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Guest Commentary: Cloud computing — If the sky's the limit, what's not to like?

dmc-admin//June 14, 2010

Guest Commentary: Cloud computing — If the sky's the limit, what's not to like?

dmc-admin//June 14, 2010

Simply stated, cloud computing is Internet-based computing. Shared software and information are provided to customers on demand.

I recently heard a great explanation on a radio program during which the reporter responded to the question, “What is cloud computing?” by saying: “Just think of warehouses all over the world filled with servers on which information is stored.”

So there you are. Except it gets a little more complicated than that.

Many people in the technology field see cloud computing as the next generation of IT services and support. The traditional business-technology model has been a client-server environment in which multiple servers contain data and services (word processing, e-mail, etc.) hosted by each business for their employees.

Cloud computing describes a new delivery model for IT services and data in which the data and services are stored and accessible via the Internet. The term “cloud” is a metaphor for the Internet, as a vast place where services and information are available from anywhere and stored “out there” on the web.

One of the key perceived advantages of cloud computing is cost. Capital expenditure is converted to operational expenditure because the network infrastructure is provided by a third party; an internal server environment does not need to be purchased, maintained and supported.

Additionally, pricing generally is done on a utility-computing basis (metered) with usage-based options. And, sadly for me and my staff, fewer IT skills are needed for support and operations.

Data are stored at a remote site, which promotes built-in business continuity and potentially allows upgrades and updates to the hardware and software to occur seamlessly to the end user.

Cloud computing is generally also available anytime, anywhere. Access to applications and data is done using the Internet and generally is device- and location-agnostic.

So what’s not to like, and why aren’t we all moving to cloud computing immediately? It has everything a lawyer would love: It saves money, gets rid of pesky IT people who can’t talk about technology without using indecipherable verbiage and is available anytime and anywhere.

Here are the major issues:

* Data management. The data you use to serve clients are the core of your business. Who owns it? Does the service level agreement explicitly state that you have ownership of the stored data? Do you retain control of the data? And what about the data you may have that are under regulatory control, such as information defined under HIPAA or other regulations? Who is responsible contractually for the protection and preservation of that information?

* Security. Are the data secure and safe, and is access restricted and protected? How is that done and what guarantees are in place on which you can rely?

* Manageability. How easy is it for you to find what you need when you need it? Is there a database structure that provides methodologies for access and also for scalability (defined as the ability to increase computing power and storage automatically as it may be needed)?

What is the speed of access to the data? Latency in accessing critical data can cause time lost, and time lost is revenue lost.

Is the service offering the cloud computing reliable and always available? Can the supplier be relied on to offer reliable and ready access to the data and meet the needs of a 24/7 business with a service level agreement that contains meaningful mitigation should the terms not be met?

So there are still some hurtles that need to be overcome. In law, your data (documents, spreadsheets, etc.) are critical to the services you provide. Until cloud computing overcomes the potential negatives as noted above, you are stuck with the status quo, especially for data that are immediately necessary to your practice.

But as first steps, think about cloud computing as a potential solution for backup and archive needs, and in the meantime I suppose I’ll have a job for another year or two at least I hope so, TechnoLAWgically speaking.

Editor’s note: TechnoLAWgically Speaking discusses how advances in office technology can best be used in the management of a law practice. Chace is chief information officer at Burns & Levinson in Boston.

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