A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

Cloud Computing explained for a law firm

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

by Stephen Butler, Director & Consultant, Red Rain

Wikipedia defines Cloud Computing in the following way:

Cloud computing is a colloquial expression used to describe a variety of different computing concepts that involve a large number of computers that are connected through a real-time communication network (typically the Internet)”.

Furthermore it says “Cloud Computing is a jargon term without a commonly accepted non-ambiguous scientific or technical definition”!!

So what does this all mean for the business of a law firm?

You may have heard the terms Private Cloud, Public Cloud, Managed Services, SaaS, IaaS, Storage as a Service, Platform as a Service. What do all these terms mean and what are the advantages and disadvantages of the different flavours of the cloud for a legal practice?

At its simplest level, cloud computing can be considered as the provision of software solutions where the software and/or the data related to that software is not held on the firm’s internally located servers.

A very common example of this is email. If you have a Hotmail or a Gmail account you use the internet to log into your mailbox and use the tool. The mail application runs in your browser, the “data”, the actual emails and their attachments, are stored on disk drives somewhere out in the “ether” and you have no idea where. 

In essence, the “ether” is a series of massive server farms managed by Microsoft and Google (and others) in variousserver farm locations around the world. Massive industrial parks where thousands of connected servers are held in shipping containers and they replace the container when 50% of the servers inside break down! 

The cloud has been enabled by enormous advances over the last 15 years in three key technologies:
The internet: both pervasiveness and bandwidth;
Data storage: speed, physical size, low cost;
Virtualisation: the release of storage from being related to the physical device.

The advances in these technologies mean that economies of scale of the computing power can be achieved and shared over myriads of users. Continuing R&D and advances means that the cloud is the way of the future and more than likely that you are already utilising it now. Any Dropbox users out there?

So what are the business benefits for a law firm?

Software as a Service (SaaS)

cloud cartoonLet’s start with Software as a Service or SaaS solutions. With SaaS users are provided access to the software via the internet and the provider manages the infrastructure and platforms that are necessary for the software to operate. One of the first and more successful SaaS providers is salesforce.com, an internet based Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system that allows you to manage your customer, contact and prospect base by simply logging into the system using your browser.

Another trait of SaaS solutions is the pricing model, where the approach is typically to pay on an “as used” approach with license fees paid on a monthly or yearly basis per user. For example, with Salesforce.com, all you need to get started with the principal CRM functionality is $1,000 or so a year for one user and you do this by simply going to the Saleforce site and registering, no need to install, buy hardware or anything else. You then add and subtract users as you need.

Other SaaS solutions are Google Apps and Microsoft’s Office 365 where you have the access to processing, spreadsheet and other applications for the desktop. 

Particularly interesting in this suite of tools is hosted Exchange. Exchange is the Microsoft server platform that manages emails and there are a number of providers, including Telstra, that provide this software as a service. For a smaller law firm this offers the tremendous advantages of having a critical business service (email) handled by an expert third party so that you don’t have to worry about servers crashing and email being available, information not being backed or having to manage what is a quite a complex application.

Software as a Service is also coming to line of business applications such as practice and document management. LEAP have recently released their LEAP Cloud product, one of the first SaaS legal applications for the Australian market. While not strictly pure SaaS, as you need to have part of the application installed on your local PC, it does remove the need to manage your servers and database and provides the access anywhere experience (provided you have your laptop).

Infrastructure/Platform as a Service

Let’s not quibble over the technical definition or appropriate use of the terminology with these two items, with IaaS or PaaS the opportunity is to take almost the firm’s entire network infrastructure and take it to the cloud. 

Law firms are all about managing information and documents and hence effective use of information technology is critical to the business’ success. Today however there are so many piece of technology that need to work together that the management of these technologies is a challenge in its own right. To support even a simple network infrastructure you will need technical skills in the hardware, virtualisation, Exchange, Windows Server software, Active Directory, database, networking, Internet connectivity, firewalls, virus and anti spam, web servers. Then you have telephony. That is even before you think about practice, document, matter or knowledge management systems.

The large firm will have a large IT department to look after the infrastructure. The issue for a small or medium sized firm is finding the skills for all these technologies in one or even two persons. In reality they don’t and IT support is usually a combination of internal skills and outsourced support and the role of the IT Manager is a combination of direct support and coordination of third party suppliers. Then if that person leaves the firm there is usually a large hole to fill unless they are good at documentation.

Sending the firm’s infrastructure to the cloud provides some big advantages:
  1. The removal of the need to buy equipment and software licenses.
  2. The removal of the need to house and the costs involved: floor space, air conditioning, secure rooms, electricity.
  3. The removal of the need to manage the equipment.
  4. The lowering of the risk around managing the environment as the cloud provider, in managing multiple clients, can obtain and maintain the skilled people for all the technologies involved.
  5. Typically a lowering of IT staff costs.
  6. Typically better and cheaper back up and disaster recovery scenarios.
All of these relate to lower costs and if handled well then big cost savings can be made. ]

How does a law firm move the cloud?

There are a number of ways of doing this:

Public Cloud

With a public cloud provider you essentially hire disk space, CPU, memory, software licenses and connectivity from the provider. They own large data centres or rent space from bigger providers and have a team of people that manage the environment.

Virtual servers are assigned to the user depending upon requirements and, due to the scale, they negotiate different and cheaper licensing from Microsoft. These costs are then wrapped up into a monthly fee that will have some components that will go up and down depending upon the number of users.

This means that the firm has no equipment in the office outside of a small server or router that manages the local area network of PCs for access, with the internet the vehicle for access. Out of the office connectivity is achieved in the same manner, as is access on mobile devices such as iPads. Effectively the user has the same working experience wherever they are.

There are then different approaches at the desktop. The first is typically called Thin Client and most commonly achieved using Citrix as the access method. With this approach it doesn’t really matter what type of PCs you have because the desktop is actually residing on the data centre’s server and all that is coming down the line is the image of the screen. As a result you can buy very low powered and inexpensive “thin client” PCs for the desktop. For example a Wyse unit can cost as little as $60 (no keyboard or monitor).

The second approach is the hybrid model where you have a normal desktop PC and take advantage of that power by using Terminal Services and having some applications installed locally eg. MS Office, Skype, Lync etc…

There are pros and cons to both approaches and the business requirement needs to be understood to work out the most appropriate approach. 

Private Cloud

Private cloud is much the same as Public Cloud except the hardware is dedicated to the firm. Servers that typically belong to you sit in the providers data centre and are managed by the provider. You need to also manage the licensing and the like. Effectively you have relocated your computer room out of the office and given it to a specialist company to manage. Delivery to the desktop occurs in exactly the same manner and has the same considerations as public cloud.

New Challenges for the law firm

Of course, the use of the cloud raises a whole lot of different issues for the firm: capability and viability of the provider, service level agreements, security and access. But that’s the topic of another article!

About our Guest Blogger

Stephen ButlerStephen is a director and consultant at Red Rain.  He has been working with accounting and legal firms for almost 30 years and has a long experience with a range of legal systems, having been involved with clients and implementations both with Australia around the globe during that time.

He will be presenting a case study on "Taking a Law Firm to the Cloud" with John Woodhams, CEO of Pizzeys, at the ALPMA National Summit "Law Firm 3.0: Leading the New Normal" at the Sydney Convention & Exhibiton Centre from 18-19 October, 2013.  Register.

Stephen has a successful background in general management and his strength is understanding a firm’s needs from the top down and then analysing, defining, implementing and documenting systems that make the firm more productive and better managed. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Computing Science and an MBA.

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