September 01, 2019

Remain on Firm Servers, or Leap into the Cloud?

Carefully consider the costs and benefits of in-house servers versus those associated with the cloud.

Ronny Loew

In 2003 a colleague and I were the top two producers at our firm. We decided to go out on our own and started our firm with a group of six or seven people. There were lots of expenses involved in getting the doors open, and we were operating on a shoestring budget. One of the expenses was a small server that we purchased and set up with the help of a friend in IT who helped us out on the side. Within six months things were going so well that the server was no longer keeping up with our needs. After consulting with an IT provider, we ended up needing a new server.

We continued to grow. Within a year we added a second location 40 minutes north of our original location. As a result we had to abandon our second server and purchase a better, more powerful one along with a terminal server to connect the second location. Although we followed the advice of our IT provider, the team at the second location was unhappy with the speed and performance of the terminal server. They often complained that they were the “forgotten ones.” We continued to grow. The more people we added to the system, the slower and more bogged down it seemed to get. We got better internet, made sure our email boxes were limited in size and followed all the advice we were given. Regardless, we found ourselves requiring our third round of hardware upgrades in the short life of our business.

In an effort to reduce the constant complaints and turn everyone’s attention (including my own) back to production, I reached out to a company that was an early version of the cloud hosting companies in the marketplace today. That company offered to put all of our software and data in its data center, host our email and provide tech support. All we needed was internet and computers, and it would take care of the rest. It sounded too good to be true.

Our initial concern was about putting our data on another company’s servers but, after reflecting on the idea, I realized that using others’ expertise, abilities and resources to achieve our goals was already a familiar concept. Our money is secured by financial institutions. We trust professionally managed airlines in regulated airspace with our travel needs. We rely on utilities to provide our electricity, natural gas and water. So we concluded that with this type of system available, it no longer made sense to own servers. We decided to make the move to the cloud.

The Cloud Advantages We Encountered

The cloud system worked wonders. Everything was running smoothly and the complaints went to zero. Even the “forgotten ones of the north” were feeling valued and content. We were finally out of the business of owning servers and able to focus on our clients.

We were relieved to move past the expensive and time-consuming process of owning servers. We had been struggling with the limitations of scalability and access from multiple locations. Once we were in the cloud, we realized additional advantages as well as burdens we could shed. We had a team of professionals acting as stewards of our IT environment. The IT company was managing backup, server maintenance and licensing. In addition to all the benefits, we were saving money, and I could go back to rainmaking. By making the move, my nonrevenue-generating responsibilities became the responsibility of someone else.

Over the last 14 years, the term “cloud” has become the new buzzword, and the range of options has exploded. The technology involved has evolved exponentially. Faster, more stable and less costly internet options are available. Data storage has gotten smaller, faster and more robust. The cloud is now mainstream, and everyone is using it in one way or another.

The IT needs of today’s legal practice include a long list that needs careful management. The needs involve four main areas: users, compliance, software and infrastructure. Employees need accounts added and removed, passwords set and reset, and somewhere to go with support needs. Security requirements and policies need to be met and maintained. Software needs licensing, updating and integrating. Each service and piece of equipment in your office—from internet and phone services to computers, printers, scanners, network devices, servers, power, cooling, backup and disaster recovery—needs to be managed and maintained.

What to Move to the Cloud?

Given the range and depth of responsibilities, the risk, cost and effort are daunting for law firms of any size. There is much to consider and implement, and it is too important to cut corners! The question becomes, What is the simplest, most cost-effective and logical way to manage IT? It likely makes the most sense to leverage the tools, products, services, expertise, efficiencies and economy of scale of another company to manage your IT.

The first decision about moving to the cloud is exactly what to move. You can move individual aspects off-site, or you can move everything. Some might prefer to engage with multiple outside cloud systems to put together a hybrid environment, while others choose a single-vendor approach to manage everything. There are public and private clouds. They can be managed by your own IT staff, or they can be fully managed by a third-party IT company.

The first step is to evaluate your current strengths and challenges when it comes to technology. Is your equipment and software up to date or nearing end of life? Are you meeting the security requirements of your professional responsibilities and your institutional clients? Is your technology supporting the productivity goals of your firm? Is your IT budget in line with the results it is delivering? After an audit of your technology, you will have a clearer picture of your objectives. Even if you are in good shape right now, it’s wise to plan ahead for your next move.

Given the popularity and penetration of the cloud, no two cloud options or vendors are alike. Evaluating the many choices in the market can be intimidating and confusing. A basic understanding of the options will make your search more efficient. This will help you to uncover strengths and weaknesses and enable you to compare apples to apples.

Cloud Services Vendors Offer

If you have a capable IT staff and want only to rent servers, infrastructure as a service (IaaS) may be the option for you. A provider like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure might supply this. They have robust, flexible options in highly secure, professionally managed data centers. Their only responsibility is to make sure the system is maintained and running. The installation and support of your software remains the law firm’s responsibility. While these options are very popular and reliable, they are complex and can be riddled with hidden costs.

Software as a service (SaaS) may be an option if your firm is looking to keep much of what you have but change your time, billing and accounting, case management, practice management or document management systems. Vendors normally offer per-person, per-month pricing with the ability to integrate with your other systems.

Desktop as a service (DaaS) gives you the ability to move your existing server-based software to a cloud environment while getting away from the capital expenditures of owning equipment. DaaS options come with most of the services you need, such as hosted email, security, and tech support of the hosted systems and software. DaaS options can also access and integrate with SaaS solutions to provide a more cohesive environment and protect against company data being stored haphazardly on numerous unsecure devices. Utilizing DaaS will mean you will most likely need an IT staff or local IT provider to maintain your remaining physical equipment.

IT as a service (ITaaS) is also commonly referred to as a “managed service provider.” This can be a local or remote company that handles all of your IT needs, whether they are in your office or in the cloud. This helps avoid some of the HR costs of hiring an IT staff while accessing experienced technical expertise to support your software, hardware and users.

In the “fully hosted” model, you get all of your services and software in a hosted desktop environment along with the support and management of your local office networks. Some call this a single-vendor approach. One company is managing everything from end to end. This can be the most cost-effective and convenient model. No matter what the issue is, there is only one vendor to contact. Your local IT support costs are greatly reduced, if not eliminated.

The Questions You Must Ask

Once you are familiar with the choices, you should know the questions to ask the vendors you choose to interview:

  • Cost. Is the service priced on a per-user or other basis? Is it all-inclusive or are there add-ons and options to be aware of? Which of your current expenses does it replace?
  • History. How long has the company been in business?
  • Size. How many clients is it serving, and how fast is it growing?
  • Specialty. What industries does it serve? Is it a jack-of-all-trades, or does it have intimate knowledge and experience with the software and needs of the legal industry?
  • Scope of services. Which of the services mentioned above (i.e., IaaS, SaaS, DaaS or ITaaS) does it provide? What will it take care of, and what will you need to manage elsewhere?
  • Security and compliance. What security and compliance standards are in place? You need to ensure that your professional responsibilities under Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1 (duty of competence) and 1.6 (confidentiality of information) are met. With the mainstreaming of the cloud, this is more achievable. Twenty states have come out with their own ethics opinions on the cloud, all of which permit the use of cloud services under the standard of reasonable care. There are also auditing and encryption standards in the IT industry that can assist in simplifying your search for the right cloud partner. Each and every vendor vying for your firm’s business should be prepared to demonstrate its own adherence to these standards.
  • Backup and disaster recovery. What do the vendors offer for backup and disaster recovery? How many, and how often, are backups being taken? Where are they being stored? How long are they stored? What is the time and process involved in restoring from a server or a data center crash?
  • Infrastructure. What infrastructure will your system be running on? Who owns it? Is it your vendor or a third party? Where is it? Are there multiple data centers for redundancies?
  • Contract. Learn about the agreement. What is the contract term? What liability is being accepted by the vendor? Is there cyber liability coverage for breaches? Who owns the data? What are the support response times? What uptime is being guaranteed? What pricing stability can you expect?

Conclusion

Most firms have found that adopting the right cloud services will help them save money while assisting them to become more agile as the industry and its supporting technology continues to evolve. Rather than fearing the cloud, what you should fear is the risk you may be taking by ignoring all that the cloud has to offer.

Ronny Loew is the national sales director of ProCirrus’ Technologies Inc., where he has worked since 2011. He has established working relationships with a wide range of leading legal software companies and has been instrumental in establishing ProCirrus’s reputation as a leader in legal cloud hosting. He is a regular speaker at ABA, ALA, and other industry conferences, educating firms as they evaluate a move to the cloud.