I encounter many small law firms that continue to operate on-premises servers that hold key firm data, files, and even emails. While having a server is less and less common for new firms, it seems that many existing firms feel compelled to keep their servers. In this post, we explain two reasons why on-premises servers should be sunset: (1) the rise of cloud-based technologies, and (2) the expenses and liabilities that servers can incur.
What is a Server?
Some of you might wonder what exactly we're even talking about. That's a fair point. Servers come in many shapes and sizes, and some firms may not even know whether they have one or not. Here's a simple definition that can help:
A server is a computer that other computers in your organization must access for the purpose of viewing or editing data, files, or emails.
(For a more formal definition, see webopedia.) Sometimes the server is actually running on a user's personal workstation; sometimes it is a separate machine running in a closet or under a desk. The key question to ask is whether there's a computer in your office that, if lost or destroyed, would wipe out shared data and your users' ability to collaborate on key functions (like working with case management software, editing files, or accessing email). If the answer is "yes," then you have an on-premises server.
The Costs & Risks of Running a Server
Most small firms are not well-positioned to own or operate their own servers. Running a server requires a certain level of expertise, time, and attention that isn't readily available to most firms. Firm servers almost always hold both mission-critical data and sensitive client data. Therefore, the server must be secure, reliable, and highly-available. A data breach or loss of data could be catastrophic. Even a brief period of downtime could be very costly.
Anturis maintains a checklist of tasks for properly maintaining a Windows server, which includes:
- Install operating system updates once per month;
- Installing software updates once per month;
- Reviewing server access policies once every six months;
- Reviewing firewall rules once per year;
- Confirming mandatory password changes;
- Confirming and testing backup procedures;
- Checking resource usage monthly;
- Checking for hardware errors weekly;
- Ensuring that monitoring is in place and functioning;
- Removing unused applications once per month;
- Checking disk integrity monthly;
- Monitoring event logs and statistics daily or weekly; and
- Running scans at least once per month.
Large enterprises and government agencies employ full-time personnel to handle these tasks, and even then, as many news stories have shown, security is far from gauranteed. An advantage of cloud services such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Heroku (and applications built on top of them, like CaseFleet) is that they have some of the most talented security and reliability engineers constantly maintaining their networks, hardware, and software. Many younger lawyers have recognized this fact and have taken a stand against expensive on-premises operations. For example, Joshua Stern (a family lawyer in Chicago and a CaseFleet customer) considers servers to be "vestiges of ancient internet security practices, which seemingly only exist to give money to IT firms." According to Stern, "the maintenance costs alone make owning server a poor business decision." Fortunately, there's no longer a need for a law firm to own a server.
Why You Don't Need a Server
With the explosion in the availability of reliable and cheap cloud services, on-premises servers are becoming redundant. The classic use-cases for a server are (1) sharing files on a network drive, (2) sharing application data so that multiple users can work with it, and (3) running an email server. Cloud-based alternatives exist for each of these use-cases, and many would argue that the cloud software is better and easier to use.
For example, Box.com is a powerful and scaleable tool that replaces the file-sharing capabilities of a server. Google Sheets, BaseCamp, HubSpot, Google Docs, and many law practice management and case management programs are all cloud-based. Finally, both Google and Microsoft now offer business-grade cloud email and calendaring solutions in Google Apps for Work and Office 365.
If you run any software that requires a Windows server, it's worth considering whether it's worth the trouble and risk of maintaining the server, or whether it might ultimately be cheaper and more reliable to switch to a cloud-based solution. Particularly in the legal sector, there are a host of aging products that continue to require an on-premises server. Fortunately, better cloud-based options are constantly appearing to help firms manage their practices more efficiently and effectively.