Unclouding the issue

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19 May 2014

The ups and downs of cloud computing

The ‘Cloud’ is radically changing the way that businesses operate and the legal profession is no exception. While the productivity, relationship and financial benefits to law firms are substantial, there are a number of pitfalls to negotiate on the way if these are to be maximised. One of the problems faced by legal firms when considering how to proceed is that some of the definitions of ‘the Cloud’ are rather nebulous. The aim of this article is provide some background to the technology to enable informed decisions to be taken.

There are two primary types of Cloud-based environments. Let’s first start with the areas you need to consider generically and then look at how they apply to a given environment.

The cost of a new system is not simply the cost of the system alone. There are often ancillary costs which can be supplementary additions as well and come in the form of training and data migration.  For data protection, the issue of redundancy, resiliency and backups and your recovery time as well the overall upgradability of the system are the base concerns. One must also factor how their infrastructure will support their staff growth and the ability to work remotely.

A home-from-home

One definition of ‘the ‘Cloud’ is simply a system that is hosted outside the comfort of your office. In reality, the hosting of a company’s server and software at a remote location is not true ‘Cloud computing’. Such services are provided by a legacy hosted provider who either hosts your own equipment or rents the equivalent to you.

This ‘hosted environment’ does deliver some of the benefits of Cloud computing – a data centre is more physically secure than the server room at your own premises, for example, and would usually be staffed on a 24-hour basis. Moreover, the cost of server maintenance is shared between your firm and many others and upgrades and back-ups can be dealt with remotely. You’ve also reduced your time for repair should the server equipment fail.

However, the limitation of this approach is that it remains a system that was designed to be run on a single server. Upgrades may be lumpy and your software may be constrained in users or relative to the hardware you or your provider has in place.

This is a well-known understood but expensive model.  If moving to a new system involves learning how use unfamiliar software, additional fees are likely to apply. If you are using your existing software, you are now paying a premium for hosting it. And because these costs apply just to your hardware, the costs of adding layers of redundancy and resiliency can get even more expensive. To those that can afford it however, it does provide a truly “private Cloud”.

Taking the leap

If that private Cloud is the equivalent of a small home, then a large multi-tenant public Cloud system is the equivalent of a large condo or skyscraper. True Cloud solutions – where server access, storage and other resources are shared in a pool with other users across a number of servers – are designed to provide practically unlimited capacity and scale, which can quickly adapt to its users’ needs. Because Cloud based applications cater to large numbers of users and many companies, out of an abundance of caution they tend to be over-engineered in terms of backup, redundancy, resiliency and even raw processing power.

This means that they can provide considerably more power than an individual system, with the costs spread across all users. I often compare this to a personal security guard and that of a public army. Both give you security, but the depth and breadth of that security can be very different.

The user model is different too: rather than relying on incremental revenue from training, these systems are easy to use and borrow heavily in terms of usability from their software-as-a-service consumer peers: LinkedIn, Google and Twitter.
This has huge implications to staff adoption and training. You don’t have to learn Facebook, you just use it. Maintenance is done transparently and iteratively – and done often. The current generation of Cloud software providers also typically eschew setup and migration charges. As a Cloud based product running in a browser there are no complex installation charges either.

Nagib Tharani is the Director of International Expansion for Clio, a Cloud based practice management system for lawyers. For further information visit www.goclio.eu

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