Given the need for law firms to maintain business continuity, it’s no surprise that cloud computing has become one of the more dominant and urgent topics in the age of social distancing and remote workplaces. But the volume of a conversation doesn’t always reflect the knowledge of its participants. If you’re finding yourself facing decisions and discussions around cloud computing and its impact on law firms, you need to understand what’s being said – and what impact those words can have on the continued health of your law firm.
Of course, there are tens, if not hundreds, of terms related to cloud computing. But for those who have forgotten, or were never actually taught, here is a primer on some of the most common and fundamental cloud terms relevant to the legal industry.
Cloud computing is, at its core, about hosting data and programs “out there” rather than “right here” in your firm’s data room. Google Docs is a simple example of data being stored in the cloud. The files are stored remotely and accessed from anywhere as opposed to only being available on your own computer.
Like a website, storing data in the cloud means hosting it on internet-connected servers. With a working internet connection and the proper security credentials, users gain remote access to documents and services from anywhere, including outside of a law firm’s offices.
Besides having easy access to your data, the cloud is also attractive because it democratizes software solutions. Cloud computing’s shared resources reduces the cost and effort associated with building infrastructure. This, in turn, places technology and capabilities previously only available to larger firms within reach of small and medium law firms. Indeed, small businesses and enterprise-scale corporations alike rely on the four leading providers: Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and IBM Cloud to supply their infrastructure.
When a business uses a private cloud, the technology infrastructure is not shared publicly as it is held by a single party. Private clouds can be hosted by consumers or businesses on site or in data centers owned by third-party service providers. These solutions are often more expensive than a public cloud and occasionally required by the client.
Public cloud providers like Amazon AWS allow many different businesses to use their cloud infrastructure. These cloud environments are connected to the public internet, but the data hosted on them is kept separate and secure for each of their subscribers. Individual users with the proper permissions are able to access their own data and services, but not those belonging to their neighbors.
A hybrid cloud is an infrastructure that includes links between a private and public cloud. Although the public and private portions of the hybrid cloud appear as a single environment to users, the component entities remain separate and distinct. As was previously stated, some firms maintain their on-premises systems for certain core functions (accounting and financial systems, for example) and have modular Software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions with those same applications (like web-based time capture) in the cloud.
In contrast to cloud environments, on-premises IT infrastructure is hosted and managed locally. Law firms that have and maintain their own servers and data which can only be accessed via local network are using on-premises systems. On-premises systems existed before the internet and the cloud were invented and are defined by their lack of remote accessibility.
Many midsize law firms still rely, at least in part, on proprietary on-premises systems to support custom-built tools that drive their practices. For these firms, a move to the cloud can be a daunting task. But attitudes among firm leaders are changing as the needs of the business and expectations of their clients demand an upgrade to modern remote accessibility.
Software as a service (SaaS)
Law firms utilize SaaS when they subscribe to or rent software for a monthly or annual fee. The software runs on a cloud network and is delivered over the web. Third-party companies with SaaS solutions host firms’ data in the cloud and maintain its performance, security, and regular updates. A common example of SaaS is Microsoft Office365 and its online components.
Within the realm of SaaS, there are single instances of software and supporting infrastructure that serve just one customer. With single tenancy, a law firm has its own independent database and instance of the software it subscribes to.
A public cloud is considered multi-tenancy when multiple firms use it and each firm keeps its data secure, private, and housed separately. Most firms utilize a public cloud that is a multi-tenancy SaaS. The benefits of these solutions include: lower costs compared to single tenancy, an easier and more standardized installation, standardized upgrade schedules, configurations instead of customizations, and inherited, best-in-class cybersecurity.
In the IaaS model, third-party service providers host hardware, operating systems and other software, servers, storage systems, and various other IT components for customers in a highly automated delivery model. IaaS providers may handle tasks such as ongoing systems maintenance, data backup, and business continuity.