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imageIn a different life I worked for Starbase Corporation (now part of the Borland constellation of developer tools). If you Google it, my Linkedin profile is the second hit of 500,000+ pages, perhaps nothing to brag about as the historical reference continues to dim along with the fond memories.

As a member of an incredibly talented architectural team, my focus was on collaboration features for StarTeam and the challenges were significant. Programming teams had stringent security requirements but they also needed the freedom to collaborate effectively. They also needed to be able to lay their hands on critical information concerning customer conversations, technical requirements, and support issues and bugs. And all of this information had to be pulled together in a security context where one developer’s search results may another developer’s security breach.

Accellion is no stranger to these requirements; they’ve been building and hosting collaborative services and solutions for more than a decade and they’ve come to understand intimate aspects of IT perspectives from 1,100+ clients who depend on Accellion to defend their organizations and data from prying eyes, hackers, and threats.

Executives at Accellion are clearly in touch with real-world business requirements and while listening to their customer base, they began to sense the emerging interest in mobile access to documents within their Secure Collaboration product, a web-only client until recently. Accellion for iPad and iPhone/iPodTouch debuted in the App Store recently. Fucntionally, these apps are identcal with some slight differences pertaining to screen size.

According to their web site,

“With Accellion Mobile Apps, professionals on-the-go have the ability to securely share and manage files from a mobile device.  Accellion makes it easy to collaborate from a smartphone or tablet by providing secure mobile access to files stored in Accellion Secure Workspaces within Accellion Secure Collaboration.  Mobile users can browse workspaces, send and share files, subscribe to notifications, and provide comments on files located within their Accellion Secure Workspaces.”

Accellion marketing execs are quick to go on the record saying that this app is design specifically for their customers. Even though it is free in the App Store, there’s nothing to see there unless you already have an account and access credentials with Accellion. Future versions of the app are likely to include ways for you to experience the Accellion mobile collaboration system and learn more about this product, although no timeframe or features have been revealed. In the mean time, ask for a free 45 day trial.

Accellion: A Cloud Service?

Oh yeah, you betcha! More transparently, anything you can outsource in your company related to IT, takes on the essence of a cloud solution because it mimics the desired outcome. As long as the solution performs seamless to other IT systems within the organization, it’s just another form of cloudifying IT.

According to Gartner analyst Thomas Bittman speaking at this week’s Gartner IT Infrastructure, Operations & Management Summit 2011 in Orlando,

“IT is not just the hoster of equipment and managing it. Your job is delivery of service levels at cost and with agility … virtualization is the path to that in order to able to operate a private cloud where IT services can be quickly supplied to those in the organization who demand them, often on a chargeback basis.”

The ability to expand and contract services based on changes in your company, and the ability to provide single sign-on, are some of the attributes that make Accellion a suitable candidate for virtualizing your collaborative foundation. And now their collaboration product includes mobile tablet and smart phone collaboration – a space that is (without debate) owned by Apple as far as the hardware is concerned.

Competitor to Box and DropBox?

Because it’s a cloud service, does this mean that Accellion is competing with the likes of DropBox? No. iCloud? Unlikely. How about Box.net? Perhaps, but even that’s a vague notion.

I can sum up the differences and quash any desire to compare these tools by this simple analogy:

“Box, DropBox, (and soon iCloud), represent the fast-food industry of document collaboration. Accellion is a sit-down restaurant complete with a five-course menu and even a chef in the kitchen who will customize your meal if you ask. And this restaurant has a really cool customer relationship feature that will tell you precisely what you and everyone in your party ate, when you ate it, and how many calories were in it. Oh yeah, and they serve outstanding espresso in an environment that’s pleasurable to have intimate conversations without the noise and distractions of a hyper-fast eatery.”

To provide more clarity on the competitive axis, consider these points.

  • Accellion’s rich heritage for delivering ultra-secure collaboration systems is on a different compass heading than organizations that are primarily focused on ad-hoc collaborative interchange. Collaboration in Accellion is typically planned and premeditated with purpose.
  • The extensive accountability that is set in the foundation of Accellion’s file transfer and collaboration software is unlikely to be of interest to users of lightweight file management and sharing systems.
  • Workflow management in, and peripheral to, files and digital artifacts is a key element of the Accellion feature set. Although these features have not yet appeared in their iOS apps, insiders at Accellion confirm they are coming in future updates.
  • Email is where knowledge goes to die (quote). Box and all those other products depend on open email protocols and porous clients to serve as the communications backplane. Accellion doesn’t; it has its own secure and integrated messaging infrastructure which ads another layer of defense to an already air-tight model.

Accellion for iPad

Bear in mind, this is a first release, intended only to meet immediate customer requirements. We all know that iPad has invaded enterprises like no other product. At the leading edge of enterprise adoption of the magic tab is the need to get in the door with a reliable solution that leverages the most important aspects of Accellion’s extensive collaboration and file management services. Given the depth of these tools, it may take a number of releases before their iOS apps are considered even remotely complete – indeed they have lots of work ahead of them. But they also have a solid answer for enterprises who must embrace mobile collaboration today.

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The app is fast and snappy. It seems like they’ve leveraged caching in a positive way. Until a document fully loads (when viewing it), scrolling can be a little jerky. I suspect this will translate into more of an annoyance at slow connectivity speeds. I also tried to terminate the app and look for remnants of documents in the iOS file system without success, so they seem to be cleaning up the file system as advertised and it appears to provide a solid and secure mobile architecture. (Disclaimer : I’m not a security expert.)

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Accellion’s iOS offering currently supports collaboration with a simple yet functional user interface that focuses on access to 22 document types and conversations around them. Currently, there is no way to open these documents in another iOS app, but that capability is likely to be in development. This alone will be a major challenge because of the security architecture in iOS and the enterprise security requirements that CXOs are shouting about. Accellion execs are predictably tight-lipped about the future, especially their strategy for achieving end-to-end mobile collaboration. I have a fleeting sense they understand how to solve this problem.

The controlled sharing of documents over to an app such as QuickOffice Pro HD or PDF Expert seems almost necessary to hold the attention of [Accellion] iPad users while sustaining the security and workflow advantages that come with Accellion’s solution. I would argue that they must also solve the issue of round-trip editing and all within a secure context. It’s not good enough to open documents in these highly productive iPad tools; they must also allow users to edit them and return them into the workflow prescribed for the documents. Ironically, iOS security constraints surpress the ability to maintain secure contexts. Apple’s iOS app-level security features constrain the ability to create secure contexts across multiple apps developed by different teams.

Accellion…

I like this company and their philosophical approach to providing enterprise-grade solutions. Translating their experience and knowledge about enterprise needs into useful mobile solutions is a non-trivial challenge, but they seem to possess the right mix of DNA to pull it oss.

This is precisely the type of app that CIOs, CTOs, and most importantly, CSOs are looking for to give two big thumbs up. The rapidly advancing consumerized IT stack is putting pressure on C-level execs to cave into some very threatening use cases, and there are few app strategies where security wasn’t an afterthought. These folks have set their sights on the cluster-you-know-what that’s about to be unleashed in enterprises across the globe – mobile document chaos.

It’s a noble fight; I hope they succeed.

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