What, really, is “the cloud”? And, more importantly for law firms, how do you choose one?
The cloud is an umbrella term for software and services that run on the internet with shared computing resources. General advantages of cloud computing include increased file storage capacity, more convenient file sharing, and easier data back-up. For law firms, this means no longer having to store, guard and maintain physical servers on office premises; no longer having to hunt down the last colleague who took your USB for a file transfer; and no longer panicking upon closing a file before hitting save. The main disadvantage of cloud computing is that internet connection is required - however, technology has developed such that many cloud computing applications support offline working with automatic syncing once internet connection is restored.
There are three main types of cloud storage: public cloud, private cloud, and hybrid cloud, each with its own characteristics and advantages.
Public cloud storage solutions are offered by third party services providers over the internet, with all of the hardware, software and other supporting infrastructure owned and managed by the cloud provider (“Cloud Service Provider”). Users of these solutions (cloud “tenants”) access these services via web browsers, and may share hardware, storage and network devices with other tenants. Data ownership can be safeguarded by reviewing the services contracts with the actual service provider, often a software as a service (“SaaS”), which is often not the Cloud Service Provider. It is a further protection for the end-user to choose a SaaS that provides data-backup and asserts legal ownership to the end-users.
Examples of public clouds include Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), Google AppEngine, and Windows Azure Services Platform.
Cloud Service Providers often operate and maintain a vast network of servers, such that clients enjoy relatively high scalability and reliability. Public cloud solutions also have the benefit of lower procurement and maintenance costs, since service providers take care of the hardware and software.
An often cited drawback of the public cloud is a relative lack of control over security, which is to a large extent controlled by the Cloud Service Provider. However, when implemented effectively through a SaaS with proper security methods, the public cloud can be as secure as or even more secure than a private cloud.
Private clouds are also known as internal or corporate clouds. The private cloud can be physically hosted at the business’s data centre, but can also be hosted by a third party service provider; the main difference from the public cloud is that services and infrastructure are maintained on a private network and used exclusively by one business. The public cloud has more computing resources available, but also more tenants taking a share.
Well-known private cloud providers include Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), VMware, Dell, and Oracle.
Private clouds bring greater flexibility for internal adjustments and more customizable security controls. However, even with private cloud solutions hosted by third party providers, the business remains responsible for the software and hardware. This significantly increases the cost of implementation and maintenance, which limits scalability to some extent. Businesses without proper IT support should still be wary of the potential time and costs required as well as limitations in upgrading its infrastructure in light of the marginal benefits offered by private cloud.
A hybrid cloud combines the on-premises infrastructure of private clouds with public cloud services by allowing data and applications to be shared between them. Sensitive data can be secured on private cloud, while public or customer-facing information can be exchanged at higher volumes on the public cloud. Hybrid cloud enables “cloud bursting”, which is when an application runs in the private cloud until a spike in demand causes it to “burst through” to the public cloud for additional computing resources.
Examples of hybrid clouds include VMware Cloud on AWS, the Cisco Hybrid Cloud Platform for Google Cloud, and Microsoft’s Azure Hybrid Cloud.
Hybrid clouds bring great flexibility to the adjustment of resource usage, and also further increases the available options for access and security control. On the other hand, increased options lead to increased complexity in implementation and maintenance, which incurs greater costs.
Large law firms with sufficient infrastructure and resources may choose to maintain their own private cloud. Small to mid sized law firms, on the other hand, are likely to benefit from public or hybrid cloud solutions. If lowering costs is the primary concern, a public cloud solution may be preferable; if scaling up with existing infrastructure is the focus, then a hybrid cloud may be the best fit.
However, cloud storage is the beginning, not the conclusion. Particularly for small to mid sized firms, it may be more cost-efficient to reduce in-house tech spending by outsourcing to third party SaaS. Cloud solutions such as LegalX build upon cloud storage to enable cost-effective work management tools for lawyers.