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The cloud hanging over Google Docs Add to ...

When David Senf and colleagues at technology research firm International Data Corp. needed to collaborate on a spreadsheet, the easiest way was to upload it to Google Docs, a cloud-based service where they could all edit it.

Though IDC specializes in technology, it didn’t have any tools internally that could handle the task as easily as a publicly available cloud service, says Mr. Senf, who is vice-president of the firm’s infrastructure solutions group in Toronto.

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What he and his colleagues did is not uncommon. Employees of companies large and small – but especially those in smaller businesses, Mr. Senf says – are using Google Docs, Google Drive, Box, YouSendIt and Evernote at work.

About 75 to 85 per cent of Evernote users use it for both personal and work purposes, says John McGeachie, vice-president of sales for Redwood City, Calif.-based Evernote, whose flagship app helps track miscellaneous information from any device.

Some five or six per cent of those using these cloud apps do so without their information technology department’s knowledge, Mr. Senf says. Even more are doing so with the knowledge – if not necessarily the blessing – of IT folks.

Some who follow technology are calling it the Bring Your Own Cloud trend. It’s an offshoot of an earlier trend known as Bring Your Own Device, which refers to workers using their own computers, smartphones and tablets at work. “Certainly BYOD is a catalyst for BYOC,” Mr. Senf says.

It’s happening because users are able to get that service more quickly and painlessly than they’re able to get it from their own IT department, says Mr. Senf.

It’s also part of what some call the consumerization of IT – when people see Web-based tools in their personal lives “and wonder why the technology is not in their office,” says James Lambe, director of sales for Google Enterprise at Google Canada.

Employees discover tools on the Web, use them on their own gadgets, then take those gadgets to work and use those same tools there.

“A big part of it has to do with the tools that they’re getting from IT just don’t cut it any more,” says Ben Dickie, research analyst for enterprise collaboration solutions at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

Established businesses are mired in an interdependent tangle of older technology that is hard to update, which stops them from introducing new capabilities quickly, Mr. Lambe says. Cloud technology makes it easier to introduce new capabilities and to scale as the organization grows, he says, which is why many start-up companies rely heavily on cloud rather than on-premises applications.

And, says Mr. McGeachie, “if you can increase the productivity of people …the benefit to the business bottom line is tremendous.”

But Bring Your Own Cloud raises concerns about security, regulatory compliance and the business’s control of data and systems.

This spring, no less a tech-savvy company than IBM Corp. banned employees from using a list of online data-storage services, including Google Drive and Dropbox, at work.

IBM cancelled an interview for this story, but earlier public comments by the company indicate it was concerned about the security of its data.

That’s a reasonable concern, though such worries are often overblown, analysts say. “There haven’t really been any high-profile breaches of a solution like Box in some time,” Mr. Dickie says. Mr. Senf adds that Google’s security is probably stronger than that of most Canadian businesses’ own computer systems.

Control may be a bigger worry than security, though. Suppose an employee stores information on Google Drive using a personal account, and then leaves the company. “There’s no way for the organization to limit my access to previous content that I had,” Mr. Dickie points out.

One solution, he says, is business versions of these services, which allow company IT specialists more control. For example, a Google Application Suite subscription, covering a variety of Google’s online tools at $50 per user per year, lets company IT people determine things such as what information employees can share and what features they are allowed to use, Mr. Lambe says. “You get the best of both worlds,” he says.

Evernote Business costs $10 a user per month, and users within a business can share information, Mr. McGeachie says.

But employees may do better than IT specialists at finding tools to help them do their jobs.

One large manufacturing company – which Mr. Senf would not name – has given its staff a one-year “amnesty” during which they are encouraged to discover online tools and bring them to the attention of the IT department, which will then decide which are suitable for business use.

Smaller businesses often don’t have formal IT departments, and in some cases lack even a single technology specialist, but Mr. Senf says employees who use cloud services for work should still be doing so with their employer’s knowledge and subject to a common approach that considers issues such issues as reliability, security, cost and ability to keep up as the business grows.

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