to interact with clients outside of your managed user base. You can invite other Box users outside of your organization to collaborate on files managed by your organization. The security controls on this are extremely fine grained. Furthermore from an Administrator perspective seeing who has external access to your documents is extremely easy and one of the clearly optimized for use cases. In addition to being able to collaborate on documents with external users, you can also share links out to other users. This has a distinct benefit over emailing the file directly in that links can expire and users can be removed from access after the document has been sent (though, it should be noted that if the user was able to download the document there is nothing preventing them from keeping that downloaded copy). Furthermore the document can be updated after it has been sent. You can also set time based link expiry and as an Administrator you can enforce various policies about expiring links and also audit all shared links. You can allow users to upload documents to your Box account without granting them access to your account which can be very useful when accepting documents from clients. Finally you can also collect document signatures with various providers (DocuSign, Adobe Sign, or Box’s own solution Box Sign). Through all these providers the file’s make their way straight back into your Box account. One of the strong points of Box is the ease of file collaboration both internally and externally while still maintaining control over data access and thorough audit trails.

Administration

Migration

One major thing to consider is migration and technical support. If you’ve dealt with an on premise SharePoint setup you know the process can be painful. Getting any organization on board a new technology can be trouble. Thankfully Box is completely cloud hosted like most of its modern competitors (for example Sharepoint Online) so there is little to worry about in terms of setup or concerns over costly maintenance. For migrations Box offers some nice integrations including an FTP Server allowing you to migrate data via the FTP protocol. Additionally Box Shuttle is another migration app that lets you migrate files, permissions, metadata and version history from other sources such as AWS, DropBox, G-Drive, Sharepoint Online, OneDrive, or Windows. Box Shuttle is free as a self service tool for migrations up to 10TB and is paid for more complex migrations at $500/TB.

IT Administration

The IT Administration story for Box is quite good, offering a lot of insights into file activity over time for files stored within the platform. All actions including previewing a file are stored and auditable, and as an administrator you have the ability to generate reports with fine grained controls over the behavior you’re searching for. In addition, administrators have control over what apps can be used, group configurations, configuration of shared links (setting an expiry and capabilities), and easy visibility into external collaborators (and the ability to quickly remove them if needed), password requirements and password expiration enforcement, and control the number of devices logged in per user. As an administrator you also have the ability to restrict access at the folder level which can be useful for sensitive data.

Stability

In terms of downtime Box.com has a fairly good reputation. We analyzed the 37 public downtime events reported between now (October 18th 2021) and the start of 2021. The Events API responsible for logging admin or user activity was one of the most impacted aspects of the service with 8 of 37 (~22%) of incidents. The average incident time was 25 hours considering some of the longer incidents spanning multiple days. Considering incident free time as completely available, for 2021 at the time of writing the complete service availability is around 86.7% (though some events overlap), however the critical availability is 98.1%. That being said, it is probable that any given customer would experience a higher level of availability since not all events impact all customers or for the full duration of the reported event, and that the true uptime calculation would be scaled by the number of impacted users meaning the uptime is probably significantly north of 99%. From a Service Level Agreement perspective box guarantees 99.9% availability, though it is unclear how this is measured or what level of service degradation counts it is likely scaled by the number of users impacted. Box provides SLC Credit as a portion of the fees paid if you pay for the service and premium support and you make a written request within 15 days of the downtime. You can read the latest Box Service Agreement for further details and to ensure the factual accuracy at the time of reading.

Integrations

Another one of the strong points of Box is the number and quality of integrations available. The nature of the vast majority of integrations is to enable files stored in Box to act as files or links to files within the integrated platform. As there are over 1400 integrations we won’t cover them all, you can see all of the integrations at https://cloud.app.box.com/apps. Some of the most popular integrations are with Adobe, Office 365, Google Workspace, IBM, SalesForce, Slack, DocuSign, servicenow, Oracle NetSuite, and Okta. Other than just integrations, Box has applications for all major platforms making it easy to access files from desktop, tablet, or mobile devices.

Security

The strongest point in favor of Box is its security controls. As an administrator you have visibility to see external collaborators and shared links, as well as enforce restrictions around those. You can set passwords requirements and lifecycle policies, manage SSO integrations and enforce multi-factor auth. Document metadata can be used for document classification and enforce restrictions based on the type of document, allowing you for example to disable link sharing for “Critical” business documents. When sharing links or inviting collaborators, users can set super granular permissions on what the external collaborator is allowed to do with the file they are being shared. Box features a secure way to take in files from clients as well without granting access to your Box account.

Comparison

Limits

All business plans within Box offer unlimited storage. The only limit is the size of the underlying files you can store. This is an interesting way to tier limits as the size of the files you deal with has less to do with the size of your organization and more to do with the domain and tools you operate with. That being said you’re more likely to have to choose a higher tier plan for the secondary features for example FedRAMP and HIPAA compliance. A full comparison of plans is available the Box business pricing page. There is no stated performance difference between the plans. There may be a bandwidth limit (which by default is 1TB/month) depending on the terms of your Service Agreement. There is an undisclosed maximum recommended objects/user limit, the performance implications of going over this limit are unclear but it’s easy to see how a large number of files could cause issues with search and reporting. It is likely that internal scaling factors are based on the number of users associated with your account. Box has an undisclosed limit on the number of files per folder somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000.

Summary

Box has strengths in security and compliance, external collaboration capabilities, and the number of integrations making it likely that you would be able to integrate it into your workflows and meet the security and compliance needs of your business. On the flip side it seems  to have some availability issues and a steep price requiring you to purchase office 365 on top of it to get the most out of it. Overall box is easy to use for the average user, your clients, and the IT administrator. Box is also generally more expensive than other content storage providers meaning you will need to justify its relatively higher cost by deriving value from its unique strengths. If you use specialized file types for your industry you may find the product more difficult to use as file previews become useless and integrations become unavailable. Overall, getting value out of the product requires adapting your employee workflows to using Box as the centralized store of files which can be hard depending on the complexity of those workflows your employees engage in, if integrations are available, and their ability to see the benefits of added security (which they may perceive as mostly a business level concern rather than individual). If you are able to drive adoption, work within the integration ecosystem, have advanced security/governance/compliance needs, or frequently share and intake files with external parties then you will likely find Box worth it. Its ease of use makes it a strong competitor to Microsoft Sharepoint Online, however lacking as a full intranet solution.