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The cloud ascendant

Tech Support
|Written By Gerry Blackwell
The cloud ascendant

Cloud computing in the legal industry, almost from the get-go, came under, well, a cloud. Is the sketchy reputation deserved?

Dean Leung, former national director of information technology at Davis LLP, says no. Besides, says Leung, you’re probably already using it.

Cloud computing is the defining trend in information technology in the new millennium. The most familiar manifestations are software-as-a-service products — applications shared by monthly or yearly “subscribers” accessing them over the Internet — and online backup and file-sharing services.

Advocates say cloud computing can cut costs, radically simplify computing operations, eliminate the need for business continuity planning and data backup, and even reduce carbon footprint. Leung would add that outsourcing infrastructure and horizontal applications such as e-mail can free law firm IT professionals to concentrate on mission-critical, legal-specific applications such as knowledge management and litigation support.

His firm recently completed negotiations to adopt a cloud-based law library application — he won’t say which one yet — from a company that offers both on-premise and hosted versions of the same software. The cost of the cloud-based option, calculated over a five-year period, was significantly lower, says Leung. And that didn’t take into account more-difficult-to-calculate benefits such as reduced IT management costs.

Despite the generally agreed upon benefits from cloud computing, and while other industries have embraced it, Canadian law firms have mostly hung back, citing concerns about confidentiality, security, and jurisdictional issues. Firms certainly need to be aware of those issues, says Leung. What happens, for example, if the company that holds your data is in the U.S. and the U.S. government uses legislation there to force the company to hand over your client-confidential data? “But the risks, while they’re there, are small compared to the benefits,” he argues. And it’s possible to manage the risks — much as it is in the physical world.

Are concerns about security of data on a third-party server, for example, really much different than concerns law firms have about the security of paper files when outsourced custodial staff are coming in to clean offices at night? “You have to trust the organizations that you trust,” says Leung. “Do you really know that the guy cleaning out your garbage isn’t also going through your drawers? It’s not that different in the virtual world.”

Leung, who is now with Holland & Knight LLP in the U.S. as director of network and operations, believes many Canadian law firms aren’t thinking rationally about cloud computing. For one thing,  many already use it. The most ubiquitous example of a cloud-based solution is Research in Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry Enterprise Server. “It’s not branded as such, but that is cloud computing too. All your messages go through the BlackBerry network operations centre.” Another is Postini, the e-mail anti-spam service used by many law firms, now owned by Google. “If you use it, every piece of your Internet-based correspondence — or you could spin it this way — is being intercepted, analyzed, and forwarded by Google,” Leung points out.

Iron Mountain straddles the physical and virtual worlds, providing both secure data and paper document storage. Many law firms use it. They trust its reputation and name — as they trust Research in Motion. “But Iron Mountain is owned by a U.S. company,” notes Leung. “Does that mean the U.S. government could issue an order in the U.S. forcing it to deliver documents sitting in Canada?”

The difference between these and other services tagged as too risky is BlackBerry, Postini, and other pioneers built up acceptance and a reputation for security before “cloud computing” became a buzzword and alarm bells started going off. Many firms are already using cloud computing in other ways too. While most people think first of SaaS and online data storage and sharing, that’s only part of it. Leung’s definition is simple: “accessing computing resources over a distance.” It’s not that new, he adds. “Cloud computing is really just network-based computing which goes all the way back to the days of mainframes and dumb terminals.”

It’s not exactly the same, of course. Distances are often greater now, the Internet is frequently involved, and the SaaS model of software distribution is new. The analogy with mainframe computing does work well for what has recently come to be referred to as “private clouds” — centralized computing resources maintained and managed by or on behalf of one company. Davis, for example, adopted a centralized approach a few years ago, with one data centre in Vancouver serving all eight offices. “That is now called a private cloud,” says Leung.

It’s also possible to go the next step and outsource data centre operations — hire a company to house, manage, and maintain your servers in a secure facility. Davis considered it, but decided the time wasn’t right. Yet. The data centre wouldn’t have to be in the same city as one of the firm’s offices, Leung points out. Davis could outsource to a company in Winnipeg, for example, where real estate and power costs are lower, and where the data centre would be a more equal distance between western and eastern offices.

These kinds of outsourced and hosted solutions are cloud computing, he insists. They just don’t have the stigma that attaches to SaaS and other online services.

You must pay attention to due diligence on third parties delivering cloud-based services, Leung stresses. Part of it is questioning them about commitments to and mechanisms for ensuring security and privacy of data. Because of the uncertainty about jurisdictional issues — there have been few legal precedents as yet — it might be prudent to contract with a company in the same jurisdiction, he says.

That said, he doesn’t necessarily think law firms, especially small firms, should dismiss outright the idea of using “public cloud” services such as Google Apps or Microsoft Office Live, both based in the U.S. Leung wrote an article about Google Apps for the journal of the International Legal Technology Association a year ago that asked the question, “Software as a service: ready for prime time?” His conclusion: for the right firm — one with the right set of needs (Google Apps is not as sophisticated or full-featured as Microsoft Office), and one open to change — yes. “It’s certainly something organizations should be considering now,” he believes.

The big hurdle for small firms looking at adopting Google Apps may be more the differences between it and the familiar Microsoft Office than the fact that it’s cloud-based. Leung believes the availability of hosted versions of Office will create a “tidal wave” of acceptance for cloud computing in the coming months.

So is it inevitable that cloud computing will become the norm? Leung thinks so. It’s a logical evolution in computing, he says. It’s also analogous to what happened with electricity. Companies that wanted power 120 years ago built their own generators. Nobody does that today. And fewer and fewer companies will maintain their own computing infrastructure in the future.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Ont. Read his blog at