This fall, after months of contemplation, my firm finally converted its computer infrastructure to one based entirely in “the cloud” – short for “cloud computing”, where both our data and the applications we use to interact with it all reside on internet-connected machines somewhere outside of our office. The conversion was a long time coming and something I was looking forward to. The convenience of working from any location without the restrictions of using something like LogMeIn to access my client files (which I found to be slow, with poor image quality and the unfortunate requirement that my office PC had to be on to be functional) was something to be celebrated. However, as with everything in life, the process of migrating our office to the cloud was not all roses. Consider this a tale of caution. This fall, after months of contemplation, my firm finally converted its computer infrastructure to one based entirely in “the cloud” – short for “cloud computing”, where both our data and the applications we use to interact with it all reside on internet-connected machines somewhere outside of our office. The conversion was a long time coming and something I was looking forward to. The convenience of working from any location without the restrictions of using something like LogMeIn to access my client files (which I found to be slow, with poor image quality and the unfortunate requirement that my office PC had to be on to be functional) was something to be celebrated. However, as with everything in life, the process of migrating our office to the cloud was not all roses. Consider this a tale of caution.
Convenience and the ability to telecommute are obviously some of the biggest advantages of moving to the cloud. The idea is that you can work from anywhere in the world with an internet connection, just as if you were sitting in front of your office computer. Gone are the days of e-mailing myself documents, driving into the office on weekends, or calling my assistant from court to e-mail me that one document I forgot. All of that information should now easily accessible by logging into my virtual desktop via a website or an app.
In addition to providing me with convenience and flexibility, working in the cloud also improves the quality of service I can provide to my clients. If it’s after hours or I’m away from my office and a client urgently needs a copy of a document related to their case, I can now get it to them almost instantaneously rather than making them wait until I get back to the office or need to have someone else send it to them.
There are advantages from an IT and practice management perspective. When switching to the cloud, a firm no longer needs to be responsible for maintaining its own physical servers for its system. By having the servers in the cloud, it is easier and less involved to add memory or upgrade the system. There’s no real hardware restrictions we need to deal with. Our IT company can manage our network more effectively, implement updates faster, and can better assess infrastructure elements. There is also an added security element; if there were to be a fire, damage from water, or some other issue that occurred in our office building, we could each continue working from some other location without missing a beat, because our files are in the cloud and not on physical servers in our office.
However, the process of migrating our office to this cloud-like nirvana was not without its pitfalls – the biggest being that it was a major undertaking and a significant expense to make the switch. As with all IT issues and software upgrades, our firm’s transition did not go off seamlessly. During the process, our system and access to our files was shut down for a period of time. It was supposed to all be done over a single weekend, but inevitably the process bled over into the workweek, causing disruption in our ability to work effectively on client files.
Almost immediately after the switch, we had to revert back to our physical servers in-house, because only about 50% of our files migrated from our servers to the cloud. We could not work in the cloud until we were assured by IT that all of the documents and files had successfully migrated, so as to avoid losing or corrupting files or having other issues – again, causing disruption in our workflow.
We had been promised that working with our files in the cloud would be faster than on our physical system in-house. What we learned in short order was that our cloud installation was not initially set up with enough memory to support the practice management software in the way we intended to use it. Our IT providers began telling us that not all users could be on the cloud at the same time – an obviously unacceptable option, given that post-migration, the only way to access our system and our files was via the cloud. It effectively meant that not everyone in the office could do work at the same time. If we needed to use the internet for anything else, we were directed to do so on our physical desktops and not our virtual desktops in the cloud, again due to the insufficient memory problem. Switching between our virtual desktops and physical ones, while not difficult, was an added hassle and inconvenience. The point of moving to the cloud was to make work more efficient with a stronger return on investment, not to inhibit work, slow us down, and lower the revenue of the firm.
Fixing the memory problem became our first priority. Adding sufficient additional memory to the cloud installation to allow everyone to work in the cloud was a much quicker and smoother process than it might have been when we’d previously added additional memory to our physical servers, but it did come at an increased overall cost for the migration. Similarly, we found out early on that once all of our users were able to access the cloud at the same time, the bandwidth from our internet service provider was no longer sufficient to support our entire office. That, too, required an upgrade, and an additional cost as well.
Other headaches abounded with the transition to the cloud. Not all versions of the software we used, such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Acrobat, were compatible with the cloud, and thus all needed to be upgraded to their most current versions, at another unforeseen, additional expense. Additionally, our IT providers did not take the time to find out which software, add-ons, and other programs we regularly use to ensure that the upgrade would be a seamless transition. Months later, we are still discovering software features we had available on our physical desktops that are not currently set-up or installed on our new cloud desktops.
Even more than the economic costs, however, the process of migrating to the cloud can also involve a transition in firm culture. By having your system in the cloud, employees have the option to telecommute and/or work flexible hours from somewhere other than the office. Personally, I believe there is a great advantage to physically being in an office with colleagues where you can bounce ideas off of each other and brainstorm. There is also no substitute for in-person client meetings which are best suited for the office. However, the ability for employees to work from home via the cloud on occasion is a big plus. Whether they need to be home to let the plumber in or simply want to skip a lengthy commute and get straight to work, there is research that shows employees work harder and longer hours working remotely compared to those required to be in an office.
On Cloud Nine?
When all was said and done, the process of migrating our firm to the cloud was far more time-consuming and costly than we had originally estimated. For those firms considering a similar move, the main takeaway from our experience is to make sure your IT provider has all of its bases covered. Do they know all of the programs and software your firm uses? Have they advised you of the requirements for those software and programs for use in the cloud? Had our IT provider taken those steps, they could have provided a more accurate estimate of the true cost of the migration and many of the issues and hiccups that we faced could have been avoided.
Transitioning a firm to the cloud is not without its difficulties, but there is little question it’s the future of law practice and business in general. As long as the process is done right, transitioning to the cloud can offer numerous advantages and a possible boom to your practice.