General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology & Practice Guide


Success Stories, a standing column of Technology and Practice Guide, explores how other solos or small firm lawyers have successfully integrated technology into their practices. This first installment is written by Technology and Practice Guide’s co-editor, Robert A. Woodke, about his small firm practice in Bemidji, Minnesota.

Looking at today’s hardware options when upgrading or creating a computer network for your law firm can be a bewildering experience. When upgrading the firm’s computer network last year, we gave careful consideration to several issues before purchasing decisions were made.

The software and operating systems you plan to use will, to a large degree, tell you how powerful your server and workstations need to be to adequately serve your office’s needs. Each computer decision is also a budgetary one; an appropriate balance must be struck between the need for speed and the ability to afford it.

When the Chips Are Down

As I write this, the Pentium Pro processors are beginning to replace Pentium processors as the top-level processors available in the IBM-PC and PC-clone environment. Another player on the field that should not be overlooked is the IBM/Cyrix 686X chip, which is a high-speed alternative to the Pentium offerings. At the high end of the budget, there are also dual processor systems with two Pentium/Pentium Pro chips on the board.

When creating a new network in our office in July 1996, I was told about the 686 chip by the computer consultant the firm had hired. We were interested in running the WordPerfect Professional Office Software on the network—the faster the better. We ran the 686 120 MHz chip against a 120 MHz Pentium, and it was almost twice as fast at no difference in price. Since then, faster versions of each chip have been issued. We chose the Cyrix 686 chip for our network needs and have encountered no problems. (I have heard anecdotally that some users have experienced difficulty running the Windows NT 4.0 operating system using a Cyrix 686 chip. Check with a computer consultant for more information.)

One important lesson I learned from this experience is to keep an open mind about products competing with the "big names" and to run the software packages you intend to use on your possible hardware choices, keeping an eye on where they perform best.

Selecting a Hard Drive

After the chip decision, the next two hardware issues involve the size and speed of the hard drive you will use, and the amount of memory you can install on the motherboard. The general rules in these areas are: bigger and faster are better. We purchased the largest and fastest drive and installed all the board memory our budget could afford on our server.

For the workstations, the choices are more varied. I know one firm that has a dual Pentium Pro file server but is still using 386 computers as network workstations. I believe that the 386 chip is too limited to be viable even as a workstation in today’s computing environment (unless you have a particular fondness for twiddling your thumbs or watching the little hourglass on the screen). If your budget is limited, I believe you can get by with a higher-end 486 chip machine, but you should buy the fastest machine your budget will allow. We were able to purchase 686 machines at $1,500 each, including color monitors. We use them as workstations as well as for the file server. This gives our firm the added advantage of being able to use the workstations as stand-alone units in the event of a network failure.

Set Up Backup Systems

While on the topics of failures, our experience is that computer hardware has a way of failing in use without warning, so building redundancy into your system is very important. Our firm utilizes a hard drive mirroring system to provide backup to our file server. Because we have the 686 workstations, we configured our network so that the file server’s hard drive is mirrored on my workstation’s hard drive on a regular basis. Of course, there are several other backup options, including the ZIP drive, tape backups (either Travan or conventional), or installing a second hard drive in the file server itself and having hard drive mirroring.

In making decisions on backing up your server, keep these two points in mind: (1) make sure the process is automatic so you don’t have to rely on human memory to get the task accomplished; and (2) be sure you check the backup copy to be sure the system is actually performing the backup function. One firm in Minneapolis learned this lesson the hard way— the firm had faithfully performed a backup routine but had never checked to make sure the data was transferred. They suffered a catastrophic failure of the computer drive. When they went to reload from the backup tapes, they discovered the tapes were blank. The backup system had failed to transfer the data.

Drive Dilemmas

You also need to determine what type of drives you want in your systems. For our workstations, we chose 3.5" floppy drives and a 6X CD-ROM drive in addition to the 2.1 gigabyte hard drive. On the file server, we also have a 5.25" floppy drive to allow us to access older data stored on the older floppies, if the need arises. In today’s environment, the 6X CD-ROM drives are already out of date. Now there are 12X versions readily available. Here again, the fastest drive you can afford is the best. If you use CD-ROMs intensively for research, you should consider (budget permitting) a CD tower (a collection of CD drives accessible through the network) or a CD jukebox where you have an individual playback unit that can access multiple CDs loaded on the changer. n

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