News / May, 2015

EMC Syncplicity Review

EMC Syncplicity Review. By Josh Linder @ TomsITPro. See original article here. 

May 21, 2015

With EMC's strong foundation inside the enterprise, and Syncplicity's hybrid position between cloud-based storage on-premises document management tools, EMC makes a very compelling case for enterprise file sync and share (EFSS) dollars, especially for those with existing EMC relationships, and for those comfortable bridging the gap between public and private cloud. EMC Syncplicity is first and foremost a way to extend enterprise assets, and is not a pure cloud storage or cloud backup system.

With the proliferation of data to an ever-increasing number of device types, it's difficult to discount the larger EMC, VMware, AirWatch, and Documentum story, and doing so would be a disservice to Syncplicity. Judged on its own merits, the tool compares favorably with other EFSS products, most specifically Citrix ShareFile and Acronis Access Advanced.

EMC acquired Syncplicity in 2012 to address the gaps in its solution portfolio  exposed by customer adoption of pure-play cloud storage providers, notably Dropbox and Box.

Syncplicity is differentiated by embracing enterprise and mobility tools, native and flexible hybrid cloud, its secure policy-driven approach, and enterprise-class support.

Embracing Enterprise Tools

One of the key benefits of selecting EMC Syncplicity is that it's built to be fully aware of information scattered across numerous enterprise content and document management tools. As organizations are not making a clean break away from these systems, Syncplicity is respectful of and integrated with content repositories across the enterprise. So long as the content is identified by and connected with the tool, it is available through mobile and PC interfaces, eliminating the need to migrate storage to new systems or platforms.

Syncplicity was designed from the outset to be secure, accessible, and available in its own right, but at the same time, it complements enterprise content management (ECM) platforms such as EMC's own Documentum and Microsoft SharePoint, while also leveraging and accessing shared drives (often running on EMC storage arrays, the company  hopes) and other network assets. Syncplicity provides built-in bandwidth throttling and Wi-Fi awareness (in the mobile client) to be a good corporate citizen.

Syncplicity currently supports network shares  (through Panorama, to be discussed later), mobile directories, SharePoint content, and access to a limited number of ECM repositories. To prevent out-of-date files and duplication, Syncplicity has built-in de-duplication techniques. And to allow new users to hit the ground running, administrators can set which assets are available to users, so their first experience -- and ongoing interaction -- has the latest and most appropriate content for that individual.

With the growing prominence of enterprise mobility management solutions, EMC has interfaced Syncplicity with the enterprise mobile management (EMM) tool from AirWatch. EMC has also deemed Syncplicity complementary to both its Documentum product and AirWatch's mobile content management (MCM) offerings, including Secure Content Locker View  and Secure Content Locker Collaborate.

For IT managers expecting deep integration with other portfolio platforms, such as VMware and Mozy Enterprise, these are still in progress and were not available at the time of this article.

Hybrid Cloud, StorageVaults and Panorama

EMC recognizes that organizations are not moving all content to the cloud immediately, as EFSS adoption is often done in a phased fashion.  Syncplicity facilitates a hybrid approach using StorageVaults and Panorama. These act as a bridge to the future by providing access to content in multiple enterprise content sources, such as home directories, file shares, and Microsoft SharePoint, without the need for content or metadata migration.

EMC's Panorama provides benefits to end users and IT administrators. For the user community, people can access files via mobile and without the need for VPN tunnel connectivity, which is both an expectation of cloud storage users and a technical challenge (hotels/cafes restrict or charge for VPN connectivity). Panorama also includes a built-in document editor to quickly change Microsoft Office files and annotate PDFs, natively check-in/check-out SharePoint assets, and access offline files prior to sync. While the editor will not match Microsoft's native office tools or some of the excellent third-party apps, it keeps the documents within the EFSS ecosystem and can help out in a pinch.

For IT, adoption of Syncplicity is accelerated since there is no need for migration of files, permissions, or other authentication. Syncplicity maintains the fidelity and structure of customers' existing three-tier architecture, which abides by security standards mandated by corporations  or government clients. There is also mobile administration and policies, such as remote wipe, passcode enforcement, and "open-in" third-party application restrictions (to prevent files from leaking out of the EFSS ecosystem). However, on a negative note, there is no seamless support for Syncplicity from the most popular mobile or desktop applications.

Since storage hardware and software is at the core of EMC, Syncplicity takes integration with storage infrastructure seriously. StorageVaults provides the actual mechanism for accessing hybrid off-premises and on-premises storage. On-premises storage can leverage one or more of EMC's storage technologies, or utilize third-party storage using NFSv3 (such as products from Hewlett Packard, Hitachi Data Systems, and Dell).  StorageVaults, the storage component, stores file data in a highly available, redundant, and scalable backend designed for instant data access.

Functionally, StorageVaults offers policy-driven hybrid cloud that gives IT the control over data storage and residency to meet internal and industry regulations. Customers can configure Syncplicity to store file versions and history in multiple storage arrays at the same time, based on user, group, and folder policies. Syncplicity's on-premises StorageVaults also supports second layer authentication (StorageVault Authentication) that provides greater privacy and compliance control.

Security Policies And Group Management

Syncplicity's second key differentiator is the use of policies and the administration of policy sets. This role-based access in the management console allows for building templates for over 30 facets of the system, including folder-level access and controls, content availability (i.e. information only going to people it should), remote-wipe content (immediate or based on time), multiple levels of access protection, and controlling desktop and mobile clients.

EMC Syncplicity stands out for its group management, which is comprehensive and offers the best of all worlds: it lets IT easily designate security using rich templates. While many tools have Active Directory Services (ADS) and LDAP/X.509 support, EMC goes further with policy set rankings, a type of intelligence for group membership overlap. This enables users to belong to multiple groups, while Syncplicity rationalizes the overlap and decides which one is most appropriate for the location and type of content at the specific time of access.

EMC also takes mobile security seriously. The Syncplicity mobile app has integrated mobile productivity capabilities that enable users to securely create, edit and annotate content within the secure encrypted "container." This is a powerful means to control a walled garden of enterprise content and prevent data leakage or breaking the chain of custody.

Syncplicity enables content protection with secure shared links that require recipients to enter a password to access content (similar to the experience with opening secures PDF files). Syncplicity provides digital/information rights management (DRM/IRM) that can expire a file even after it has been downloaded or moved outside the Syncplicity secure container.

On the topic of IRM, Syncplicity has incorporated the IP which was developed, and is now supported, by the same engineering and product teams responsible for the Authentica IRM solution acquired by EMC. IRM can either be managed through an on-premises rights management server, or a cloud-based rights management service. For organizations requiring document-level protection, this is a key differentiator, as other vendors are behind EMC's internal capabilities in the world of security and protection.

Regarding asset security, the files that Syncplicity persists in the storage layer are stored in an opaque container on the storage array that is optimized for enterprise sync and share functionality. Syncplicity StorageVaults gives IT departments more control and flexibility around where their data is stored, using a policy-driven hybrid model to store content in a public or private cloud based on user, group, folder file, or content type.

Finally, in April, 2015, Syncplicity introduced Customer Managed Keys, a feature which allows customers to manage their own encryption keys.  While not unique, it is another mechanism which enables enterprises to protect their data from prying eyes and government sniffing.

Creation And Viewing Tools

Syncplicity is a mixed bag compared to the other EFSS tools (both cloud-centric and on-premises) in content creation and editing. EMC hypes the user experience as a differentiator, but there is tremendous parity in file access, viewing, and integration to leading third-party editing tools.

On the one hand, Syncplicity provides editing features for Microsoft Office file formats and PDF documents directly inside its secure container on iOS (iPad and iPhone) and Android devices. Internal document viewing and editing supports numerous features, including slide animations and transitions, charts and tables, over 100 mathematical, statistical, financial, and econometric formulas, and full text, paragraph, and document layout and formatting. There is also support for secure Office files on Windows computers.

In addition, Syncplicity provides inline document comments for Microsoft Office and PDF formats, including the ability to annotate (text or handwritten) documents, object overlays, and highlight text. However, Syncplicity's support for Office 365 lags behind Citrix and Dropbox, which can store and retrieve files directly from within Office tools. EMC's integration with Office 365 is coming, but it's not here today.

Enterprise-Class Support And Integration

With EMC's background, it's no surprise that there is an enterprise approach to client support and online documentation. Support is available 24/7, and includes resources to help move from initial selection to pilot and widespread rollout, factoring in user adoption and user engagement. EMC has a customer success team that works hand-in-hand with the customers to connect EFSS to business value and enterprise security policies. This is a key differentiator between the smaller EFSS tools, and was evident across every aspect of the Syncplicity product.

One area in which Syncplicity could improve is its partner ecosystem. The challenge is that since EMC provides so much as a parent company, the need to integrate and interface with third party products is less important than it is for smaller cloud-first vendors.

This has held Syncplicity back, and it is evident across the tool. There are two broad APIs (Admin API and Content API), but so much is available within Syncplicity that it was difficult to understand what could be extended. As a product with a smaller footprint than the household name EFSS tools like Box and Dropbox, there weren't many examples of where and how API extensions have been employed.

EMC Syncplicity: Pros & Cons

Although Syncplicity has a small customer footprint today, it stands to grow as more organizations, including existing EMC customers, recognize the value of cloud sharing, and embrace EFSS as more than an emerging trend. EMC is very well positioned to capitalize on their Documentum installed base, as well as win business in non-Documentum shops. The large family of tools across EMC is able to address nearly every facet of storage, access, and protection.

We expect some rationalization of the overlap between EMC portfolio tools (most notably between AirWatch's MCM capabilities and Syncplicity) to reduce the confusion and amplify EFSS functionality to a larger customer base.

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