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Cloud Computing

Practicing Law in the Cloud: Assessing the Options

Public, Private, Community, Hybrid ... What's the Difference?

By Tomas Suros

“The cloud” has revolutionized the legal industry in just a few short years. While it may seem like a simple enough concept at first, few people fully understand the depth and range of cloud options that are available today.

All cloud technologies serve the same basic function at their core: the delivery of computing resources over the internet. Beyond that, however, there are vast differences in today’s cloud offerings. Contrary to what many users envision, cloud computing is not simply one amorphous network where all users access all the apps and data they need. Instead, a number of different kinds of cloud computing are available, including public clouds, private clouds, community clouds, hybrid clouds and SaaS cloud solutions.

While it has been predicted that 83% of enterprise workloads will be in the cloud in 2020, how can you know which cloud is right for your law firm? The answer lies in understanding the differences between the various cloud options in the industry and the specific business needs they’re each best suited to meet.

Public Clouds

A public cloud is what many people think of when they envision the cloud. It’s a basic cloud computing model through which a cloud service provider offers resources like storage and applications to the public at large via the internet. Typically, a public cloud’s infrastructure is shared by many users from a large number of different firms or companies, each of which purchases a cloud subscription on a pay-as-you-go basis.

The public cloud allows for scalability and resource sharing that would not otherwise be possible for a single organization to achieve. Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and the Google Cloud Platform are the three largest public cloud providers.

Because public clouds usually involve huge servers in numerous locations around the world, they offer users maximum scalability to meet their needs as companies grow or shrink. Their size also means they provide high levels of flexibility and reliability. And because the user pays only for the resources actually used and doesn’t need to hire IT staff, public clouds are typically a highly cost-effective cloud option.

The biggest drawback of public clouds is their inability to offer advanced security and privacy measures. Because many users are sharing a single infrastructure, public clouds are often unable to meet regulatory requirements.

Public clouds are best suited for large data storage and processing, access through web browsers or for companies that have minimal security concerns.

Private Clouds

Unlike public clouds, private clouds run on proprietary infrastructure provisioned for exclusive use by a single organization. Usually, a firm will deploy its own platforms, software and applications and partner with a vendor that specializes in creating and managing private cloud environments. Or, a firm may pay for cloud service on a fee-per-unit-time model. Abacus Private Cloud, for example, provides a private cloud environment, with access to a wide variety of practice management tools.

Private clouds tend to be scalable to the user’s needs and shift the IT burden from the client to the private cloud vendor. One of the main advantages over public clouds is enhanced security and privacy. Because the cloud infrastructure is tailored to a single client, it usually sits behind a dedicated firewall and is accessed over an encrypted connection with multifactor authentication. The enhanced security and data encryption measures make compliance with privacy and security regulations possible.

Private clouds tend to be more expensive than public clouds and may take longer to set up. In addition, companies typically require internal IT staff to oversee deployment and maintenance, or they rely on their private cloud vendor, which supplies management and maintenance of the private cloud.

Community Clouds

A fairly recent development, community clouds are essentially a variation on private clouds, and are shared by a specific, discrete business community. While multiple businesses share the infrastructure, each has its own private cloud space designed to meet the data privacy, security and compliance needs of the specific community the cloud is serving.

Community clouds are most popular among companies in industries that are subject to strict regulatory compliance requirements. They’re also beneficial for users working on joint projects within a defined business community that involve sharing applications and software specific to that community. Early community clouds are active in the health-care industry, scientific research communities and the public sector.

Hybrid Clouds

Hybrid clouds are exactly what they sound like: a mix of private and public cloud infrastructure. They offer the best of both worlds because sensitive data resides in the private cloud, where the user can maintain high privacy and security standards, while work of a nonsensitive nature can be handled in the public cloud, which offers increased scalability and data storage at a lower cost. Hybrid clouds are ideal for firms that have a mix of sensitive operations and nonsensitive projects involving large amounts of data that are better stored in a public cloud infrastructure. A litigation law firm, for example, may choose to keep sensitive e-discovery data on a highly secure private cloud, while managing routine content in public cloud apps such as Google Docs or other SaaS applications.

SaaS Cloud Solutions

Software as a service is one of the newest subsets of cloud computing being offered, and it’s a market that’s quickly growing. SaaS services deliver software directly to the consumer over a cloud platform that’s entirely hosted and managed by a third-party vendor. In most instances, SaaS cloud solutions require no hardware installations or purchases, making it easy for users to get started even if they’ve not previously made the move to the cloud. Most of us use one or more SaaS applications. Popular ones include Dropbox.com, Salesforce.com, email service providers, e-signature applications, survey tools, videoconferencing apps and more.

Although you will pay monthly or annual subscription fees, SaaS cloud products are cost-effective because you do not have to purchase hardware or software programs and there’s no need to hire IT staff to manage a network of software, servers, firewalls, routers or anything else. The vendor provides all software support as part of the SaaS offering — meaning that applications are constantly maintained and updated with no effort from the user.

A SaaS subscription often includes the ongoing technical support and program maintenance, but the user does not actually own any of the software to which it is subscribing. While SaaS solutions tend to be highly scalable and secure, they may be more limited than private clouds when it comes to customization and functionality.

SaaS solutions may be ideal for firms that want a simple, seamless cloud computing experience with little hands-on maintenance responsibility.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing the right cloud technology. With the options available today, however, there is a right cloud solution for every firm. Determining what you need in terms of security, scalability, IT support and, of course, cost will help you choose the best fit for your practice.

Related: “Tech Tips: Making Your Move to the Cloud”

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Tomas Suros Tomas Suros

Tomas Suros is a technology advocate working at the intersection of IT and client consulting. With AbacusNext (@Abacus_Next) since 2004, Tomas currently serves as chief solutions architect, guiding firms through the process of identifying forward-facing technology options and ensuring the successful implementation of a tailored solution. Follow him @TomasSuros.

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