File transfer systems adapting to today's cloudy conditions

Email is still the dominant way to send information from one person to another. But when lots of big files are being sent, email servers can quickly start feeling the pressure, leading to degraded performance and network bandwidth strain.

This is what the managed file transfer (MFT) business addresses. Bypassing email servers, these systems are dedicated to transferring large files within organizations, between businesses and customers, or in business-to-business or application-to-application transactions. Email newsletters many times use MFTs to blast users about the latest news or promotions from their company. Financial institutions that send large numbers of documents to customers and other business partners may use MFT, too.

Managing all these file transfers is a sizeable market: Gartner analyst Ben Huang estimates it to be at between $700 million to $800 million per year, but that only takes into account recorded revenues. Other researchers estimate the market could be more than $2 billion.

Among the bigger players in MFT are IBM and Citrix, while a growing crop of startups such as YouSendIt aim for the small-business and consumer markets.

But the larger, more compelling trend in how these file transfers are managed is one that's seen across the tech landscape today. These businesses, and users, are attempting to adapt to a new cloud-based world where file transfers are not only done in the cloud, but cloud services allow for even broader capabilities compared to on-premise systems.

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There's been a flurry of activity in the past few weeks by vendors specializing or competing in file transfer management. No less than a half-dozen vendors have made news, mostly about extending their platforms to include new cloud-based services. Ipswitch File Transfer could be the clearest example. The company offers a series of MFT products, including a server for on-premise MFT. Last week, though, Ipswitch announced MOVEit, a completely cloud-based MFT.

"CIOs are facing pressure to manage data," says Simon Yates, a Forrester researcher who works with CIOs on mobile and workplace technology. "These are big trends around the amount of data being produced and providing ways to safely share content with a variety of users, and synch across all the devices workers are using."

Yates calls this the "anytime, anywhere" worker. Forty percent of information workers, he says, use three or more devices for work, while more than one-third of workers already use consumer-focused cloud applications, such as Dropbox, Box or iCloud. These trends are not slowing down; they're accelerating, and MFTs are seen as one way of helping to manage the flow of large amounts of data across these devices.

Vendors are looking to step in and take advantage. Gartner analyst Huang says the industry is dominated by big-name players. IBM's Sterling is seen as the market leader on the enterprise side, Huang says, with other players like Tibco, Axway, Seeburger, Informatica, Software AG and Citrix ShareFile in the mix.

And there is the crop of smaller and mid-tier players, many of which in recent weeks have amended their products. Examples of these companies include, but are not limited to, YouSendIt, Ipswitch, Globalscape, CodeTwo and Kitepoint -- a new product from Accellion being released this week.

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What's the biggest difference among these providers? Generally, smaller providers may have a cheaper sticker price for services, with more basic features and functionality, says Huang. Larger vendors generally have more holistic approaches with additional bolt-on features that can be integrated into the systems, bringing packages into the seven-figure range, Huang says. With those added features comes added complexity, plus longer sales and deployment process. Mid-tier and smaller vendors may have fewer moving parts and a more logical and faster installation.

IBM's Sterling MFT, for example, ties in enterprise resource planning (ERP), and business process management (BPM) features as well, helping businesses automate and streamline operations leading up to the actual transfer of files in the MFT system.

Most on-premise, behind-the-firewall MFT systems run on traditional hardware and do not require dedicated infrastructure, but they do require high-memory servers, usually with high processing power since they are designed to handle large quantities of data transfer, along with features functions such as compression and encryption. Some vendors, like Ipswitch, have servers specifically designed for on-premise MFTs. Huang recommends using a dynamic storage array that has the ability to expand and contrast based on needs of specific file transfers, as well as having real-time backups or replications.

With the range of options from vendors also comes a variety of different ways these systems are architected on the back end. Some are policy-based with email platforms, such as Microsoft Outlook: Any file transfer more than 1MB or 2MB can be automatically processed by the MFT, for example, helping to take the strain off of email servers. Others are completely manual or automated processes where users manually select which transfers would be handled by the MFT. Or, automatic processes can be put in place for application-to-application transfers, to machine-to-machine, all done through the MFT.

Customers typically begin looking at MFTs when their email servers begin getting overcrowded, or if they have consistent need for large file transfers. "If an organization sending a 2MB newsletter to 10,000 people, that's pumping a lot of information through your network," says Michael Osterman, an independent researcher in the messaging and collaboration space. Instead, with an MFT, that same organization can upload one copy to an MFT server and send 10,000 much smaller emails that contain a link where users can access the content on the MFT server. All of the sudden the bandwidth consumption of those 10,000 newsletter readers is not happening all at once, but is spread out across a longer period of time, taking strain off the network.

Yates, the Forrester researcher, says IT shops have a variety of tools at their disposal, including MFT, traditional email and next-generation collaboration tools, like Salesforce's Chatter, Jive or Microsoft's Yammer. The key, he says, is for CIOs to study what users are already doing, and then either try to create policies for managing that, or give workers an alternative. "It's the CIO's job to put the right solution in place," Yates says. "It's about finding the right infrastructure to all workers to be the mobile and connected users they need to be."

Network World staff writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing and social collaboration. He can be reached at and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW.