Change has always been the mandate of successful businesses, and as we enter the second decade of our new century, new vocabulary is creating new opportunities for new business development and expansion at our fingertips (the click of a mouse). Business and consumer advertising is promoting “cloud-based” miracles, and this article aims to dispel the myths while providing an explanation of the possibilities and improvements available to small/solo firms. When considering the switch to cloud computing, you need to base decisions upon the options and the applications needed, which are critical to justify the return on that investment.
The simplest explanation is the cloud is the Internet and provides a place in space for computing resources. The “cloud drawings and symbols” used in business charts, Power Point presentations, and other references provided the moniker, and it’s ethereal enough to visualize a service you can’t see but know is there, like the Internet. Its purpose is to facilitate hardware and networks, combined with services to offer solutions to the end user’s business.
Already accepted practices are being used daily, without any users actual awareness. Providers include popular social media sites Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as collaborative solutions like Google products, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Picasa, Microsoft Office-Online, Microsoft Sharepoint Online, and Amazon.
Private cloud-based providers are powered by SaaS or IaaS and HaaS offerings. These are explained in the following paragraphs. No single solution is recommended, the options are available, and each firm must make its own informed decision.
Software as a Service applications are cloud-based subscriptions, or pay-as-you-go services. Some of the better known and legal-specific options include, but are not limited to, NetDocuments, Advologix. RocketMatter, Clio, and others. Additionally, protective offsite backup systems are typically SaaS-based models.
Solutions was the key word in the previous paragraphs, and these can include applications for billing, case, and document managements. This service is accessed via the Internet, and the subscribers’ data resides in the cloud, on servers maintained on systems residing in data centers, thus providing a safe and secure environment for law firms.
As in all contracts, there must be an escape clause that returns the data to the customer upon demand.
In contracting with an SaaS provider, all that’s required is a reliable Internet connection. There is no software purchase required, just the license and usage fees subscribed with the provider, thereby relieving the responsibilities of software maintenance and upgrades from the company and entrusting these to the provider. The subscription fees are generally on a per-user basis, requiring payment only for what’s needed. Users (additional employees and clients) may be dropped and added as needed.
IaaS and HaaS
Infrastructure as a Service and Hardware as a Service are both virtual environments resembling a local area network, LAN environment, except these servers, backup systems and desktops are remotely accessed through the Internet. Replacing a firm’s need for proprietary servers and systems, these services provide state-of-the-art, high-performance systems residing in highly secure bunker type buildings called Data Centers.
Personalized services can be structured for each practice’s desktop and server needs. Users can be added and/or removed, and storage capacity can be modified as business adapts to changing demands. The platform and equipment is maintained and upgraded by the hosting IaaS and HaaS firms. In IaaS, a customer can continue using their same software applications purchased in a traditional one-time license fee.
So, firms that don’t want to move to some of the SaaS offerings can opt for an infrastructure that resembles their current system, but not have the headache of keeping the equipment current.
Evaluating the traditional LAN vs. cloud-based IaaS is a decision based upon time, budget, and effort responsibilities. Outsourcing to an IaaS provides the opportunity to increase computing resources, or “add-on-the-fly” without the expense of new equipment and infrastructures. The elasticity to scale up or reduce down easily is a rewarding alternative to the traditional in-house model, requiring staff and continued monitoring of technological advances.
Capital expenditures are exchanged by expense-based subscriptions, creating a monthly budgeted line item that is anticipated and planned for. Substituting the IaaS service for in-house staff is facilitated by provided 24/7 technical support.
Probably the most crucial element of the decision is tantamount to the most sophisticated systems adhering to strict privacy policies that offer a more secure, protected system than those found in tradition in-house systems. These proprietary systems must serve all IaaS clients, not just one individual firm, requiring the most advanced systems, provide additional encryption systems and updated as new technology warrants. Antivirus, Spam filters, and firewalls aggressively protect data and applications.
Research and public analysts The Gartner Group have prepared the Security Seven, important issues for consideration when comparing cloud computing vendors. These are the critical questions to be asked and answered:
- Who has access to the proprietary data? What are their hiring and management protocols of the host provider?
- Is the vendor agreeable to external audits and security checks?
- Where is the data location and is there a duplicate, failsafe, back-up site should a weather event interrupt service?
- Is each subscribers account data segregated from others?
- Ask about data recovery in the case of data corruption or disaster?
- Is there a prescribed policy for monitoring and investigating inappropriate or illegal activities?
- Upon request, how will the data be returned and in what format?
Small/Solo Firms Navigation to the Cloud
Maximizing expenditures matter to small practices and IaaS subscription services provide a multitude of cost savings, including, but not limited to: data center installation and operations, along with their inherent infrastructure and rigid security systems preventing unauthorized access, either by person or virtually; and multiple levels of power and connectivity ensuring subscribers of consistent operations regardless of outside circumstances. These features are affordable because the operating costs are and resulting economies of scale are shared by the total subscriber population.
There are several determining factors for switching to cloud-based providers, including:
- The age and condition of the current equipment
- The outsourced expense, or too-frequent service calls
- Unlimited storage on demand
- A mobility option
- Connectivity for iPad and other devices
- Cost and floor space savings from eliminating servers
- Practice expansion requires a shared, secure server for documents and data
- Utility expense reduction
- Add/reduce staff on demand (as needed).
In addition to the Secure Seven, there are several other considerations:
- Is the data center in the United States?
- Does it have a U.S.-based back-up location?
- If opting out, how is the data returned?
- Ultimately how is the stored data destroyed and protected?
- What security protocols used?
- How is support handled?
Cloud Computing Tangible Benefits
This section is a summary of previously discussed benefits and efficiencies. Small/solo practices are concerned about cash flow, managing and conserving expenditures, and maximizing the value equation. Cloud computing will provide savings on energy bills and equipment replacement cycles. Because the anticipated, reasonable longevity of a server is three years, many smaller firms choose to delay and defray the costs, extending this use to 5 or even 6 years, which results in the need for hard drive, system boards and other mechanics’ repairs and replacements, with the eventual deterioration of the operating systems and other system utilities.
Labor cost reductions are an additional cost savings factor, minimizing and eliminating the need for either in-house or outsourced IT providers. IaaS subscriptions generally include full support, service coverage with 24/7/365 technical support on demand with little to no wait time. These included services may be augmented by additional benefits including Microsoft Office, virus protection, and backup services. If Microsoft Office has been included with the subscription, there is no additional charge for the provided upgrades.
As previously mentioned, another savings is floor space, always at a premium in smaller offices. If a solo practice is home-based, servers can be hoisted atop file cabinets, reside on kitchen counters next to coffee pots, in closets that should have cooling apparatus but the door is ajar to cool down, and in corners where they are bumped and knocked in the daily maintenance of the area. By putting the server in the cloud, all of these impediments are eliminated and solved.
Managing monthly expenses by reducing energy bills as much as 40 percent can help to offset the additional expense of the cloud computing subscription.
Increased accessibility, from any location, using all Internet devices, brings the team together, wherever. At the airport, at home, in the office or coffee shop, wherever there’s an Internet connection, there is business to be done.
And there are no changes to your familiar, tried-and-true software applications. These applications can be loaded or transferred according to your application provider. Tabs3/PracticeMaster, Time Matters, Amicus, PCLaw, Timeslips, Quickbooks, Worldox, and many others can be included with the account’s set up for continued daily operations.
The Cloud Solution
The Pew Internet & American Life Project study predicts most people and businesses will access software applications online and share or access information by remote server networks by 2020.
A popular entry into the world of cloud services are social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Also growing in popularity are Internet-based applications such as Google Docs, whereby users can share documents without being dependent on their PC Operating System or on their PC-based word processing software applications. The attractiveness of products like Google Docs is the ability to access documents from any device as long as there is connection to the Internet.
You are probably involved in some form of cloud-based computing. Before purchasing additional systems or software, take into consideration the benefits of moving to the clouds.
The ultimate conclusions? Higher productivity, lower costs, increased security.
Sandra H Adams is a partner with Affinity Consulting Group’s Miami Office. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-355-7979.
© Copyright 2011, American Bar Association.