PanTerra (News - Alert) Networks is probably the most innovative unified communications and file sharing cloud-based service provider you’ve never heard of, until now. TMC Labs was somewhat familiar with PanTerra Networks, but even we were surprised by the sheer number of UC and file sharing features built into its WorldSmart product suite when we took it for a test drive. WorldSmart’s unified cloud services deliver just about every form of file sharing, communications and collaboration – voice, video call, IM, e-mail, desktop sharing and fax. The WorldSmart suite includes two major components, CloudUC and the just launched (January 2014) SmartBox, which PanTerra calls, “the world’s first file sharing service that communicates.”
The entire WorldSmart suite is delivered from the cloud through a 100 percent browser-based UC client, leveraging HTML5 (previously Java) and eliminating any premises-deployed hardware or software. TMC Labs tested the entire WorldSmart suite, but the focus of our review is the recently launched SmartBox. SmartBox enables enterprise customers to securely share, sync and store files while seamlessly communicating and collaborating with users. In its most basic form, SmartBox is like Skype meets Box/Dropbox (News - Alert), but with many more enterprise-level features. In the more advanced version, SmartBox can replace an enterprise's existing communications infrastructure (PBX (News - Alert), conferencing, web meeting, etc.) while also providing cloud-based file sharing services. Targeting mid-market enterprises with 50 to 2,000 users, they built most of the technology and certainly the core technology themselves with thousands of customers currently running on their solutions.
The big differentiator between SmartBox and the other cloud-based file sharing players in the market is the integrated communications capabilities, including VoIP, video calls, voicemail, faxes, IMs, and call recordings, creating what TMC Labs will call UC+ because it’s much more than traditional UC. If, for instance, you share a document with John, Sally, and Sue, when you view this document you can instantly launch a group IM session, desktop share, and voice or videoconference with these three users. Essentially, all of your files are communications context-sensitive, allowing you to launch directly into the communications channel of your choice with the relevant parties. No more looking up e-mail addresses, phone numbers, or sending out a calendar invite to join a hosted web meeting session. Company colleagues and imported contacts are visible in a side panel with real-time presence. You already have the pertinent users listed and can have an ad-hoc meeting instantly. SmartBox combines file sharing, communicating, and collaborating all in a single solution, which is a huge productivity enhancer and helps reduce TCO.
SmartBox comes in two flavors – SmartBox Guest and SmartBox Enterprise. You would think the free Guest version would be fairly limited, but surprisingly it comes with a huge set of features including 2GB of storage, simple and secure file sharing, multiple share privileges, IM conference rooms, HD video calls, HD videoconferences, as well as mobile applications for both Apple iOS and Android devices. It also includes the softphone, allowing you to make calls, transfer, conference, record, and listen to voicemail. Both versions also feature full presence status of WorldSmart users, such as when they are on the phone, in meetings, away from their desk or idle. All calls to other WorldSmart users are free from both SmartBox Guest and Enterprise, but if you need outbound calling to PSTN numbers you’ll need one of PanTerra Networks’ calling plans. Additional communications services such as digital fax integration, DID numbers, and call center queues can also be added to any seat.
Share permissions for both SmartBox Guest and Enterprise include owner, co-owner, editor and viewer for files and folders. One important capability is that you can share files and folders with non-SmartBox users using the same share interface. You simply enter their e-mail addresses and they are invited via e-mail to register for a free SmartBox Guest account. PanTerra Networks tried to make it as frictionless as possible, so users who do not wish to register for a SmartBox Guest can still download the file, but they won’t be able to modify and re-upload it. Once content is shared with a user or group, it automatically shows each individual's real-time presence and notifies you when a user downloads, views or modifies the file. This can be a huge advantage to sales teams that send out proposals since they’ll know when a proposal has been viewed and can follow-up with a web-based VoIP call, IM, video call, invitation to an ad hoc web meeting, etc.
Main interface for communicating with contacts, plus uploading, downloading, & sharing
One of the main advantages to SmartBox is its ability to synchronize your files across multiple devices – laptops, tablets, mobile phones, etc. If you choose a file you want to have for offline viewing, the platform will automatically download it in the background and keep it synchronized. Currently, SmartBox downloads the entire file in the background and doesn’t do any byte-level delta changes, which TMC Labs would like to see in a future release to improve performance and lessen bandwidth utilization.
Another nice feature is its Outlook plugin, which allows you to send attached files from within an Outlook composed e-mail through SmartBox instead of sending the file itself. The file is uploaded automatically into your SmartBox, and only a link to the file is sent in the e-mail. This eliminates bounce backs when the recipient's e-mail won't accept large files and gives you much more control over the file. For example, you can update the file after sending the e-mail, and the recipient will automatically get the updated version. It also allows you to import all your Outlook contacts into SmartBox.
Each SmartBox Guest user gets 2 gigabytes, while SmartBox Enterprise users have access to unlimited storage. It has quota management and reporting built-in. It supports subfolder sharing with permission levels that can be completely different from its parent. This is a very useful feature. So, for example, you can share a folder called HR with lots of subfolders that all executives have access to. Then you can change the permissions for a single subfolder, let’s say Compensation, and grant access to only the CEO and CFO. The ability to have different permissions for subfolders is something that Box (News - Alert) and Dropbox don’t support. This allows companies to organize folders and permission levels the way people think and not have to resort to workarounds that often result in accidental disclosure/access to employees that shouldn’t view certain data. The platform also lets you view at a glance how things are shared visually. You can see what’s been shared in, what’s been shared out, what has a custom permission share, a default share (inherited from parent), what files are locked/unlocked, and what files are synced to any device.
Currently, it has four permissions (owner, co-owner, editor, viewer), plus a fifth permission (previewer) coming soon that will only allow you to preview the file in the browser and won’t let you download it. The owner and co-owner share permission levels allow each to assign shares, take away shares, and of course the co-owner can take away all share level access except for the owner share. Editors can’t do any of that, but they do have the ability to update/delete/modify subfolder content within the shared folder.
Separate Work & Personal Sync
The big cloud storage providers synchronize all your files to all your devices, whether you want it to or not. So for instance, if you install Dropbox on your mobile phone, tablet, work PC, and home PC, it’s going to sync your personal and work files to all the devices. The risks are self-evident. SmartBox on the other hand lets you independently sync whichever folders you choose to whichever devices you choose. For instance, you could sync your Home folder only to your home computer, but configure your Work folder to sync to your work desktop PC, your corporate tablet, and your mobile phone.
SmartBox is integrated into PanTerra Network's administration portal, which provides authentication of all devices accessing SmartBox, as well as access levels. It also provides remote management (block and wipe) and control of all access devices, should a device be lost or stolen. Also, it uses two-phase authentication for all devices. So if someone hacks or finds out the username and password, they still can’t gain access to the system. File transfers are encrypted during transit (RC4-128 by default) and all stored data is encrypted with AES-256 encryption. Similarly, all communications, such as instant messaging, are also encrypted.
For VoIP and video calling, it leverages HTML5 and WebRTC when available, which is supported in Firefox and Chrome. Mobile OS Android supports these as well, but Apple iOS does not. Both Android and iOS currently have standalone apps that get around the WebRTC restrictions to deliver voice and video calling. Using a PC browser, TMC Labs made some test HD video calls, and both the video and audio quality were superb. We also did a desktop share session, and the performance was also very good.
PanTerra Networks told TMC Labs, “We guarantee access to our cloud. If we miss an SLA metric, we’ll credit you. We offer guaranteed 30-second response time to a support issue using our own secure instant message, 24x7x365. We offer 99.999 percent – five nines of reliability and availability. You won’t even find an availability number from a cloud file sharing provider.” The company uses its own highly available softswitch for hosted SIP/PBX capabilities and tightly integrates it into their offerings. We inquired about potential last mile issues with jitter and latency. The company told us that you can use your own data circuit, and it has peering agreements with the major carriers to ensure quality. On the higher end, the company can sell you one of its own circuits, which it purchases at wholesale from the carriers and it’ll completely install and manage it for you, giving you a full managed service solution. PanTerra Networks explained, “We’ll even sell you the hardware – the IP phones, the router, the switch, the circuit, the service – everything can be completely white glove managed by us. That’s the only way, as you know, you can truly ensure and guarantee QoS all the way down to the end devices.”
The company added, “When you’re delivering multiple cloud services over the same pipe by separate providers you will inherently experience inter-provider service collisions, inter-provider problems. Good luck in getting any of those vendors to solve that problem. With our solution, we own all the services coming down the pipe, and in many cases we even own the pipe. So not only can we monitor inter-service interactions, but we are developing inter-service communications such that the services will automatically prioritize themselves when necessary to ensure QoS. For example, if you’re uploading 2TB worth of files into the cloud storage at the same time your company is doing a video call or multiple audio conference bridge calls, we can re-prioritize such that the real-time communications takes a higher level of priority. You can only do that if you’re a unified cloud service provider delivering those services yourself.”
$15 per month per user for unlimited secure cloud storage, file sharing and unified communications.
Offering full end-to-end management of its unified cloud services, including last-mile bandwidth and associated networking equipment, is pretty unique. By controlling the full end-to-end infrastructure, PanTerra Networks can offer superior availability, reliability, security, scalability, QoS, service level agreements and support. It’s worth reiterating the company offers 24/7 30-second live support. SmartBox is a very feature-rich collaboration, communications, file syncing, and file sharing platform that truly redefines what unified communications and file sharing means – enabling enterprise users to engage with each other and their customers using everything from file sharing to IM, VoIP to video. TMC Labs has seen many unified communications and file sharing solutions, so we aren’t easily impressed, but PanTerra Networks’ SmartBox has carved out an entirely new aspect of unified cloud services by combining cloud-based file sharing and sync along with traditional UC features such as VoIP and video, and for that we bestow it with our Editors’ Choice Award.
Tom Keating (News - Alert) is executive technology editor, CTO and vice president of TMC Labs (www.tmcnet.com).
Edited by Maurice Nagle