General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology & Practice Guide

Networking Solutions

The Best Setup for Your Firm

BY MATTHEW A. JURE

Bits and bytes, clock speed and RAM. Don’t let buzzwords get in your way of implementing technology that would be useful for your law firm. Whether you are producing briefs or invoices, PCs and the software you run on them must easily and effectively serve your daily processing needs. Fortunately, networking technology has evolved to the point where small law firms now have options for making information-sharing easier and more cost-effective.

What Is a Network?

At the most basic level, a network is nothing more than several computers and peripherals (i.e., modems and printers) connected together via a cable for the purpose of sharing information. In a networked environment, a document can be created on one machine, saved to a shared hard drive, revised on another machine, and eventually printed on a shared printer.

Many small firms have a few independent PCs and may be linked to a shared printer by a switch box. This arrangement is what we call "sneakernet." Using the sneakernet method, a document is typed by a secretary on one machine and saved to a floppy disk. The disk is then given to another person in the firm, who edits and prints the document. It is then saved to the floppy again for furthering editing.

A network allows users to share resources—hard drives, files, and printers—without leaving their computers, thus increasing efficiency and productivity. There are several networking options for solo and small firms: Novell Netware, an example of client/server technology; Windows 95, a peer-to-peer network; Windows NT, a client/server network; and AppleTalk, a peer-to-peer network specifically for Apple computers.

Novell NetWare

Novell NetWare is predominately used in businesses where there are 15 or more users. NetWare is an example of a client/server environment, where the "client" (user) requests something from the "server" like a program or a file. This type of network requires a computer to be dedicated to the role of file server. A file server is a computer that processes requests for programs or data files from users. To implement NetWare, a firm must purchase a dedicated file server (typically a very high performance PC) or dedicate an existing computer as its server. In addition, the network must be connected together by cables and in some cases other routing hardware that allow the various components to communicate.

For small firms, adding a file server and complex networking software can be challenging due to limited availability of extra computers or financial resources. However, client/servers should not be ruled out for small firms. They provide more robust access to large databases and user files, and allow growing firms to add workstations without compromising the system’s functionality.

Windows 95

Windows 95 networking is currently the most common and cost-effective form of networking for small firms operating IBM-compatible PCs. A Windows 95 network is an example of a peer-to-peer network, in which several computers are linked together by cables. A Windows 95 network gives solo and small firms many of the same file-sharing features of a NetWare network but without the addition of a server and the required operating system software.

Importantly, Windows 95 networking offers users flexibility and the ability to upgrade as the firm grows and technology changes. A significant drawback to the Windows 95 network is its speed. The more users connected to the system, the slower it gets. This should not be a problem for most small firms. By the time you reach the point where you are frustrated by the lack of performance, you should be ready to upgrade to a client/server network.

Windows NT

Another alternative, Windows NT, will give you more speed but at an increased expense. This type of network is similar to the Windows 95 network but requires a dedicated file server and specialized network operating software.

It provides a more user-friendly environment than Novell and requires less maintenance and support as well. Therefore, it is an appropriate option for small firms that plan to have more workstations and peripherals than what Windows 95 can handle.

In the last few months, this particular network structure has become very popular with small businesses because the cost of administering the network is considerably lower than a Novell NetWare network. End-users can be educated to provide basic administration functions on a Windows NT network, such as adding new users, installing software, and changing passwords. The more complex functions should still be left to a qualified consultant or in-house computer person.

AppleTalk

Another viable solution for a small firm’s networking needs is brought to you by Apple. AppleTalk is a built-in networking system in every Macintosh product. This is also an example of a peer-to-peer network. With AppleTalk, all you need to do is buy the cable and plug it in—it’s the ultimate in plug-and-play technology. You do not need any special cards or software to create the network. It is simple enough to install and maintain by a knowledgeable partner, secretary, or associate.

This is a good solution if you are just considering computer equipment since the cost of Macintosh hardware and peripherals are dropping to become more competitive. Of course, if you are currently using Macintosh products this is a perfect solution.

Sticker Shock

For many firms, the determining factor in selecting a network is cost, both in the short and long term. Beyond the obvious "sticker shock" of hardware and software costs, networks require some degree of installation and maintenance costs. Most firms do not realistically plan for these expenditures and not surprisingly, they can be quite high. Consider the following network costs:

• Network hardware

• Network software

• Installation of cabling for network

• Day-to-day network management and maintenance

• Disaster preparedness

Installation. The cost of installing your network varies based upon the number of workstations and the type of network you choose. The cost of a client/server network is higher than that of a peer-to-peer. Part of the increased expense of installing a Novell NetWare network begins with the qualifications of the person/company you choose to install the network. Typically, you would look for a certified contractor or network administrator trained by Novell. An entire industry of system integrators has grown up around this process.

The cost of installing a Windows NT-based network is comparable to the cost of installing a Novell NetWare system. It should be installed by a certified technician trained by Microsoft. Since this type of networking is fairly new compared to Novell, it is sometimes hard to find a qualified contractor in your area to do the installation.

Conversely, a Windows 95 or AppleTalk installation can be accomplished by most intelligent users or certainly by less sophisticated resellers. This dramatically lowers the installation cost and the overall management of the process.

Network management. After installation, network management is the next cost and implementation issue firms must consider. Network management is the day-to-day operation of the network, assuring users that printers will print, files can be accessed, and systems can be restored. When the network experiences problems and you cannot access your files, the productivity and efficiency of your practice suffers.

For that reason, a small firm’s needs will be better served by a network that is easy to manage and does not require a great deal of fine tuning. NetWare networks tend to be more costly to manage simply because they require a systems administrator who has experience with Novell networks to keep them running.

This is not the same for peer-to-peer networks. As long as each computer in a Windows 95 network "sees" the other computers in the network, the system will run properly. This is easily accomplished without a specially trained system administrator or computer expert. Managing a Windows 95 network is by far the easiest and most cost-effective solution for solos or small firm practitioners.

Proper maintenance. Proper maintenance of a network is as essential as changing the oil in your car. If you do not do it regularly, it dies. With a network environment, you must plan for maintenance and upgrades to keep it running smoothly. Both Novell and Microsoft invest time and money to fine tune their products. This usually means that updates for your system come quite regularly. In order to maintain your network’s integrity and functionality, these updates need to be installed as they are released.

Hard drive management also needs to be done on a regular basis so that files do not become corrupted and you do not run out of space. Think of your hard drive as your file on a matter. Have you ever tried to find a document when the file is disorganized or there are no separate sections? This is why hard drive management is so crucial. It keeps files in order.

These are tasks that can be done by outside vendors. Some companies will set up a monthly or semimonthly "network maintenance" plan for your firm. The costs will vary, as usual, depending upon the size and type of network you are using. The plans might include the following services: software upgrades and maintenance, preventative hardware maintenance, hard drive management, network backup, and documentation. Think of this as a "peace of mind" policy. You will be able to sleep better at night knowing your network is being properly maintained.

The final cost to consider is disaster preparedness. What if your office burns down, or someone steals your computers? Although your insurance company will replace the equipment, how will you replace your data? This is why a system to back up your files is so crucial.

Purchasing the necessary hardware and software is inexpensive compared to the cost of trying to recreate the data you have lost. Appropriate hardware for backups should fit both your immediate backup needs and what you will need in the future to accompany hard drive upgrades. You should also keep your backups out of the office. Remember—if your office burns down, so do your files!

Another problem that firms often overlook is what happens if the office loses power during the workday. One way to prevent loss of work is the purchase of an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), which is a surge protector with a built-in battery. A UPS allows you to shut down the computer properly after you lose power so that you do not lose any data or damage your machine when the power comes back. n

Matthew A. Jure is the manager of Information Technologies at Fidelity First Financial Corp. in Columbia, Maryland, and the owner of GW Technologies in Felton, Pennsylvania, which assists many solo and small firm practitioners with their computer needs. He can be reached via e-mail at mjure@ telehonet.com.

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