Guest post: Selecting a cloud technology vendor? Six top tips

With the legal sector warming to cloud computing, many legal services providers are looking at adopting the technology, via applications such as document management systems (DMS), customer relationship management systems (CRM), and case management systems (CMS). The success of the cloud model to a large extent depends on the cloud service providers’ offering, knowledge and expertise. Here are some questions to ask when evaluating cloud technology providers:

What is the cloud vendor’s service availability (uptime) track record?

It’s definitely worth asking for evidence of the provider’s track record of adherence to published Service Level Agreements as even a small divergence from industry standard 99.99% server availability can significantly impact a law firm’s revenue. Here’s a scenario: say a cloud-based system in a 200 user law firm is sporadically unavailable for about 8.5 hours across three or four months. That doesn’t sound much, but at a fee earner mean hourly rate of £250, that downtime could potentially equate to a revenue loss of £425,000. 

Furthermore, query whether the downtime includes ‘Brownouts’ (i.e. whilst the server maybe functional, it doesn’t efficiently respond) that the service provider has historically experienced. Brownout durations are typically only seconds or minutes, but they cause drops in efficiency and productivity, not to mention frustration for application users.

And should there be a service outage, check what type of offline service would be available. Some pure cloud providers offer little or no offline access to your precious data, e.g. users may only have access to the documents they have personally touched in the last 30 days rather than access to everything across their current active matter files. This of course isn’t ideal and the only recourse for users to access important matter-related information might be via their IT department who, in a ‘system down’ situation, will be hard pressed to be responsive.

Will you have to sacrifice application functionality to gain a ‘pure’ web browser experience?

Don’t sacrifice business-critical application functionality for a ‘pure’ web browser experience. Often, even cloud application providers need to install additional software on client PCs to deliver full application integration and functionality.

There’s a misconception that cloud-based solutions are developed on the most current technology and hence offer the latest and greatest functionality. Cloud computing has been around for many years and so many cloud applications are architected on web technology that dates back at least seven years or more. Compared to an on-premises best-of-breed system, the functionality offered via a web browser interface may be limited and / or less secure.

Carefully assess the functionality you need and determine whether a pure cloud application, a hybrid local application / cloud solution, or a pure on-premises solution is the best option. Preferably find a software partner that can provide a choice of all three options.

How well does the cloud application integrate with third party software?

With Microsoft being the preferred software in legal, for many firms, tight integration between their systems and Microsoft Office, especially Outlook, is essential. Understand upfront, how this will be delivered. Many pure cloud solutions aren’t able to deliver the necessary integration via the web interface alone.  Some vendors install software on client PCs to provide the intuitive, quality of integration that fee earners demand. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be considered.

Additionally, if you need your cloud system to be integrated with other systems like practice management, check what type of connectors / application programme interfaces (API’s) will be used and crucially, if they are proven, bug-free and robust and adhere to sound information security practices.

What provision is there for records management?

The recent EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has put records management back on the agenda, non-compliance can cost a firm four percent of its worldwide turnover. To ensure compliance, integration of document and records management processes is imperative. Ask your cloud provider if the complementary solution they recommend for records management handles both physical paper and electronic files. Does the solution provider develop and support its own records management solution and how well integrated is it within the DMS?

How quickly can the cloud technology provider deliver the solution?

Cloud solutions also take time to be installed and configured.  Data still has to be categorised and migrated.  Systems need to be integrated and users need to be trained. New product providers, cloud or on-premises, require time to build up the necessary skills to deliver multiple client implementations, which can significantly delay implementation. If the solution can only be delivered in six months, know that upfront.  Check with the provider what referenceable success they have had for product delivery, what resources they have available and then factor in realistic delivery timescales.  Note that established application providers may be new to the cloud, but they have the advantage of readily available and deeply experienced proven delivery mechanisms, which their newer counterparts lack. 

Can your cloud application provider provide a ‘hybrid’ solution?

Cloud technology offers irrefutable benefits, but law firms must undertake robust due diligence when opting for pure cloud play applications. However, many corporates still demand that their external counsel keeps their data, securely on-premises behind their firewall.  If, in the highly unlikely event your firm’s Partners don’t want the business of these clients, this may not be an issue, but most are loathed to decline any business. So, a cloud application that offers the best of both worlds via a hybrid option may be a more desirable approach. Ask your application provider to demonstrate how specific customer data can be saved to on-premises servers rather than being held only in the cloud.

As with any major purchase, do your due diligence.  Don’t just believe the marketing hype.  Scratch beneath the surface to fully understand what definition of ‘cloud application’ your provider is offering.  Remember, your fee earners have to work with these tools, so they need to be intuitive, easy to use and accessible at all times.  Don’t sacrifice the user experience, or indeed any productivity benefits, just to get the latest new thing.  There must be a logical business approach behind its adoption and implementation to maximise the value of cloud technology. The ‘Cloud’ is wonderful enabler, but don’t cloud for cloud’s sake!

Roy Russell is CEO of information and document lifecycle management consultancy Ascertus