Working in the Cloud
We hear a lot these days about cloud computing, software as a service (or SaaS) and hosted software services. Should you move your practice up into the cloud? The underlying concept of the cloud returns us to the early days of computing. Back then, “dumb” terminals accessed computing power and storage on mainframe computers. Then we moved to a personal computing world where our computing power and storage happened locally on PCs connected to networks.
In the late 1990s we saw a movement back to an evolved version of the earlier model, but built on the Internet. This was known as the application service provider model. With ASPs, you used a browser to access a website where you kept and worked with your data.
In those days, there were performance issues and other problems with ASPs, and they were blasted when the dot-com bubble burst. In fact, the term SaaS was substituted for ASP because of the negative feelings caused by the ASP-bubble era.
At least four major changes have happened since then:
• Widespread adoption of broadband Internet access.
• Programming known as AJAX, a method of Web-based scripting that makes user input appear quickly and permits webpages to act and feel like desktop applications.
• The build-out of today’s world-class data centers.
• The public’s comfort with hosted e-mail such as Gmail, and Web 2.0 tools like Google Docs.
All of this has brought us to the era of the cloud. In popular terms, the cloud refers to two related things. First, the websites and services that allow you to use the Internet as a platform to run programs and store data. Second, the system of worldwide data centers owned by Amazon.com, Google and others on which these Internet services run.
The term cloud is used because in this system, which includes things like virtual servers, it actually becomes a little difficult to point to exactly where all your data is being stored or managed. It’s definitely not in your firm’s server room. You also do not install the software you use on your own computer. It’s accessible on a website through your browser.
Many law firms find the idea of SaaS quite daunting. According to the ABA’s 2009 Legal Technology Survey Report, 16 percent of respondents have used online software services, compared with 13 percent in the 2008 survey. This is a cautious amount of growth, but is that caution necessary?
Well, you might be surprised by the long list of benefits of software as a service:
• Because these services are accessed through your browser and an Internet connection, you avoid software, hardware and network infrastructure costs.
• Data centers provide levels of security, backup, redundancy and performance that go far beyond what the typical law firm can imagine.
• The provider takes care of patches, updates and other administration.
• Remote access from anywhere is a given.
• Perhaps best of all, your technology costs become a utility cost; you typically pay a monthly service fee that you can budget for.
It’s no wonder SaaS is popular for startup practices.
Of course, there are trade-offs, especially in today’s economy. Simply put, your data and your programs are no longer local; they are outside your office, with all the issues that might bring.
You do need to think carefully about return of data, privacy, confidentiality, and jurisdictional and regulatory issues. Customer service of your SaaS provider becomes a big concern. You also need to consider what happens to you, your practice and your data if a SaaS provider goes out of business. Recently, even big-name SaaS examples like Gmail have experienced outages.
Still, in an increasing number of cases, businesses are opting for the SaaS model for part of their technology platform. The trend is especially strong in the area of collaboration tools, including webconferencing.
You also see a growing number of legal vendors in the cloud space, especially ones for case management (e.g., Rocket Matter and Clio) and electronic discovery (e.g., Catalyst Repository Systems and Fios). And standard legal-software vendors often offer hosted software services.
Here are a few tips to help you consider the options:
Ask “compared to what?” Make a realistic comparison with what you are doing now. Attorneys often worry about security and confidentiality issues with SaaS providers while employing practices in their offices that are all but laughably unsecure. Similarly, remember that many services continue to add new features—often requested by customers—on a regular basis without raising costs or requiring software updates on your computer.
Do your due diligence. Is a provider familiar with issues unique to lawyers? Where and how do they host and manage the service? (Some SaaS providers actually use the data centers of Amazon.com.) What are the busi- ness prospects of the provider? Checking references is a must.
Know your SLAs. A SaaS provider will have a service level agreement to cover issues like performance, uptime, quality of service, incident management, escalation and penalties. The actual terms tend to be called SLAs. You need to read service level agreements carefully and know that they are negotiable.
Deal with confidentiality. Lawyers have unique obligations of confidentiality. Make sure that a SaaS provider can address those issues by security, encryption, contract and other means.
Plan for transition. If things go bad, or you simply want to make a change, provide for how data will be returned to you, transition procedures and the like.
Start small. Experiment with SaaS in small areas. Examples include e-mail backup, extranets and similar areas that are not “mission critical” to get your feet wet, and then learn from those experiences.
From economics to enhanced features to reduced infrastructure costs, there is a general movement toward software as a service, even in the legal profession. I’m known as a big fan of SaaS, but I always advocate taking an eyes-wide-open approach. Take a hard look and consider moving part of your practice into the cloud while keeping your head out of the clouds.