Shining a light on the cloud
What’s a cloud-first strategy and what are the implications? Stephen Brown explains how to adopt a cloud strategy and the options for delivering cloud-based technology
T here is fast becoming a contradiction in the shape of a law firm’s information technology (IT) services and how they are delivered. As the solutions become easier to consume, the considerations become increasingly complex – especially in a regulated environment. The complexity of ensuring that data, service level agreements and connectivity are all aligned requires expert knowledge. As technology plays an increasingly strategic and operational role in law firms, a question commonly asked by firms’ senior management teams and partners is: “How should IT be delivered to my firm?’.
WHAT DOES CLOUD-FIRST MEAN?
A firm has a cloud-first strategy when it has a major technology investment decision to make, or needs to buy new software or services; and the default design principle will be to ‘source from the cloud, unless there is good reason not to’.
The creation of structured review criterion will be key to a firm’s cloud-first decisionmaking. This should be used to evaluate key considerations of potential cloud services.
While not exhaustive, this will include:
— Where will data reside; and does it comply with Solicitors Regulation Authority/Data Protection Act guidelines?
— Is the firm comfortable with the security profile of the solution and supplier (aligned to ISO27001 and Cyber Essential Plus accreditations)?
— Are the operational service levels provided by the supplier fit for purpose?
— Does the solution provide the functionality and integration the firm needs?
— Does the cost align to appetite?
— Has the supplier passed the client procurement due diligence assessment (commercial stability, anti-bribery, etc)?
WHAT IS CLOUD COMPUTING?
Since the advent of the internet as a mainstream business tool, the way technology has been delivered and utilised has consistently changed. The scale, speed and reliability of modern networking technology aligned to the hub of interconnected computing capability (the internet) has created what is commonly known as the cloud. The cloud environment has revolutionised how technology can be consumed by businesses regardless of their size. Traditionally, businesses capital-purchased hardware and software solutions and hosted them in their own environments. The rise of cloud computing has transformed this model. Massive levels of investment from technology giants such as Microsoft and Amazon mean cloud is almost certainly going to be the dominant technology hosting model for the foreseeable future. The provisioning of data centre space, the procurement of technology hardware, the use of business software, and even the use of people and resources, has increasingly moved to an operational expenditure/services model. As cloud solutions and suppliers mature in technology offering, service and compliance it is becoming commonplace for firms to consider the cloud to deliver technology.
Furthermore, it is now mainstream to procure all elements of a traditional IT function as a service because:
— Firms do not want the overhead and burden of managing internal IT teams or the responsibility or risk of hosting data centres from their own office locations;
— It is quicker to procure services the cloud and bring them to market when compared to traditional sourcing mechanisms;
— It is possible to scale the technology services up and down quickly to provide computing power and IT services on demand;
— Key suppliers are pricing cloud services keenly as they want customers to use them;
— Licensing models from key suppliers, such as Microsoft, are making it more expensive not to move to a cloud-sourced model;
— Some legal application suppliers are stopping the development of traditional solutions and are only providing cloudbased options.
CLOUD AND INNOVATION
Innovative uses of technology drive business growth and or efficiency, but can often be opportunistic and entrepreneurial in nature, requiring an ability to fairly quickly try out something without huge levels of investment or long-time delays, to assess whether the opportunity will really achieve a beneficial outcome. However, the traditional infrastructure hosting model is not conducive to this type of ‘incubator’ based piloting approach. Very few organisations have spare infrastructure available just for this type of research and development – which can lead to delay, cost and complexity in trying out new opportunities, ultimately stifling innovation. Infrastructure hosting in the cloud has the potential to remedy this challenge. Generally, these services are costed on a ‘pay as you use’ model. Infrastructure can be switched on and off very quickly, with the user only charged when it is being used. The main benefit is that the traditional innovation blocker is removed, large-scale capital investment in infrastructure isn’t required, and time to provision services is dramatically reduced. Finally, many innovation opportunities require high levels of computer processing power, particularly when considering the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. The level of upfront investment required in a traditional hosting model would smother the potential to ‘try out’ these opportunities, whereas in a cloud environment the level of compute power available is almost limitless.
What common ‘clouds’ do suppliers present?
— Co-location – This is not strictly considered cloud computing. The firm hires space from a third party but is still responsible for the hardware and applications. Data centres are rated from one to four, with four being the most resilient.
— Infrastructure as a service (IAAS) – The firm hires resilient hardware (infrastructure) that is hosted in a data centre. The hardware is rented and not owned by the firm, so it is owned and maintained by the service provider. The firm licenses its own server operating system, platforms and applications that it can put on the rented hardware. IAAS providers can offer a Microsoft server operating system as part of the solution.
— Platform as a service (PAAS) – The firm hires a platform but retains responsibility for the applications that use the platform.
— Software as a service (SAAS) – The firm hires the application but retains responsibility for how the application is delivered to staff and any integration or development.
— Desktop as a service (DAAS) – The firm hires the desktop environment but retains responsibility for any development of applications, eg case workflows.
Adopting a cloud-first approach means other IT services will be considered differently in the future. While the amount of infrastructure located in any existing data centres/communications rooms will reduce, network connectivity to the cloud-hosted services will be critical to ensure operational service performance. Overall expenditure may therefore not significantly reduce, but will be re-directed to a different technology area. A cloud-first approach, potentially increases complexity in how services are integrated. This will need to be carefully assessed as part of any procurement, but may also require a slightly different skill set than is currently available from the IT function. When current managed IT services contracts expire and a re-tender is due, the firm should consider the skills required for the duration of the new contract term and whether they are likely to change.
— Migration - Expertise in provision and migration of infrastructure services to the cloud should be paramount.
— New suppliers - As it is likely that services will be increasingly sourced from third parties, any new managed services supplier will need to have strong supplier management and commercial procurement expertise.
— Integration - Integration of architecture and design skills will be vital.
— Data sovereignty - Regulated firms need to consider where their data is stored.
— Exit Terms - Suppliers make it very easy to consume new services. Exit terms have to be thought out and very robust. Getting access to firms’ data when trying to move suppliers can prove to be extremely difficult with some providers demanding a ‘king’s ransom’.
— Supplier licensing – Enterprise software providers are now geared heavily to the cloud. Any firm considering a cloud-based strategy or any IT project should always engage with a qualified expert before embarking on it.