IBM Connections Review
SMB owners looking for a cloud collaboration tool with a social media twist might find what they’re looking for in IBM Connections.
SMB owners looking for a cloud collaboration tool with a social media twist might find what they’re looking for in IBM Connections. In addition to the usual file sync and share capabilities, this advanced EFSS tool lets you chat, email, host online meetings and even share your status with fellow employees.
Think of it as the Facebook of the EFSS space.
Do its added communication capabilities make IBM Connections a better choice than Dropbox, Box and all the other best EFSS providers? Stick with us as we overview the service’s features and pricing, then break down it’s user experience, collaboration capabilities, security and support.
- Unlimited storage plan
- Great application integrations
- Office Online & Google Docs
- Strong security
- No block-level sync
- No annual discount
- 5GB file upload max
- Fast block-level sync
- Secure file sharing
- Office Online/Google Docs integration
- No Linux support
- Affordable pricing
- Great social features
- Task management tracking
- Host online meetings
- Great chat tool
- No block-level sync
- No Office/Docs integration
- 2GB file upload limit
- Limited third-party apps
- No two-factor authentication
- Limited support options
- No link password protection
- Weak support
The table below will give you a quick look at some of the key features packed into the Connections platform.
Connections is an interesting case in that it has some features (like to-do lists and online meetings) that you won’t find with other platforms, but at the same time is missing some that should be commonplace (like two-factor authentication).
It’s also weak with regard to third-party application integrations.
We’ll give you a better idea of how all of this plays out so you can decide if Connections will work for your business later on in our review. First, though, let’s talk pricing.
IBM Connections has three basic price platforms: Social, S1 and S2. You can get a good feel for the service with a 14-day free trial before subscribing.
Each plan gives you 1TB of team storage plus 1GB of personal storage for every user account. Whether you go with Social, S2 or S1, there’s no minimum user requirements, which is a refreshing change of pace. Many other EFSS providers not only have high requirements, but cost twice as much per user.
Huddle, for example, requires at least 15 accounts and charges $20 for each one of them.
All three Connections plans give collaborative document editing, sync and share. Each also offers instant messaging capabilities to keep in contact with your employees. Connections S2 adds online meetings for up to 200 participants. S1 adds email and wiki space.
Like most enterprise file sync and share tools, much of the user interaction with Connections take place from your browser. Unlike them, files don’t take center stage in the user experience: social interactions do.
The home screen includes space to update your status and read those of others, just like a social media platform.
From the left margin, you can navigate between four other views, which include mentions, notifications, action items and saved content.
On the right side of the portal is a tool that lets you join or launch an online meeting, a place for event reminders and even a “recommendations” feed that gives you internal content suggestions based on your profile, connections and other criteria.
The navigation bar at the top of the page lets you visit other pages, including a mail, calendar, your contact list and the communities (groups) to which you belong. To actually get to your files, you have to click “more” and select “files” from the dropdown menu.
The approach isn’t a bad thing, it’s just different. IBM has decided to highlight Connections’ social capabilities over sync and share. For SMB owners working with a remote workforce, it’s a way to foster a sense of community that might be otherwise missing without a watercooler to gossip around.
The social features are also a nice way to drive collaboration.
In addition to the web interface, Connections has a desktop client available for both Windows and Mac. As with many other EFSS tools, installing this client creates a sync folder in your file system. Any files or folders placed in this folder get uploaded to your cloud storage space.
The majority of cloud storage tools we’ve evaluated stop there. Connections takes things a step further with by letting you navigate within the sync folder views of shared content, communities and collaborators, too.
If you’re away from you computer, you can also login into Connections from your smartphone with apps for Android, iOS and Windows Phone to update your status, check action items and visit communities.
You can also access your cloud content and upload new content from your phone.
While there’s no question the Connections user experience doesn’t have the simplified approach to sync and share of Dropbox and its many clones, it’s a nice change of pace that many business owners will find much more to their liking.
Much of user management with Connections is built around its use of “communities.” Communities are way to focus collaboration by more easily sharing content with multiple people. For example, you could have a community for graphic designers or a community for frontline staff.
Most other EFSS tools call these groups. However, IBM more than justifies the change in terminology. That’s because Connections goes much further in enhancing the collaborative aspects of groups than any other EFSS tool we’ve tested.
Each community gets its own community page, where members can browse content, view status updates, read and add to the community wiki, participate in the community forum and check out community bookmarks for vital resources.
When adding users, Connections lets you assign them one of four roles to control their permissions:
- User: collaboration and mail access
- Administrator: full access for managing account
- Admin Assistant: Basic user / password management
- App Developer: Access to extension development
Connections also has good reporting tools to let you keep tabs on your work force. These include admin areas to monitor file downloads and check basic site metrics.
While access to your content may be buried under a heap of social features, IBM Connections takes a more ambitious approach folder and file sharing than most EFSS tools.
When you create a folder, you’re given the option of keeping it private or sharing it with specific people and communities. Individuals and communities can be given read-only, edit or owner access to that folder. There’s also an option to allow others to share the folder with individuals outside of your business.
The same share settings, minus owner status, are available for files, too. Some EFSS tools only allow folder sharing, with all files in a given folder governed by the same access permissions. The added customization is a good touch.
Another file share option is link sharing. All you need to do is right-click on a file and click “copy link.” Anyone you give that link to will be able to access the file it’s attached to. While handy, this method of sharing isn’t exactly secure, especially since Connections doesn’t let you password protect links or give them automatic expiry dates.
Another issue we have with Connections’ approach to sharing is that while the service has two useful views that let you see what folders and files have been shared with you, there’s no analogous view to check what folders and files you’ve shared.
Icons on top of folders and beside file names let you scan for shared content, but a page to audit everything in one glance without having to search would make it easier to keep track of shares.
IBM Connections handles sync well, using a sync-folder model that will be familiar to anyone that’s used Google Drive, Dropbox, Onedrive or most other cloud storage tools. IBM calls this folder “My Drive.”
The sync folder model is popular because it’s simple to the point of elegance. It looks and mostly works like any other file system folder.
The only real difference is that any content inside of it is stored both on your hard drive and in the cloud. Any content put in the folder gets sent to a Connections data center, then passed along to other devices that have a sync client installed. This lets you share content with collaborators in near real-time.
Unfortunately, Connections doesn’t make use of differential, or block-level, sync like Dropbox does, which is a means of speeding up sync by only moving the parts of the files that actually changed.
Connections does support another excellent sync feature, called selective sync, however. Selective sync lets you turn sync off for certain folders. Doing so prevents cloud content from being stored on your hard drive, which in turn lets you save disk space.
Connections comes with a handful integrated, native tools that many business users will approve of. These include an email client, a to-do list to track action items, a calendar and a notes application.
Items created in your to-do list can be assigned to others for task tracking and display in your calendar. While not quite as easy to use or as visually appealing as Trello, it’s integration with Connections makes for smooth collaboration management.
Likewise, the Connections notes application can’t compete with Evernote, but, by virtue of its integration, is still a nice option to enhance productivity within the Connections ecosystem. Use it take meeting notes, brainstorm and surreptitiously work on that novel during office hours
While there many great virtual meeting apps available to business users that integrate with cloud storage, not many EFSS services actually provide their own. Connections does and using this feature won’t cost you any extra money.
From your Connections homepage, just click the “host meeting” button on the right side of the screen. A meeting ID and link will be generated that you can share with your collaborators and meeting window will open.
From there, you can share your screen or a specific file you have stored.
While Connections meetings can’t host 250 participants like Skype for Business can, it can host 200, which should much more than enough for most business users. In-meeting options include a file library, meeting stream, drawing tools and a record option.
Connections only gives you a handful of third-party tools to choose from. The list isn’t nearly as long or interesting as what you find with Dropbox, Box and a few other platforms, though favorites like SalesForce and a few applications from the Cisco suite are very much in attendance.
Missing favorites include Slack, Trello, IFFT, DocuSign, Zoho and many other top names in work productivity. However, Connection’s social capabilities make these misses far less critical than they would be with any other EFSS tool.
Connections does have a plugin for Microsoft Office so you can save Word, Excel or PowerPoint documents directly to your Connections storage, but we’d like to see a browser-based integration with Office Online or even Google Docs.
Any data you store in the IBM Connections Cloud gets backed up on redundant servers. The servers themselves are kept in secure data centers meant to withstand fires, earthquakes and other disasters.
Just in case, though, data centers are maintained on both coasts of the U.S. and in two different Japanese locations. Biometric scanners, CCTV cameras and 24/7 security patrols are also employed to keep unauthorized visitors out.
Prior to transfer to the cloud from your device, data gets encrypted in 128-bit AES. While 256-bit AES is more secure and more common within the cloud storage sector, there’s no real reason to be scared away by IBM’s decision to go with 128.
In theory, it would take the most advanced supercomputer in the world billions of years to crack 128-bit AES.In-transit data gets further secured with a SSL tunnels on HTTP calls. Then, once it arrives, it remains encrypted while at rest.
In-transit and at-rest encryption protect your data from certain types of online crime. In-transit encryption secures your data against so-called man-in-the-middle attacks, while at-rest encryption protects your data against potential server breaches.
You can read more about the security setup by reading the IBM Connections cloud security whitepaper. As you might expect of a technology company as venerable as IBM, in most ways it’s very complete.
One miss of note is that IBM Connections doesn’t support two-factor authentication (2FA), which would require that users input a security code sent to their phone when logging in from an unfamiliar device.
The issue with leaving 2FA out is that while 128-bit AES encryption keys might be impossible to crack, weak passwords are not. Two-factor security would mean that anyone who guess an account owner’s password would also need to have that account owner’s phone to make use of it.
Adding to the problem, there isn’t an admin option to alter mandatory password requirements. That said, Connections does at least force users to create passwords with at least eight characters. Also, you can set password expirations to force your users to periodically change their login credentials.
Finding the best support channel for your technical problem with larger corporations can be a bit like searching for a needle in a haystack. IBM doesn’t make matters any easier, at least when it comes to Connections.
Part of the issue is that account support is only available for Connections admins. Everyone else can only access self-help options. As the admin, in order to get support, you first need to register with your IBM Customer Number (ICN).
Telephone support is available but Connections Cloud isn’t on the list of IBM products supported through that channel. Live chat is available but only for sales inquiries.
We tested response times both for support tickets and IBM’s general inquiries email address. In both cases, we never got a response, which was troubling to say the least.
DIY support includes a product documentation, FAQs, troubleshooting guides and community support forums. There’s a search option to make navigation easier, although we did notice that many of the pages that returned via search were blank.
We also weren’t able to find information on key topics like versioning and selective sync. Also bad, most posts in the support forum go unanswered, making it virtually useless.
We would have expected a company with IBM’s reputation in the tech industry to have better support. It’s possible that we got the cold shoulder on our help inquiries because we were on a trial account, but that’s no way to win customers.
When it comes to user experience and components, we came away please with the IBM’s approach to EFSS. True, we were taken aback at first by the fact that file storage doesn’t occupy center stage in that experience. Once you get use to it, though, that doesn’t really detract from work productivity With a sync folder, your files never hard to find, anyway.
Features like status updates, virtual communities, to-do lists and online meetings make Connections one of the best all-around platforms in the EFSS space when it comes to collaborating with others.
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A handful of weaknesses, however, keep it from slipping into the top tier of EFSS tools with the likes of Dropbox for Business, Box, Egnyte Connections and Citrix ShareFile. These include no two-factor authentication, no password-protection for link shares, minimal third-party app integrations and poor support.
If these misses don’t give you pause, Connections has a price tag that should attract budget-conscious SMBs that want to give their employees the advantages that come with cloud-connected collaboration platform.
That’s it for our IBM Connections review. We’d love to hear your own take on the service in the comments below.
Thanks for reading.